BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
WHILE all eyes are currently on deposed England manager Sam Allardyce, Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson has urged Scotland not to overlook the man who remains in the dugout for Lithuania.
The Auld Enemy have been plunged into crisis this week following Allardyce’s ignominious departure, prompting hopes it could boost Scotland’s chances of stunning the Three Lions at Wembley in November.
But before the mouth-watering trip to London, a tricky home tie against Lithuania looms next Saturday, with the visitors managed by former Jambos hit-man Edgaras Jankauskas.
The Balkan minnows displayed enough attacking intent to suggest they will be a threat at Hampden next Saturday, which comes as no surprise to Neilson, who lifted the 2006 Scottish Cup during their two years as Tynecastle teammates.
“I see big Edgaras is in charge there now,” Neilson smiled. “He always had that stature about him to be honest. I would speak to him and you could just tell he had something special about him.
“I always thought he would do something within football or do well in coaching.
“He went to Lokomotiv Moscow and coached there for a wee bit, but he is the best player Lithuania has ever produced so it was probably a natural progression for him to become the head coach eventually.
“He always had an aura about him. When he came here he was a Champions League winner – and there aren’t too many of them playing in Scotland! So he already had that prestige about him when he was here.”
Neilson, capped once for Scotland himself, was addressing international matters as the news filtered through that Jack Hamilton and Callum Paterson had once again been called up.
Tony Watt, a late call-up to replace Leigh Griffiths in the squad to face Malta last time out, did not make the cut for the clashes against Lithuania and Slovakia.
The progress made by young goalkeeper Hamilton, in particular, has impressed Neilson and he reckons the gifted custodian is already walking taller following his last stint alongside Craig Gordon and David Marshall.
“It’s great for him to be with the national squad, I spoke to him the last time and I know he really enjoyed it, the standards the guys set there,” continued Neilson. “You see Craig Gordon and the way he conducts himself, the way he trains, and it’s great for Jack to see.
“He’s managed to get into the squad and he has managed to stay in the squad, which is important. His form will dictate where he goes from there.
“There is a definite confidence in him now. When he first came back for pre-season and we told him he was going to be number one there was always that trepidation about going into the unknown.
“But I think his performances have shown he has settled into the role well and he has a bright future here. He knows the quality he has already, that’s why I put him in.
“When you put a young goalkeeper in you are never 100 per cent sure what you are going to get because you go from them playing from in front of 200 people in the under-20s to 18,000 at Tynecastle.
“However, he’s handled it really well and I have been pleased with him.”
Meanwhile, Neilson has told John Souttar and Sam Nicholson to target the senior Scotland squad following their under-21 omissions.
Souttar is suspended for one of their two fixtures, against Iceland, while Nicholson will be too old to feature in the next qualification cycle, prompting new boss Scot Gemmill to ring the changes.
Neilson added: “The two of them have had loads of experience playing for the national team, their next step is to try and get into the top team and hopefully they can do that.”