Nonsense players making early exits for Nations League games - Stuart Rayner

The return of international football for the first time in 2020 ought to guarantee one thing at least: the resumption of club-versus-country arguments.

Sheffield United's Oliver McBurnie in action during the pre-season friendly at Pride Park, Derby. Picture: PA.

There was an attempt to stir one up when Oli McBurnie pulled out of Scotland’s Nations League matches against Israel and the Czech Republic, then turned out for Sheffield United in a pre-season friendly, only for his international manager Steve Clarke to say he was quite happy with the arrangement.

Likewise, Wales manager Ryan Giggs had no qualms about Tyler Roberts completing his pre-season at Leeds United, rather than turning out for his country in Finland today, or against Bulgaria on Sunday.

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A bit of understanding between international and club managers is always very welcome, and there is a world of difference between playing a pre-determined number of minutes in a pre-season friendly (45 against Derby County on Tuesday in McBurnie’s case) and a competitive international but it makes you wonder if even Clarke and Giggs appreciate what a nonsense it is playing Nations League matches now.

England manager Gareth Southgate.

For England, the competition is not a big deal. A country which has got very good at qualifying for tournaments does not need the back-door route which could be so important to their neighbours – not that it was reflected in the strong squad manager Gareth Southgate picked before the inevitable pull-outs. In a normal year playing internationals so close to the start of the season would be a real frustration for club managers trying to make and integrate signings, and test new ideas. In this very short (for the top two divisions) pre-season, it is even worse.

Even millionaire footballers are not robots. They need a rest and despite not playing from early-March to mid-June, that was anything but. McBurnie and his Sheffield United colleagues were doing three fitness sessions a day in lockdown to ensure that whenever football did get going again, they would hit the ground running.

England’s matches against Iceland and Denmark could be very important for Yorkshiremen at either end of the experience scale. For Sheffield’s Kyle Walker it is less about reaching 50 caps than re-establishing himself after a 2019-20 when despite outstanding club form he was left out of England’s plans. Bradfordian Mason Greenwood will be hoping to make his debut.

The one-year delay to the European Championships has given both fresh hope of playing in it.

But they should be resting now, or at least just starting to get back into the feel of things after a heavy workload in the resumed season – one 18-year-old Greenwood’s body and mind would not be used to.

International football is constantly being treated as the club game’s ugly sister but to be valued it needs to be played at full throttle, not as glorified pre-season matches.

Walker’s Manchester City campaign only ended on August 15, Greenwood’s with Manchester United the day after. Players are supposed to be guaranteed 30 days’ rest between seasons, which is why neither will play a competitive club match until their Premier League rivals are a week into 2020-21.

If even the Premier League can respect that, the Football Association should. England will suffer the most if its players are run into the ground, because they will get them last. The Three Lions hope to keep playing until the July 11 European Championships final and it would be nice to have a squad that does not look worn out.

Did Southgate really have to pick those Manchester United, City, Wolverhampton and Chelsea players whose seasons were dragged out by European competitions? Surely it would be better to keep a little in the tank for them and make do and mend against Iceland and Denmark, knowing there are still 12 more points to play for afterwards, and that England should qualify for the next World Cup even without the Nations League fall-back?

Hopefully those players have been called up just to continue their pre-season training with the group and not play, but it would be a surprise.

Some will question whether the Nations League should happen at all, but it has been a positive innovation. In its first iteration, teams played in groups of three but that has been expanded to four this season. Could an expansion not have been delayed?

If matches really had to be played in early September – and the international calendar can never suit every domestic competition – could the start of the Premier League not have been pushed back another week to allow managers a little more preparation time?

International managers need that too, and Scotland have European Championship play-offs in October but still Clarke recognised what was best for McBurnie, even if it meant him losing out a little. It is shame not everyone else did.

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James Mitchinson