Scotland U19 boss Ricky Sbragia has come under fire for refusing to select Real Madrid teen Jack Harper - with the youngster’s father warning he could now play for Spain instead.
The Scotland coach labelled Harper a “luxury player" when announcing his latest squad to face Austria, Italy and Croatia in the UEFA European Championship Elite Round on Tuesday, claiming he is looking for more height in the group.
The squad are aiming to reach the European Championship Finals in Greece this summer but Sbragia claimed to be worried about the team having to “carry” the 19-year-old, who already stands at 6ft 1in, and has decided to pick a “physical side with runners”.
The day after Scotland announced the U19 squad, and Jack wasn’t included, Spain were on the phone asking about his position and international status.
His father, John, has told the Daily Record that Spain were quick to enquire about his son’s international status after being left out by Sbragia, and reckons Jack may have a decision to make in the near future about which country he represents.
Jack was born in Malaga after his parents relocated to the Costa del Sol from Scotland 20 years ago. He joined Real as a 13-year-old and is now halfway through a new five-year contract with the European champions, having also represented Scotland at different youth levels in the past.
John told the Record: “The day after Scotland announced the U19 squad, and Jack wasn’t included, Spain were on the phone asking about his position and international status.
“Their national academy is just a few miles from Real Madrid’s own training ground, so they know about Jack because they watch his team often enough.
“Jack wants to play for Scotland. I’m Scottish, so is his mum and the rest of the family. He is committed to Scotland, but if nothing is happening by the time he is 21 then he will have a decision to make because he has a life and a career to fulfil. Hopefully, it won’t come to that.
“To describe Jack as a ‘luxury player’ is a bit harsh. The word ‘luxury’ is a bit strong, but I have no wish to verbally assassinate the Scotland coach. He probably wishes he could back track on his choice of words because I certainly don’t believe Jack is a lazy player.
“He is not the type who will put in tackles all over the pitch and his game is more about passing and movement, but it’s better to let him do his talking on the football pitch.
“There have been many positives for him this season with Real Madrid. He has played and scored in the youth elite level for the club in the Champions League and that has helped his confidence. He is still fighting for the league and a couple of other major trophies with the club between now and the end of the season.
“He has still to fill out a bit, we appreciate that, but he’s already 6ft 1in and I know for a fact he will get there.”
Of his decision to leave Harper out, former Sunderland boss Sbragia told newspapers in Scotland: "Our concentration is on the opening game with Austria and we've deliberately got more height in our squad. That's one of the reasons why Jack isn't in.
“Unfortunately, I don't see enough of him in action. The last time he was with us, he did OK, but I wanted a little more impact. At Real Madrid he can float all over the place, which he does. But with us, he has to be more disciplined.
"He's an exceptionally gifted lad but we can't carry him. He can be a luxury sometimes. In some cases, if it's going well, he can be a good luxury. And listen, Jack's time will come.
He's an exceptionally gifted lad but we can't carry him. He can be a luxury sometimes. In some cases, if it's going well, he can be a good luxury.
"I've gone for a physical side and runners. Hopefully I'm proved right in Austria. It's purely a tactical decision."
But dad John said that his son was disappointed to miss out on the games in Vienna.
“Jack was surprised and gutted when he wasn’t included in the squad,” he said. “He was looking forward to the games, they had been pencilled in his calendar.
“The banter had been flying in his dressing room at Real Madrid with other lads who were looking forward to representing Spain, Norway and Lithuania at the European Championships. However, Jack’s time will come.”
Speaking later on Sky Sports News HQ, former Scotland boss Craig Brown backed Sbragia over Harper's exclusion, saying: “I respect Ricky Sbragia greatly. Now, the fact that the lad is not selected is highlighted principally because - he’s not played for Real Madrid, I want to emphasise – he’s been signed by Real Madrid.
“He might never play for Real Madrid or he might be a world star but the point I’m trying to make is that the name of the club tends to hypnotise people and think that if you’re a Real Madrid signing you must be a better player than the Scottish players who are playing for Scottish clubs. Now, that is not necessarily the case.
“We hope in years to come it will be and he’ll turn out to be a very good Scotland player but we’ve got to respect the coach’s decision to leave him out the team at the moment.”