So farewell – nearly – yet another campaign of trampled hopes.
While Gordon Strachan’s own feet have been under the table for quite some time now, he may feel that his job really begins on Wednesday morning, when he is released from the housekeeping chores of Group A and can seek to start shaping his own destiny as an international manager.
Trying to finish as high as possible has been the principal aim since qualification became officially impossible back in March. It is wounding to recall that Scotland were the first European country to be knocked out of the World Cup running, particularly having refamiliarised yourself with comments made by then manager Craig Levein on the eve of the campaign.
He made himself a hostage to fortune when stating: “If you had asked me two years ago if the group we had then, we could win every game in our campaign, I would have hesitated but I think we have a squad now capable of that.” Of course, Levein wasn’t suggesting that Scotland were going to win every game, just that they had the ability to defeat each team on a one-off occasion. Even this claim was made to seem extremely off-beam by Belgium being streets ahead of Scotland in both games they played against each other.
Only twice during a sorry campaign which ends tomorrow night with the hosting of Croatia have Scotland managed to prove they were better than their opponents “on the day”. Lessons have been learned at a cost. Starting off with two home matches, something Levein was eager to ensure, could in retrospect be seen to have placed too much pressure on the team to come out of the traps at a gallop. And when they didn’t do this, the resultant malaise infected the whole campaign – although it should not be forgotten that Levein’s prospects were hampered by some misfortune as well. The goal that should have stood against Wales was a significant moment, but whether it would have helped Scotland make up the ground on Croatia is another matter. Belgium, of course, have proved themselves worthy group winners, and are now mentioned among contenders to win the World Cup itself.
In two years’ time, thoughts will again be turning to another World Cup qualifying campaign, and the hope is that this will be one in which Scotland can finally return to a stage that is still the ultimate goal. Before this comes the Euro 2016 competition, one which, given the increase in participants, should give Scotland a better than average chance of remedying an absence from major finals that stretches back to 1998. It is, however, the World Cup that truly catches the imagination of the fan – and a scan of the European-based qualifying groups underlines just how hard it is to qualify for the tournament.
Six of the nine groups have already been won with a game left to play. The likes of Spain, Germany and Italy have underlined their status as traditional powerhouses with only Switzerland emerging as a perhaps surprise package from a group that lacked an obviously potent force.
Even those countries which seemed to be emerging from a spell – or in Hungary’s case, several generations – of decline have been put back in their place. The 8-1 thrashing of Hungary by the Netherlands at the Amsterdam ArenA on Friday night recalled Scotland’s own 6-0 mauling at the stadium at the Euro 2004 play-off. Hungary were sitting in second place before Friday’s game and eyeing a play-off spot that now looks beyond then. Ten years ago Scotland had travelled with some optimism after a 1-0 victory in the first leg before Holland slipped into gear. Scotland have avoided any such thrashings in this qualifying campaign, although the first 20 minutes of the defeat by Wales at Hampden has been described by Strachan as the worst display by any football team he has been involved with. The improvement from that bleak point is therefore made to seem even more praiseworthy.
Still, two victories from nine matches to date is a long way from the form required to trouble those occupying the tops of group – and even eight victories from 12 had Scotland falling short for Euro 2008.
Iceland offer some hope for the future. A tiny nation of just over 300,000 inhabitants has managed to take qualification to the wire, and they look well placed to secure a play-off place tomorrow night against Norway, providing Slovenia do not win in Switzerland. If they then prevail in a two-legged play-off they will become the smallest country to have qualified for a World Cup. Perhaps it doesn’t have to be about size, nor does it have to hinge on strength of the domestic game.
Still, there is the fear that the World Cup will remain a lofty and perhaps unobtainable ambition unless something drastic happens. Perhaps Strachan’s strong words in a radio interview at the weekend can have some effect; don’t moan, just practise more and aim to get better, he urged Scottish footballers who complain about competition for places from foreign players at club level hampering their own progress. As the samba beat continues to build for others, at least someone doesn’t sound as if he is feeling sorry for himself.
Weir will be back after chastening baptism
Perhaps Sheffield United was not the ideal club to begin cutting his managerial teeth. After all, the warning bells sounded when Stuart McCall rejected the chance to be interviewed for the Bramall Lane vacancy during the summer.
However, David Weir’s sacking by the South Yorkshire club put an abrupt stop to a particularly brutal baptism for the new manager, who was only 13 games into his reign.
Ultimately, even as a manager, it is not always possible to have complete say over things. Weir’s chances were undermined when fellow Scot and main playmaker Kevin McDonald moved to join Wolves shortly after the start of the season when their league
rivals triggered a buy-out clause.
Weir was sacked on Friday after a painful defeat by Hartlepool in the Johnstone’s Paint trophy and the strain is clearly etched in his face in a television interview with a BBC reporter following the game.
It meant he was not in place for a reunion yesterday with Steven Pressley. For all that he is sometimes the target for mockery, the Coventry City manager is clearly doing wonders at a club which, as well as being homeless, is also in administration. Yesterday’s 3-2 win over Sheffield United lifted them to 16th place in League One. If not for a ten-point deduction, they would be in the play-off places.
As for Weir, he will be back – and hopefully at a club with the mettle to support a young manager who is now even better equipped to succeed after such a chastening experience.