THE search for another Scotland manager must begin once more after Craig Levein’s tenure ended this afternoon.
He learned his fate by conference call after turning down the chance to be told in person at Hampden Park, where the seven-man board of the Scottish Football Association met again yesterday.
The SFA released a statement confirming the decision at just before 7pm but the news had already travelled fast, and was welcomed by many in the Tartan Army. However, there is disquiet at the way in which Levein’s reign ended. So strung-out was the decision-making process that Levein even received sympathy from his detractors. He will, however, continue to receive a salary from the SFA, with Stewart Regan, the chief executive, stressing that he had only been “relieved” of his duties.
Twenty days had passed since the 16 October defeat in Belgium, which left Scotland bottom of World Cup qualifying Group A, before the SFA board reached the decision to ask Levein to step down. The governing body will honour the remaining 20 months of his contract on full pay and at a reported cost of £700,000.
In the end, Levein was hoisted by his own petard. He was brought down by a poor series of competitive results as well as his own intention, initially made clear to Regan in a private conversation, to leave the role at the end of the current World Cup campaign. The SFA board took the view that it was better to allow a new manager time to bed-in.
Hopes of qualifying for Brazil 2014 have now officially been written off, it seems. Scotland have already fallen eight points behind Belgium and Croatia. “The challenge for the squad now is to improve our position in Group A and subsequently, improve our position in the Fifa rankings,” said an SFA statement. “We must also begin preparations for the Uefa European Championships in France in 2016, which for the first time will have 24 qualification places available.”
According to Regan, the search for Levein’s successor has yet to begin. The SFA can afford to take their time. Scotland’s next competitive match is not until March, when Wales visit Hampden. Last night
Gordon Strachan topped the list of bookmakers’ favourites for the post. Joe Jordan and former Scotland managers Walter Smith and Alex McLeish are also being heavily touted.
Billy Stark, the current Under 21 manager, will take interim charge of the squad for next Wednesday night’s friendly in Luxembourg, and is due to name his squad at a press conference tomorrow – 24 hours after Levein had expected to deliver it.
Levein watched Sunderland’s match against Aston Villa on Saturday as he sought to continue fulfiling his duties as normal, all the time knowing that his future was very much in the balance. Regan had told him that he would let him know the decision by last Thursday evening. This was not the case, however.
“The board asked for more information – as they are entitled to do,” explained Regan.
“Those pieces of information were prepared over the weekend and we made our decision today.”
It has been reported that the SFA wished to learn more about the financial cost of low attendances at the home games, with Levein’s popularity having sunk among the Scotland supporters following a disastrous start to the campaign.
However, Regan also stressed that Levein’s own intention to leave at the end of his current contract and return to club management weighed heavily in their thinking.
“A key piece of information was his stated intent to step down at the end of the World Cup campaign, irrespective of what happened,” said Regan, who defended his right to keep this information from the board until last week.
“It was a private discussion,” he said.
“The board felt that we should take that into consideration and give a new manager the maximum period of time to get ready for a campaign that will actually have 24 qualification places for the first time. We want one of them.
“I think first of all we just need to restore some respectability to the current campaign,” he added. “At the beginning of the campaign, if you’d have asked where we thought we’d be after four games, it wouldn’t have been bottom. We’re not in the bottom pot yet we find ourselves
bottom of the group, behind teams who are lower than us in the Fifa rankings and in lower pots in the Fifa World Cup process.
“So let’s start with regaining respectability. A new manager will be expected to work with the players to turn around our performance.”
Regan fended off the charge that the SFA board should have acted earlier.
Scotland’s hopes of qualification for Brazil 2014 looked to have become severely compromised by the two home draws with which Levein’s side opened the campaign. Regan admitted these had been “disappointing”. He added: “We recognised that we hadn’t got off to the start we would have liked,” said Regan.
“We had two home games and Craig and I were part of the group, along with [SFA president] Campbell Ogilvie, who went to Belgium to agree the fixtures.
“We decided that getting off to a flying start was the strategy and we got two home games. If you’d have asked us then what we would have hoped for it would have been for more than two draws.”