ONLY A fool or an ignoramus would argue with Sir Alex Ferguson’s frequently-expressed conviction that any would-be high achiever lacking a very large measure of luck is not fully equipped for the job.
The Manchester United colossus would also recognise, along with the rest of the managerial brotherhood, that nobody will attain pre-eminence in their tough profession without the kind of imperishable self-confidence that is often at risk of spilling over into a potentially harmful arrogance.
There is an unmistakable vanity about managers which manifests itself every time a situation becomes vacant. To those who would vehemently deny the charge, the simple response is to remind them that, by the very act of applying for the position, they are declaring their certainty that they will succeed where their immediate predecessor failed.
The conceit is also commonly evidenced by the practice of recruiting players who have gained notoriety as mischief makers. This readiness to assume responsibility for some whose disreputable behaviour has been so frequent and so protracted that they are clearly incurable carries the built-in implication that all his previous managers must have mishandled the miscreant.
Maintaining the self-belief while avoiding the delusion is the secret that has invariably helped distinguish the exceptional from the average. And it is possibly the single most significant challenge that will have to be confronted by the new Scotland manager, Gordon Strachan.
An entire series of Strachan’s predecessors, from Berti Vogts to Craig Levein, spent much of their time with the national team eulogising the quality of player at their disposal, insisting that those of us who took a considerably less sunny view must be suffering from pathological pessimism.
During those dozen years of undistinguished performances and ignominious results, it seemed not to occur to the managers that their high opinion of the calibre of player in their squads would be spectacularly confounded with each embarrassing outing and would, by extension, raise the question of their own competence.
It should be recorded that the most notable and consistent exception during this period was Walter Smith. He rarely, if ever, dwelled on the high standards of his players, but chose, wisely and properly in the circumstances, to concentrate on changing the atmosphere of the Scotland experience, creating a climate in which players once again would take pride and a certain joy from enlisting.
In this respect, Smith echoed the work of Jock Stein, whose first priority in 1978 was to reduce the hysterical expectations stoked by the irrepressible Ally MacLeod before the shame of the Argentina World Cup just a few months earlier.
Strachan has already sounded encouragingly similar in outlook to Smith, emphasising the need to fit the available players into a style to which they may be suited. Since the new manager expanded by revealing that he wished to avoid the damaging mistake he made at Middlesbrough – that is, devising a system inappropriate to his squad’s capabilities – he sounded, comfortingly, like a man not only capable of absorbing lessons and sidestepping pitfalls, but one with a realistic sense of the class of player he is likely to command.
If he lacked the self-assurance common to football managers, of course, he would have taken one look at the current crop of Scotland internationals and proposed that the Scottish FA give the job to his worst enemy, perhaps the one that comes complete with “can of Kestrel lager and devil dug”.
Taking each unit of the average squad in Levein’s charge since the start of the present World Cup qualifying campaign as an entity, there are few, if any, reasons for optimism.
A defensive block of any four from Alan Hutton, Christophe Berra, Gary Caldwell, Danny Fox, Phil Bardsley, Andy Webster, Charlie Mulgrew, Paul Dixon and Grant Hanley couldn’t be relied upon to keep a basketball out of a golf hole. The distressing news of Darren Fletcher’s illness, causing his unavailability, underlines the poverty of the Scotland midfield. Like the defenders (and, indeed, the forwards), that area of the squad is serviced by journeymen whose ordinariness is betrayed by their places of work.
Fletcher, at his best a workmanlike squad player at Old Trafford whose most estimable quality is an unflinching commitment to the cause, is regarded by many as the Scots’ most formidable talent, itself a commentary on the general mediocrity of the contemporary generation.
Fletcher’s equivalent among the forwards is his namesake, Steven, whose reputation – this is not an uncommon occurrence in football – seemed to flourish as a result of his absence from the action. During his estrangement, caused by his spat with Levein, the clamour for his recall became an uproar. This was an unfathomable appeal, considering his international record at the time of having scored one goal in eight appearances. Since his reconciliation with the national team, the caps have grown to ten, the goals remained at one.
Anyone who claims that Fletcher warrants recognition as Scotland’s most talented forward will hear no argument from this quarter, but the distinction is surely devalued by the standard of the competition. There is significance, too, in the fact that the only takers when he came on the market at Wolves were Sunderland, the perennial relegation contenders of the Premier League.
It is no mere coincidence that the 30 or so contenders for caps in the present day do not include a single player worthy of the attention of the authentic titans of the English game.
At Old Trafford and wherever he goes or whatever company he keeps, Sir Alex’s promotion and defence of all things Scottish tends to border on the ferocious. But, pointedly, Darren Fletcher apart, it does not extend to putting any of the country’s professional footballers on the payroll.