GORDON Strachan was the popular choice. Even his predecessor believes he is the right man to take charge of the national team. But Craig Levein has warned the country not to expect miracles just because a new man is at the helm.
“He has loads of experience and has dealt with international players at club level. If you are asking me who I would have selected, I would have said Gordon,” says the man who was relieved of his duties as the Scotland manager in November. But that’s not to say he believes things will immediately slip into place and the country will be able to start looking forward to regular involvement in major championships again.
“I desperately hope Gordon is successful and I would love to see the boys get the opportunity to play at a finals because they deserve it. But if it doesn’t work what happens next? Do we keep going down the same road and get another manager? That’s what we’ll do. As much as there have been good results with Scotland over the past few years, nobody has been successful. There has to be a reason for that. In my opinion we don’t have international-class players all over the pitch. I couldn’t say that as a manager. But it’s a fact.
“We have a good midfield. Darren Fletcher not being available is a blow but we have others in that area who can more than hold their own on the international stage. Steven Fletcher coming in up front helps but we are really thin on the ground for strikers. Defensively it’s the same. That is something Gordon will need to contend with and he knows that. I had a chat with him the other day and I wished him better luck than I had. I also told him that I could absolutely guarantee the boys will bust a gut for him.
“But there’s no doubt we have a group of players which needs to punch above its weight to be successful. We can’t afford things to go against us because when they do go against us we are not good enough to overcome that. Against Wales and the Czech Republic we weren’t good enough to overcome those things. There’s a cigarette paper between success and failure. Maybe in ten years’ time, with the new performance system, we will be developing better players and we might get to a stage where we can overcome problems.”
Patience is required, as is a greater degree of realism in the meantime. But he shrugs. Having been in that spotlight and shouldered the weight of national expectation, he doesn’t hold out much hope for either.
“What will happen after three or four years is people will start to ask where all the players are. But this is a generational thing. The system starts at first year in high school so it’s six to eight years before we will see the rewards but patience isn’t a thing we have a lot of in this country, particularly when it comes to football.
“But we are going to have to be patient. We are going to stay at the same level until we get better players.”
Having had a couple of months to lick his wounds, Levein is reinvigorated and keen to re-embark on his managerial career. Honoured to have had the opportunity to lead his country, he wasn’t jealous to see Strachan, left, unveiled as his successor. Admitting that the job had been frustrating at times, he had already informed SFA chief executive Stewart Regan that he would be stepping down when his contract expired at the end of the current qualifying campaign.
“‘I had decided, probably after the USA game [which Scotland lost 5-1]. I thought to myself ‘this is torture’. After such a poor result we had so long to wait until the Australia game. It had been eating away at me for a while. A lot of things were eating away at me but the biggest thing was the coaching part. Training was fantastic and their attitude was fantastic. I kept having this taste of it and then it was snatched away from me. I found it really frustrating.”
The lack of day-to-day involvement was one thing, the absence of any real routine was another as he struggled to keep track of the days. He threw himself into the search for the performance director and then worked closely with Mark Wotte once he was appointed. He hopes that the performance strategy he helped get up and running will prove something of a long-term legacy but while planning the future offered temporary distraction, he craved more control of the present.
“There was no routine. It was crap. Every day just ran into the next, there was no constant. Once you get a football club running it just ticks over itself. Players like the comfort of routine and so do I but it’s just impossible at international level.
“Control is a big thing for me but I think that is necessary. There are very few tools a manager can use these days. It’s not the same as it was 20 or 30 years ago when players were locked into contracts for five years and even if they fell out with you they had to come back to you. You can’t manage by fear. It doesn’t work. It’s impossible.
“I was borrowing players, it was like loaning players for one game at a time. That was an issue for me, and then you have the different dynamics. How much can you give someone a boot up the backside when you feel they need it without them running back to their club or to the press?
“I found that strange. The press towards the end was like a frenzy. I remember going home one night and Carol [his wife] asking ‘what have you done to cause this kind of reaction?’ because towards the end it was like a kicking match.”
But Strachan, he says, should be better placed to deal with the circus. He is almost a decade older and more experienced, he also survived the scrutiny which comes with managing Celtic. International football is a different brand of management but Levein says he never quite got his head around that. “It’s a different job and it requires a different mindset and you have to be able to handle the frustration to do the job properly and I never quite got over that. I was always looking for something else, more things to do...
“Maybe if I was ten years older, it might have been different. I’ve mellowed a lot from ten years ago. You should have seen me when I was at Hearts and Cowdenbeath. Maybe it depends how pliable you are. When I started off I was like a concrete pillar, now I think I’m more like a tree but I’ve certainly not got to the point where I’m plasticine.
“I don’t know if that’s age or experience but I suppose the two things are the same.
“At club level I would now deal with a problem in a way I would never have done when I first started. But international football presented a whole different set of problems.” The most high-profile was Steven Fletcher. The player was dropped for the controversial match against the Czech Republic, which saw Levein start without any recognised strikers. Fletcher lashed out in the newspapers and eventually sent a text saying he didn’t want to be selected for a future squad. It led to a lengthy stalemate, with the pair only, metaphorically, kissing and making up shortly before Levein’s departure.
“If he had been my player at club level it would have been sorted like that,” says Levein, clicking his finger to illustrate his point. “We would have dealt with it.
“But the other thing about Steven Fletcher, and it’s great credit to him, is that he has improved enormously from the time he went out the squad. When he went out nobody was really that bothered but he became a better player and the better the player he became the bigger the problem it became for me. It was funny because at the start of the season he just went goal, goal goal. And I was like, ‘for God’s sake’,” he laughs.
“Sometimes I was a little too stupid to realise that being an international manager is not the same as being a club manager. I had no control over Steven Fletcher and I should have realised that earlier.
“He was brilliant when he came back. I had a chat and he was brand new. He was no hassle. He would probably look at the squad and think he had a decent chance of playing.
“I’ve learned a hell of a lot from this. I might go back into international football, maybe ten years from now and that experience will help.”
But the Fletcher issue wasn’t the only hangover from that match. Cast as a negative tactician, Levein sighs. He stresses he has played virtually every possible system as club and international boss, but that’s the one people remember. He considered it brave at the time and he believed it was the right thing to do in the circumstances. Given the same players and the same circumstances he would probably do the same thing, but with hindsight and having got to know his players, he wouldn’t do it now.
“That was the only game I have ever sent a team out to get a draw. I had never done it before that game and I have never done it since but at that time I thought it was the right thing.
“At the time I made the decision to play a certain way, based on how the opposition were going to play and also based on things that had happened within the group [of players]. That aspect of it I had to protect, because if I don’t then I fall out with players and club managers. To be fair, the players involved, their attitude changed over a period of time for the positive but, of course, there was resistance in those early months. I had been in the job from January through to August and I had had one game, so how do you get to know people? Eight months and one game and then we were going into a qualifying campaign. OK, I had watched players but I had worked with them once. We went out to Sweden and lost there and there were things going on in training and people were late for meetings, things you would have had sorted like that [he clicks his fingers again] at club level.”
He was also furious that the formation had been leaked to the media the night before the match, offering him another galling insight into the differences between managing at club and international level.
“One hundred per cent at club level I would never have had a player who would do that. They would have been gone long before any kind of situation like that. Again, it’s a control thing. Can you afford to have somebody in the game who because of personal feelings mucks the whole thing up for everybody else? You don’t want people like that in the group. Whatever team you are in you have to be greater than the sum of your parts, you have to be if you want to punch above your weight.”
Levein knew from the beginning that he had to foster a strong team spirit and got players to buy into his way of thinking.
“Certain players didn’t appear again and others changed their mentality. When you get them together for a period of time then you get the chance to speak with them and have more of a common bond,” he says.
That’s why club management suits him. That’s why it appeals so much and that’s why he now wants back in. He says he has expressed interest in three or four jobs without any joy but believes if he can get a foot in the door, he can convince boards he is the right man.
He talks about his percentage win record at every club he has managed, improving the more time he was given. And while he would obviously love to join a side in the last eight of the Champions League, he says his history would suggest he is more likely to impress a club struggling in the table and keen to cut the wage bill. That is the area where he has delivered results in the past. That would be a return to the old routine and routine and control are things he craves. He may not be a concrete pillar but Craig Levein is not quite plasticine yet.