Craig Levein’s decision to begin legal action against the Scottish Football Association has been interpreted by some as the ultimate act of spite. However, by taking a game against Luxembourg in mid November, perhaps he implemented a more far-sighted and cunning form of revenge.
When the game took place, he remained safely at home in Fife while his former SFA colleagues shivered through an inconsequential friendly match that delivered little and revealed even less. This was certainly a dish that was served cold.
Of course, when Levein arranged the fixture back in March, it had been his hope that Scotland – with him in charge – would have visited the Grand Duchy with at least seven World Cup qualifying points safely squirrelled away for the winter. In actuality, things could not have been much different.
Instead, come kick-off time in Luxembourg, Levein was reclining on his sofa – was he watching, the Tartan Army wanted to know during Scotland’s brief flourish in the first-half – while Scotland were left sitting with five fewer points than planned. Hopes of qualifying for the World Cup have already been extinguished.
A patchwork Scotland side limped to victory, grateful for the two goals provided by Jordan Rhodes in the opening 23 minutes. Poor Billy Stark. Tossed into a situation from which little acclaim could be earned. He did as well as might be expected in what were crushingly downbeat circumstances.
Had qualification for Brazil 2014 remained a feasible option, then this match would have been a far more appealing prospect for players eager to impress. There would have been a skip in their step. This isn’t how it turned out, sadly. An international year that began with some optimism following a 1-1 draw in Slovenia has now drawn to an undistinguished end. Scotland have won only twice in eight matches. As Stark acknowledged, returning to winning ways had been a priority, for all such an achievement is worth against part-time opponents.
Those who accused Levein of being upbeat to the point of insanity about unremarkable performances could not level this charge at Stark. He conceded that it had been a “sticky” second-half. He knows there can be little glory in hanging on against a team ranked 144 in the world.
After Luxembourg scored a morale-boosting goal just after half-time, the familiar symptoms of panic within the Scots ranks could be identified. Passes were misplaced and the defending became deeper. Somehow, a group of players who had never performed as a team before and will not play together again, managed to display all the hallmarks of a Scotland international football team. They stuck faithfully to a script that demands that even victories over lowly teams must be secured in an anguished fashion.
What, if anything, was learned? Possibly, only that Scotland possess a striker with an unerring ability to score goals, but then few with eyes in their head could have disputed Jordan Rhodes’ qualities even prior to kick-off.
“He’s a goalscorer first and foremost,” said Darren Fletcher yesterday. “The second goal ricocheted a little bit in the box and it fell to him. He’s got that real striker’s instinct.
“And he’s a really good lad, a pleasure to have about the place. He’s always looking to learn. He is relatively young and inexperienced at international football, but he is improving all the time.
“He has got his move to Blackburn, he is playing in the Championship and still scoring goals there. It gives us a great chance. Goals can be few and far between but, if you have a striker like Jordan on the pitch, it gives you a chance in every match.”
Whether or not anyone can judge whether Stark is equipped for the task of leading Scotland from this outing is doubtful. He received the expected support from players now obliged to transfer their loyalties from Levein to the interim manager, while Stewart Regan, the chief executive of the SFA, also praised his efforts yesterday.
It is clear that Stark is a popular figure among the players, many of whom played under him in the under 21s.
“Billy has been fantastic,” said Fletcher. “But it’s no surprise, really, he is a man of experience. He has been there and done that and played at the highest level. Everything was spot on.
“The lads could not have asked for any more and I think he couldn’t ask for any more from the lads as well in terms of the way they gave 100 per cent and listened to what he said and took on board his ideas. We tried to apply it to the match and got the win, which is the most important thing.”
Stark did what he could after ten call-offs, with Celtic’s Kris Commons pulling out on the day of the game. Commons had been primed to start. Instead, Inverness Caley midfielder Andrew Shinnie came in, the only new cap in a moderately experienced starting XI. This could be why Scotland’s most encouraging work was completed in the first-half, when they established a two-goal lead.
Surprisingly, Charlie Mulgrew of Celtic was the fulcrum, rather than central midfield partner Fletcher. The skipper’s lack of match fitness as he continues to recover from serious illness impacted on his performance but it was another step on the way to recovery. Perhaps only he and Steven Naismith, whose touch looked rusty after only fleeting appearances this season with Everton, could take something from this game, since it meant another 90 minutes under their belts. As for the debutants, only Hibs’ Leigh Griffiths – providing he continues his current development – is a genuine contender at international level.
On reflection, the most meaningful part of the trip took place in whatever café the four members of the SFA board met up to discuss the candidates to succeed Levein, although even this process has been complicated due to the former manager’s decision to seek legal recourse.
Can the SFA afford to appoint a replacement while there exists the possibility that the governing body could yet be forced to make a one-off payment to their former manager?
Regan will have noted the ennui that settled across this particular assignment. With Estonia due at Pittodrie in February, the thought of playing another friendly while so much remains in limbo is not a prospect to be welcomed.