IN an age when one of Scotland’s most fruitful businesses has involved the production of consistently successful (and widely prized) football managers, it seems to be the very essence of irony that not one can be found who is capable of restoring the fortunes of the national team.
Like certain brands of whisky, it appears, the best are for export only.
The departure of Craig Levein this week brings to five the number of native-born managers (there was also the immigrant Berti Vogts) who have tried and failed to qualify for one of the biannual major international championships through the 14 years since the Scots competed at the World Cup in France.
During that period, the Premier League and the Championship in England – two of the most brutally competitive arenas in the European game – have frequently been flooded with managers from north of the border. These have ranged from the embryonic, such as Paul Lambert and Derek McInnes, to veterans in the mould of Sir Alex Ferguson, Kenny Dalglish and David Moyes.
This proliferation of managers who have achieved distinction in a very hard school, set beside those who have been stigmatised by a succession of depressing campaigns, serves principally to underline the differences – often irreconcilable – between the club game and its international cousin.
It has long been a recognised truth that the truly great managers are those whose influence is so pervasive that they achieve the kind of transformation that would previously have been almost unimaginable.
The first example would be Matt Busby. Old Trafford was virtually a second world war hole in the ground when the Bellshill man arrived in 1945, but he would fashion them into a global phenomenon. It is no insult to Celtic to speculate that, but for the Munich disaster in 1958, the Glasgow club would not have been Britain’s first European Cup winners and that Real Madrid’s famous five in a row would have stretched no further than two.
When Bill Shankly took over at Liverpool in 1959, the club had been in the Second Division for five years. He would turn them into giants and establish a kind of dynastic succession that would make them, until recently, the most prolific champions in the English game.
Brian Clough’s magical work in winning the English league title with Derby County would touch on the miraculous when he repeated the trick with Nottingham Forest and then took the latter to two European Cup triumphs.
Celtic had won one minor trophy (the 1957 League Cup) in 11 years when Jock Stein was teased from Dunfermline – he had already turned the Fifers from minnows into Scottish Cup winners – in 1965 and, within two years, had inspired them to the championship of Europe.
And, of course, Alex Ferguson inflamed the revolution that not only made Aberdeen trophy junkies at home and abroad, but overturned almost a century of history by creating a climate in which the Old Firm were palpably intimidated by the provincials from Pittodrie. He would do it again on a much larger scale at Manchester United, who had been largely in the doldrums (including a season in the Second Division) since the venerable Busby’s retirement 15 years earlier.
The kind of continuity and the daily exposure of players to the constant, insistent influences of the powerful, dictatorial manager that lead to the glittering prizes are not available to those in charge of national teams. The latter inevitably are more reliant for success on an abundance of exceptional players, those capable of instantly absorbing the manager’s schemes because they are as quick-witted as they are fleet-footed.
Levein clearly made mistakes that were unpardonable, most notably a regular readiness to contradict his own dictums within days, as well as a misguided over-estimation of the quality of player at his disposal.
What was striking about the current Scotland players’ pledges of support for and allegiance to the manager was that they were quite genuine. This was confirmed most revealingly with Charlie Adam’s now notorious tweet, blaming the press for the manager’s removal.
In doing so, Adam and his teammates effectively confirmed that Levein had, indeed, “got the best out of them” and, unwittingly, they exposed themselves to a charge of inadequacy. However the culpability may be apportioned between manager and players, the abortive qualifying campaign for Brazil 2014 has been a genuine team effort.