IT IS one of football’s most enduring fascinations that, at the very moment a board appoints a new manager, the public bear witness to what is at once the beginning of a beautiful friendship and the first, irreversible step on the road to dissolving the partnership.
If there have been very rare exceptions through the sport’s near century-and-a-half of history – Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson at Manchester United and Bob Paisley at Liverpool, for example – they have been noticeably confined to the club game. At international level, head coaches draw compensation rather than pensions.
Permanence has certainly never applied to the job of managing Scotland, although it should be acknowledged that Jock Stein’s untimely death in 1985 put a depressing end to the possibility that he could have achieved the unique experience of retirement rather than enforced removal or the lure of another club position.
Yet, for all the overwhelming evidence of the unlikelihood of a genuine, long-term incumbent, there is a widespread and unstoppable stampede towards every meaningless cliché traditionally associated with the situation each time the national team’s managerial chair is vacated.
Darren Fletcher, the otherwise admirably sensible and stout-hearted captain of the squad, used up a few of them during the midweek trip which produced a scarily delicate 2-1 victory over Luxembourg in a friendly that could be considered the very definition of futility. “The SFA should take all the time they need to make sure they get the right man,” said Darren, adding one or two more before concluding that “we need somebody who will bring continuity, not just for two or three years, but five or six years.”
Now, continuity is clearly a valuable principle as long as it is related to excellence and high achievement; it becomes something of a horror when applied to mediocrity and failure – precisely like the Scots under six different head coaches over the past 14 barren years.
But the hackneyed mutterings that inevitably accompany each departure from the top job are actually sound indicators of the difficulties that have to be overcome by those charged with uncovering and appointing the next prospective redeemer. And, whether club or national association directors, those who complete the recruitment process invariably believe they have landed “the right man”.
George Peat and Gordon Smith, then president and chief executive respectively of the Scottish FA, were certainly convinced of their own judgement in securing Craig Levein just under three years ago, and this made them no different from the predecessors who had similar failed experiences with all the others since the Scots contested the World Cup in France in 1998.
This confidence that the appointee will bring the success craved by directors wells up on every occasion on which they are called to the task. Yet, experience should have etched ineradicably on their brains the truth that there is simply no way of knowing in advance how productive any manager will be.
Football management is also one of those singular professions in which credentials do not necessarily transfer from one post to another. Unlike, say, law, medicine or accountancy, there are too many variables and too many peculiarities among clubs and national associations to allow the assumption that a manager who can boast even mountainous achievements at one place will be able to repeat the feat at another. And there are, of course, telling disparities between club and international management which render the two branches as dissimilar as non-identical twins.
One of the principal differences lies in objectives and expectations. A club manager’s success (or lack of it) is measured according to his circumstances. Degrees of achievement can range from gaining promotion from the lowest tier of the domestic game all the way to triumph in the Champions League. Each stage on that long and wildly varying route is considered attainable by clubs of appropriate status – and, of course, wealth. It is also a perennial, unrelenting struggle.
The national team manager’s imperatives are less complex. From the richest country to the poorest, his first priority is to qualify for a major championship every two years. The strongest, of course, will thereafter harbour ambitions lofty enough to embrace victory in the tournament itself. The present-day Scots are not fanciful enough to allow their dreams to extend beyond qualification, and the collective frustration and resentment that torments the populace deepens with each passing, abortive campaign.
Few will have failed to notice that, assuming another non-attendance at the World Cup in Brazil in 2014, Scotland by Euro 2016 will have been absent from the great jamborees for 18 years; that will be the longest famine since they first declared an interest in participating in the World Cup (also, incidentally, in Brazil) in 1950.
In the way that the long-term unemployed find it increasingly difficult to rejoin the workforce, the Scots’ protracted exclusion from the international gatherings appears to be turning into a self-fulfilling curse, each succeeding attempt even less impressive than the one before.
The impression that the team – no matter the personnel – has become more discouraged, uncertain and vulnerable with each outing has been impossible to avoid in recent years. Diminishing self-belief is a terrible affliction for players who are already only moderate. This is a complication, like an accident victim developing pneumonia, that will make the curative work required of Levein’s successor considerably more difficult.
The SFA’s chief executive, Stewart Regan, and the six fellow board members who will make the appointment, will have to do so on the flimsiest evidence. Since any candidate’s previous work will be well known and, for the aforementioned reasons basically irrelevant, he will almost certainly have to secure the appointment largely on personality, ideas and convincing argument. Mmmm...