It’s not a job he sought, but Scotland’s caretaker boss has to take care of business in Luxembourg.
BILLY Stark didn’t necessarily think he should be sitting there, unveiling the latest Scotland squad, and when he addresses the players ahead of the friendly in Luxembourg, he realises that the majority of them will be wishing he wasn’t.
It’s not that he doesn’t relish the opportunity to manage the national team, even on an interim basis, or believe he isn’t up to it, and it’s not that the players have anything against the man several have played for at under-21 level. It’s simply the circumstances.
While several players have already gone public with their belief that Craig Levein should have been given more time, the man asked to take charge for Wednesday’s friendly feels that the expectation levels of the fans and the media were far from realistic. When the draw was made for the World Cup qualifiers, he didn’t believe Scotland had been lucky and looking at who they had been pitted against, he didn’t think anyone should take a trip to Brazil for granted.
But whether he wanted Levein to get more time or not, whether the players are gutted or not, Stark says they all have to pick themselves up.
He has experienced such circumstances before, of course, when he was left in temporary charge at Celtic following the dismissal of his close friend Tommy Burns in 1997. “That was really difficult but I was able to fulfil that task and I aim to do that again to the best of my ability,” Stark says.
And the omens are good. In those three matches at the helm at Parkhead, he won two, drew one. “I can remember quite clearly we went to Easter Road on the Sunday and that was sort of a fraught day. We won 3-1 then we drew with Kilmarnock then we beat Dundee United in the last game.
“I don’t know if this is an easier task, this isn’t the time to answer that. I want to focus on the football.” Getting the players to do likewise will be a major part of his remit.
“We’d all love a magical formula to make people feel better. That’s going to be a longer process. For the players it can start on Wednesday, hopefully. I know we’re not going to say everything is great if it’s a positive result but it’s the only incremental step that we look to at the moment.
“You look at the game and what’s expected and, in this instance, the expectation would be that we should always beat Luxembourg but you have to be careful and make the people who aren’t involved in football realise how difficult it can be.
“For starters, you need to get goals to win and the other side will be desperately trying to stop us scoring. Whether that’s Luxembourg or Belgium, that’s a hurdle that still needs to be overcome. Luxembourg will try to frustrate us, work really hard and have a good spirit about them so there are a lot of things we need to overcome, not least our own circumstances, with the game coming so soon after Craig leaving.”
It had been predicted that there could be some new faces in the squad when it was named last week. With breathing space between now and the next competitive match, the pressure which had been bearing down on Levein and his players since the campaign began has eased due to the friendly nature of this fixture and the fact that the players no longer have the added burden of saving their manager’s job.
It was considered the ideal time to promote former under-21 players and cast aside some of the old guard. As it was, Allan MacGregor and Gary Caldwell were excused due to weighty club commitments, while Scott Brown was also rested. Others such as Alan Hutton and Danny Fox remain in the picture but were omitted as the likes of Steven Whittaker and Phil Bardsley returned.
But there was no changing of the guard up front. Leigh Griffiths was considered but in the end Kenny Miller got the nod, alongside Steven Fletcher, Jamie Mackie and Jordan Rhodes.
Stark said he saw no value in change for change’s sake. “The first thing to make clear is it’s not about me, about me putting my stamp on it. That’ll happen naturally anyway because I’ll pick the team and set out how we’re going to play. It’s about trying to make them realise that maybe they could have done a bit better and using this as a starting point to go forward.
“If I’d made changes and brought in some of the under-21s, that would smack of me bringing them in with no justification other than freshening it up and feeling that one or two maybe deserve a wee shot but the boys who are there, we can argue they haven’t got the results they deserve, but you could never question their commitment or their talent. They’ve maybe not been able to show it fully in the games but they deserve another chance without a shadow of a doubt.”
The blame for the players’ lack of opportunity was placed on Levein. Stark doesn’t necessarily buy into that. He says, especially at international level, that the real emphasis has to be on the players.
“Team selection and tactics and all those things… That really is an imponderable. Is it something that made a difference? You could say, well maybe it didn’t, so it is difficult one to answer.”
But his job for Wednesday’s match will be to lift spirits.
“This is a friendly game and they have a guy coming in to help them through it. I want to relax them first of all but you also have to take into account past emotions. They’re moving forward, though, and maybe this is a starting point for that. That sounds ridiculous in the middle of a campaign but you can have a good campaign while falling short – as we did with France and Italy in 2007 – so there’s still plenty incentives there for them.”