THERE is being left to dangle, and there is being left to dangle, Scottish Football Association-style. Craig Levein finally learned his fate yesterday afternoon, in a conference call, after another long day of meetings on Hampden’s sixth floor. The Scotland manager’s reign was over.
On the ground floor, the Scottish Cup draw for the eagerly awaited fourth round was taking place, which means the SFA were managing to overshadow their own competition. Even when the governing body had given what was reckoned to be what the majority wanted, they invited criticism.
It was a hapless way with which to call an end to another bitterly disappointing chapter for the Scottish international team. The Levein era promised much, if only because it brought to an end George Burley’s underwhelming spell in the post. We are now firmly in a cycle of failure after a brief up-turn in fortunes inspired by Walter Smith and Alex McLeish.
Levein has gone a month before the third anniversary of his appointment, in December 2009. It felt like a positive move back then. Aged 46, he fitted the idea of a relatively young, hungry manager. Some had qualms about his lack of experience at the cutting edge of football; although Craig Brown had made an undoubted success of the job after having only a period in charge at Clyde on his CV. Levein had rehabilitated himself with distinction at Dundee United after a torrid spell at Leicester City. He was a popular choice with the players, and has remained so. He, in turn, defended them throughout his reign. He talked them up too, to the point that many felt he exaggerated their abilities. These players have taken Scotland to 56 in the rankings. When Levein arrived, they were placed 46.
“We decided, having considered all the facts, that we needed to make a change,” said SFA chief executive Stewart Regan last night. “We’ve communicated with the players, we’ve communicated with the management team of Peter Houston and Kenny Black. I’ve spoken to both of them personally this evening and they’ve obviously expressed their disappointment for Craig.
“We respect the professional approach that Craig, Peter and Kenny have taken while in charge of the A squad. I can’t fault Craig’s professionalism, his relationship with the players, the whole team spirit he’s built around the squad. It’s been second to none.”
Levein, he added, was disappointed when he learned the decision yesterday. “He felt he deserved the chance to carry on, he wanted to carry on,” said Regan. “He made that very clear to us last Tuesday. But as I said before we just did not get results we needed.”
It hadn’t meant to be this way. Certainly not in Levein’s eyes. He could not have done much more than win his first outing, a friendly against Czech Republic. It was in the competitive arena where things began to unstitch, however. For some, the fear that nothing much had changed was apparent as soon as the first match, which Scotland drew 0-0 in Lithuania. For some, it was a step forward from Burley’s disorganised last stand, a pathetic humbling in Wales. For others, however, it was a huge let-down; two points dropped, after a performance that had very little to commend it.
The worst moments were to come, however. Scotland desperately clawed a win from a clash with Liechtenstein, with a 97th minute winner. They were fortunate, and had even trailed for a spell. Levein had to earn back some favour from the Tartan Army. Instead, he sent out a team in a formation that might yet be inscribed across his tombstone. This line-up, popularly described as 4-6-0, has certainly defined his reign – along with a damaging spat with Steven Fletcher, one that Levein even admitted should not have been allowed to curdle and sour in the way that it did.
In Prague, Levein left Fletcher sitting in the stand, while other strikers were also rendered redundant. It could lead to only one thing; a defeat. Levein had hoped Scotland might sneak a 0-0 draw, a pitifully meagre ambition against a nation who were themselves in something of a transitional period.
The narrow nature of the defeat meant Levein was bolshie when asked about it. In truth, however, it had been a long night of frantically fending off the inevitable under the noses of a large, disbelieving travelling support, who understandably felt that they deserved better. It led to further problems; Fletcher seethed on the sidelines and then texted a member of Levein’s backroom staff to say he didn’t want to be considered for selection for the forthcoming Carling Cup clash against Northern Ireland.
This was in February 2011. Nothing was resolved until the night – the night – before Levein named a Scotland squad for what has turned out to be the final time, for the recent games against Wales and Belgium. Fletcher returned for the match in Cardiff. In fairness to Levein, the manager would likely still be in a job if the striker’s header not been disallowed after an erroneous call from referee’s assistant, who claimed Charlie Adam’s cross had swung out of play. Levein has known misfortune in this role, of that there can be little doubt.
Scotland’s hopes of qualifying for Euro 2012 were extinguished after a poor decision from referee Kevin Blom, who judged Danny Wilson to have pulled down Jan Rezek in the dying minutes of a vital clash with Czech Republic, and with Scotland leading 2-1. He can be criticised for tactical failings and also stubbornness, but one of Levein’s greatest failings is that he seemed to attract such ill-fortune. Then there is the rather large matter of results.
“Our performances at times have been impressive, our results haven’t,” acknowledged Regan last night. “Results speak for themselves. There have been elements in certain games – part of the game against Wales, the friendly against Australia – where we have shown class. “We have got some talented players like James Forrest and Jordan Rhodes, players who have made a difference who are capable of being match winners. But we haven’t got results and that’s what it comes down to.”
The judgement must be reached from an analysis of Levein’s competitive record, therefore. Even from just a cursory glance, it does not make for pretty reading. Three wins from 12 matches should have made it an easy decision to dispense with his services; which begs the question, why did it happen nearly three weeks after the defeat to Belgium, who exposed that night just how ordinary Scotland have become.
To some, being able to avoid finishing bottom of the group is the new manager’s aim. Sadly, it has come to this.