TAKE a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. On one side write the reasons why Craig Levein should remain as Scotland manager and on the other side the reasons why he should not.
The pros first. Why should Levein remain? Because he’s a good bloke. Because he’s passionate. Because the players like him. Because he was unlucky in Cardiff. Because getting rid of him would cost too much. Because who else could do better? Because the thought of starting all over again with a new manager and a new system and having to build new relationships is just too much hassle. And, er, that’s about it. The case for the defence rests.
Now the other side. Why should he go? It’s a question they’re discussing at Hampden right now. Maybe the four main kingmakers – Stewart Regan, Campbell Ogilvie, Alan McRae and Rod Petrie – have already made up their minds. The current vibe is that they’re going to give Levein a stay of execution this coming weekend, that they are prepared to forgive the Liechtenstein debacle, the 4-6-0 in Prague, the infantile stand-off with Steven Fletcher, the inconsistencies and contradictions in word and deed, the constant talk of progress when Scotland have won one of their last seven matches, the wasted campaign for Euro 2012 and the calamitous beginning to World Cup 2014, a campaign that had Levein cooing with optimism at the outset, urging his critics to judge him on the results in this competition, a stance he has recently altered to become “Judge me on the results I’m going to get in the future when the team clicks which will be any day now, I promise, I swear, I mean it this time”.
Levein wants to stay in the job. Desperately. It’s to his credit that he’s still hungry for it despite blow after blow but it’s no reason to retain him. George Burley with a better competitive record wanted to stay, too, but he couldn’t. You hear that the SFA is going to back Levein but, in truth, we don’t know for sure. Maybe it’s just gossip. Maybe wiser counsel will prevail. Maybe somebody will stand up at the meeting and say: “Hang on a second, let’s not talk ourselves down here, let’s not settle for this, let’s not accept mediocrity as our fate, let’s try to do something about it because, with a group of players plucked from the Premier League and the Champions League, we should be better than this”.
To recap: Levein has the worst competitive record of any Scottish manager in history. He lauds his players and tells all of Europe that they’re now good enough to beat Serbia and Macedonia and Wales and Belgium but they haven’t beaten any of them. One win would have been something to cling on to but under Levein, Scotland have beaten two nations in competitive games, Liechtenstein and Lithuania. Their world ranking has fallen. There hasn’t been a single 90-minute performance that you could look at and see where Levein is coming from with his talk of great leaps forward. At least Berti Vogts got Scotland to the play-offs. At least Burley, for all his faults, had the Netherlands at Hampden to look back on, a defeat but a gallant one and better than anything that Scotland have produced under his successor.
People talk about the 3-2 loss to Spain but Scotland played for about 30 minutes of that match when they were already 2-0 behind. For the rest of it, they weren’t at the races.
In considering the future of the manager one of the most nonsensical arguments put forward by the ever-diminishing group of characters who think keeping him in his post is a good idea is this lazy notion that nobody else could do any better with the players he has at his disposal. If you follow that logic, nobody would ever be sacked. Vogts would still be in charge of Scotland and Steve Staunton would still be managing the Republic of Ireland.
Staunton merits a mention because there is a certain lesson to be learned in his demise in Dublin and his replacement as international manager by Giovanni Trapattoni. It’s just one example of many that drives a coach and horses through the fatalistic attitude that nobody else could do better.
Staunton was deemed a disaster as manager of the Republic, although his win ratio in competitive matches was higher than Levein’s is now, 36 per cent as against 25 per cent. The FAI changed the manager because it suspected the players were capable of more in the hands of a better operator. Enter Trap. The Italian is in the doghouse now with the Irish fans, many of whom want him out, but consider what he did when taking over an under-performing and demoralised group of players from the beleaguered Staunton. In his first qualifying campaign, the Republic played ten matches in a group containing Italy and didn’t lose any of them – winning four and drawing six. They were only beaten to a place in the World Cup finals because they lost 2-1 on aggregate to France in the play-offs. The Hand of Henry and all of that.
In their successful qualifying campaign for Euro 2012 they played 12 matches (including the play-offs) and won eight. Before things started to go badly pear-shaped for Trapattoni his team played 24 competitive matches, winning 12, drawing ten and losing only two – to France and Russia. The quality of the football was average, it has to be said. Some of it was downright boring but not that many people cared when the results started to improve.
The FAI are a hapless bunch but, in refusing to wallow in their own failure and instead believing they could reinvent themselves with a different manager in charge, they at least got one thing absolutely right.
Acknowledging the general malaise of the footballing public and, in particular, us miserable sods who were reporting on the team at the time, Alex McLeish, when he was Scotland manager, used to call his press conferences “party political broadcasts on behalf of the Positivity Party”.
McLeish’s attempt to lift the mood wasn’t just words, though. His team backed it up on the park. More and more you think about Levein and you think his reign is just words with nothing to support what he is saying. Whether the SFA agree or not, we will soon find out. But they should know this – it’s not just the manager who’s under scrutiny here.
Hard to see schmooze operator wooing Smith
SUCH is Charles Green’s desire to ingratiate himself with the Rangers support, it’s remarkable that he let the Halloween celebrations go by without coming up with some kind of wheeze that would have had the faithful flocking to his door. Frankly, as Rangers hosted Inverness in the Scottish Communities League Cup quarter-finals last night, I was half expecting a skeletal Duff & Phelps to be hanging from the rafters of Ibrox – or a Craig Whyte-shaped piñata being kicked around the Broomloan Stand, spilling out share application forms as it came apart at the seams.
To be fair to Green, the invitation to Walter Smith (via the media for maximum effect, of course) to return to Ibrox as some kind of God-like overseer was another in a long list of the chief executive’s initiatives in Operation Schmooze. I can easily see the point of it from Green’s perspective. An icon of the club returns in a fanfare. Feelgood everywhere. The supporters love it because Smith’s homecoming is a reminder of better days. Ally McCoist loves it because he’s got his mentor back, a man he can trust. Most of all, Green loves it because the wooing of Watty could only be interpreted by the fans as an endorsement of Green’s stewardship of the club, which is good news for the boss as he attempts to shift shares in big numbers. The imprimatur of King Walter is potentially worth a lot of money to Green.
What I don’t see is what Smith would get from it. What would his job be? He wouldn’t want to interfere in the running of the team for fear of undermining McCoist. He couldn’t get busy in player recruitment because of the transfer embargo. The new John Greig?
Hardly. He couldn’t have any interest on the business side either, surely. I can’t see him heading off to the Far East to try to develop the brand in new markets. He’d sooner go shopping with Ethel is my guess.
Still, the story played well with the fans – and, from Green’s perspective, that was the whole point of it. It brought them closer to him. We await with interest the next phase of the Operation.