NOW that Craig Levein has brought an end to his two-year impersonation of Lauren from the Catherine Tate Show – “Steven Fletcher: Am I bovvered? Does my face look bovvered tho’?” – there is a reason to believe that the Scotland manager has grown up at last, the pity being that it might be too late to revive his team’s chances of making it to the World Cup in Brazil in two years time.
The doubters are many and they’re multiplying and Levein knows it, knows, too, that anything other than a win in Cardiff on Friday evening and it’s not just Scotland’s campaign that will be virtually over but his own prospects of taking the team beyond Belgium the following Tuesday night.
“If we don’t get a victory here it’s going to be difficult,” said Levein last week. “We’re talking then about Ryder Cup stuff.”
These are seminal days for Levein and he needed big things to happen for him, which they have. Fletcher, one of the hottest strikers in Britain, is back. Darren Fletcher, one of the island’s most impressive professionals, is also back, as is Scott Brown, who missed those dispiriting failures against Serbia and Macedonia last month. Because of the need to mind their health, Levein may get just one game out of the latter two, but one is better than none especially when the one happens to be the biggest of his managerial life.
Levein is going to Cardiff with a decent squad of players. He doesn’t have a Gareth Bale, sure, and there’s something hugely discomfiting about the thought of the Spurs player terrorising Alan Hutton down that left side, but still the Scots start as favourites in this battle of the beleaguered.
Bale versus Hutton is an issue, Hutton being a very average defender even when he was in his pomp but even more vulnerable now that he’s on the margins of things with Aston Villa. The full-back is about to go up against one of the world’s finest left-sided attacking midfielders with precisely zero games for Villa this season. Since last May, Hutton has played three games, all of them for Scotland.
“The Alan Hutton situation is difficult in that he’s not playing regularly,” said Levein. “You wouldn’t have known it looking at his last two performances for us. He’s one of these guys who is lucky in that he’s extremely athletic. He’s been training all the time. The other issue would normally be ‘does he have the experience to handle this situation?’ He does. It’s not an ideal situation, don’t get me wrong. His last couple of performances have been as good as he’s played for us. He does know Bale well, too.”
He knows Bale, that’s true. The flip-side is that Bale knows Hutton and that’s not a thought you want to linger on for long. The hope for Friday comes in the knowledge that Bale is a one-off. Yes, there will be Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen to contend with, too, but amid the stardust there are chunks of mediocrity, particularly in defence. Wales manager Chris Coleman is missing his two first-choice goalkeepers, Wayne Hennessy and Boaz Myhill – Aberdeen’s Jason Brown is favourite to start – and also his No.1 left-back, Neil Taylor, with worries over his right-back, Adam Matthews. Jack Collison is missing from his midfield and Craig Bellamy is absent from his attack. James Collins, his main centre-half, might be also be out depending on the outcome of a FIFA disciplinary hearing determining the length of his ban following his red card against Belgium.
Levein’s world, by comparison, looks positively tranquil. If he can get the best out of his players, Scotland should win this game. If. He hasn’t managed to do it yet, of course. Hence his journey to the abyss. He says he wants to focus on his own players and not bang on about the brilliance of Bale and that’s fair enough. “If I’m in the Wales dressing-room and I look at a team that doesn’t have Fletcher, Fletcher and Brown then it’s a different team altogether from one that has,” he said. “There are two things [with the return of Steven Fletcher]. One, I can be a bit stubborn. Two, the improvement in his game has made it more of an issue. [I asked myself] Am I being stubborn because I think it is the right thing to do or am I being stubborn because I’m just being bloody-minded? The better he gets, the more it gets to me being bloody-minded. There comes a point when he is starting the season and is scoring and scoring, at some point I have to recognise, ‘Wait a minute, he could help us’. I made that decision on Monday, I phoned him and it was no problem. Done.”
Two years of infantile behaviour resolved in minutes.
“It became something bigger than I ever imagined it could’ve been. It became counter-productive. I just said: ‘Look, just let’s get it over with and finished’.” It’s Levein’s challenge now to stay in his job long enough to benefit from the return of a fine striker who could have been making his life a whole lot easier a whole lot earlier.
When Levein looks across at the home dugout on Friday night he might well see a sight that’s familiar, something that reminds him of himself in many ways. The Scotland manager is in the midst of a crisis, but he’s not the only one. For in the shape of his counterpart, Coleman, he has something of a mirror image.
Coleman is only in his job a veritable wet week, but already he is a man under intense pressure. Wales won four of the last five games in the Gary Speed era and have since lost four out of four with an aggregate score of 12-1, including a deplorable 6-1 drubbing in Serbia. As Levein welcomed Steven Fletcher back into the Scotland fold, Coleman once again left Bellamy out, partly because of an injury doubt, partly because he hasn’t a clue whether Bellamy wants to play for him any more. Coleman’s travails almost make Levein’s story look like a fairytale. Last week, the Welsh manager took the captaincy away from Ramsey, who was given the armband in the first place by Speed, a demotion that drew a withering response from Raymond Verheijen, Speed’s former assistant. “Gary’s decision to appoint Aaron as captain was one of the main reasons for our success,” said Verjheijen. “Now this part of the [Speed] legacy has also been destroyed.”
So, apart from hopeless results, a dressing room seemingly on the verge of an uprising and Verjheijen accusing him of wrecking the fine work of a much-admired dead manager, Coleman is having a marvellous time. “The best advice I got was from Jean Tigana, the French coach, at Fulham when I took the job,” remarked Coleman last week. “He said ‘It doesn’t matter where you go as a manager, don’t completely unpack your suitcase’.” Coleman has hardly opened it, not to mind unpacked it.
“If you look through their team, with everyone fit, they are a formidable-looking side,” added Levein. “The biggest difficulty with Wales, as it has been for a lot of us, is strength in depth. And we’ve got this additional history and this British conflict or whatever you want to call it. It’s always the big question, isn’t it? Whether a big defeat [the Serbia debacle] results in players coming out and having a real go in the next game – or whether it has left some damage. I don’t know. In international football it’s quite hard to get that quick bounce because you’ve got that period of time between games. At club level if you get beaten with a heavy defeat, there is an immediacy about it that doesn’t leave the players’ minds at all until the following week. You can use that.”
This is a pressure game to beat all the pressure games in Levein’s managerial career to date, the one that could bury him or the one that could spark something. He has made so many mistakes that you wouldn’t know where to start, but this will be the finish if it goes wrong again. No wonder his language turned a touch gladiatorial last week.
“I said we’d need warriors who’d been over the course before and Broony [Scott Brown] is at the front when it comes to that. This sort of game has Broony’s name written all over it.” As distressed as Wales appear and as rejuvenated as Scotland may be by the return of Brown (if only for Friday night) and the Fletchers there’s no predicting how Scotland will perform. Levein’s talk of progress and optimism is meaningless without evidence. This is the manager’s moment. Judgment Day.