Alan Pattullo: Rhodes goals build pressure on Levein
FOR someone who aims to be firmly in control, Craig Levein spends a lot of time cast as a hostage to fortune. International managers must endure intense, pressurised periods of activity, before sitting back to prepare for the next burst of action.
The sporadic nature of assignments has long frustrated the Scotland manager.
Sadly for him, however, it appears that he is contractually obliged to remain culpable even when Scotland are not playing.
Although not present at a match this weekend, Levein has been back in the old routine of scrutinising the form of those who, injury permitting, he hopes to include in the critical clashes against Wales and Belgium next month. In normal circumstances, a Scotland manager would have yelped for joy at the score bulletins. However, news of Steven Fletcher’s third goal in two league games for Sunderland and also of Jordan Rhodes’ double for Blackburn Rovers means only one thing for Levein – more heat.
Even Kris Commons’ goal for Celtic in their defeat at St Johnstone is further confirmation that another player that has supposedly fallen out of favour with the Scotland manager has returned to form at the right time. There are only two more weekends of club matches to go before Levein is scheduled to announce possibly his most heavily-examined squad to date. Few will bet against Rhodes and Fletcher adding further goals to their early-season totals by then.
Try as he might, Levein has simply not been able to shake-off the Fletcher issue and it reared its head again yesterday courtesy of just one word – yes. This was the answer given by the player to a tweet asking if he would play again for Scotland if the manager offered him the chance. This is all that Levein needs. Not in the sense that a player worth £12 million who is regularly on the scoresheet in the English Premier League is what is required to solve Scotland’s goalscoring problem. It is all that he needs in that it is the last thing he needs at present. He can now look forward to the inevitable raft of questions about Fletcher’s absence when he names his squad next month.
It seems almost certain that Levein will remain unmoved by a tweeted response when he is happy to resist tens of thousands of voices telling him to put Jordan Rhodes on earlier against Serbia. These are areas where he does have control and Fletcher, perhaps mischievously, has manipulated it so that the ball, certainly in the eyes of irritated fans, appears to be very much in Levein’s court. What’s a manager to do? He can bow to public opinion and in doing so erode his own authority by doing what Fletcher asks, and opening the door again to the striker. Or he can dismiss the player’s Twitter remark as being the kind of throwaway response made from a sofa seat which sums up his casual attitude to playing for Scotland.
However the manager views the episode, it sums up just how difficult Levein’s life has become. Even on a weekend when Scotland are not in action he remains fixed in people’s sights. Levein’s self-assurance in front of the cameras means he has not yet been fitted with the description hapless, but he appeared to have set himself up for a fall last week in a briefing with Sunday newspaper journalists. During this meeting he made it abundantly clear that he felt Rhodes “isn’t ready to play international football”. The comment has prompted many to wonder why, then, he was even included in the squad for the recent pair of qualifying fixtures, in which he played a total of only 36 minutes of football.
Again, Levein appears to have invited ridicule. He certainly invited sports editors to highlight his comments on their sports pages yesterday, inevitably setting them within the context of the player having scored his first two goals in the colours of Blackburn Rovers, in doing so helping his new club reach the top of the Championship. It keeps up his record of having scored in every game he has started this season. At an already delicate time for the manager, Rhodes’ latest scoring feat has simply helped further erode his credibility in the eyes of many fans.
These same supporters are being whipped into a frenzied state every weekend as they study the results and run a finger down the list of goalscorers. Each time a Scottish player prospers, it is used as a stick to beat Levein, particularly since these players are often ones reckoned to have been neglected by the manager, or else are felt to be under-rated by him.
Serving to sum up Levein’s almost impossible task is the swift return to action this weekend of all three full-backs who were ruled out of Scotland’s opening two qualifiers. Charlie Mulgrew played all 90 minutes for Celtic against St Johnstone, while Russell Martin managed the whole game for Norwich City against West Ham United. And though it did not count for much in his side’s 6-1 thrashing, Danny Fox not only played against Arsenal for Southampton on Saturday, he scored their only goal. Even Scott Brown started for Celtic on Saturday and yet looks likely to sit out next month’s qualifiers due to a hip condition.
Scotland are already one fifth into the World Cup qualifying campaign. By this time next month, they will be just under half-way through. By then much will have been made clear, if it isn’t already. After yesterday’s developments with regards to Fletcher, Levein must now be braced for a few more awkward weeks ahead.
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Wednesday 19 June 2013
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