Battered Craig Levein is left on ropes following defeat in Cardiff
IN THE wake of the Wales defeat, a defiant Craig Levein is still talking of progress, but time is surely running out on the least successful tenure in Scots history.
In the quietness of a corridor in the Cardiff City Stadium, Craig Levein leaned against a wall, but it might as well have been a set of ropes, for the Scotland manager looked as beaten up as any fighter, emotionally if not physically. He was by turns weary and yet defiant, pained by what he had just seen but trying desperately to show that he was not broken by it.
What was obvious was that the flickering candle of Scotland’s World Cup hopes had now all but gone out with his own prospects of leading them forward almost certainly going out with it. Amid the despondency you didn’t have the heart to tell him that statistically he now has the worst competitive record of any Scotland manager there’s ever been, but even if you had it was unlikely he could have felt any more sick than he already was.
No win from three qualifiers this time around, three wins from 11 overall, it’s a dismal picture. Levein’s team have only beaten Lithuania and Liechtenstein in matches that truly matter, by a single goal each time. For all that Scotland played well in parts on Friday night, for all the good things and horrid luck that Levein can point to – and he did – the analysis of his management doesn’t begin and end at Cardiff on Friday, it goes back months and years. Almost three of them.
It goes back to Prague and the night of the no strikers, it goes back to the nerve-shattering act of escapology against Liechtenstein, it goes back to the ridiculous, and needlessly destructive, feud with Steven Fletcher and the madcap notion that there were six or seven or eight or whatever number of midfielders it was who were supposed to be ahead of Kris Commons in the manager’s thoughts. It goes back to results and they’ve been awful.
The manager talks of progress, but there isn’t any. Levein seems to mistake camaraderie for progress, he measures it by the fact that his team turn up and behave themselves, that they work hard for him and for each other, that they give everything for the cause. Maybe that wasn’t the case under George Burley, but if that is progress then it’s a baby step, the tiniest inch forward. In results, the team has actually gone in the other direction.
What is there to support the retention of Levein? Get out the magnifying glass and start looking. There is not one marquee performance we can latch on to, not one victory that made you think “There is something happening here”. Nothing. The progress is abstract. It is based on what the team might become, not what it has become. This team is a decent side. Or should be. The results don’t support any optimism ahead of Belgium no more than they suggest that Levein is going to be in his position much longer.
One thing: the players are with him. Genuinely they are. But getting support from the dressing room in circumstances like this is akin to an accused getting the backing of an accomplice. In the heel of the hunt, does it matter that the players want him to stay on?
There is a sadness to this. You couldn’t look at Levein in that corridor on Friday night and not feel sympathy for him. His pride in the job is undeniable. His determination is obvious. As a player, you could argue that thick streak of stubbornness was the making of him, but his bloody-mindedness has contributed hugely to the breaking of him as an international manager.
The landscape might look altogether different had he managed the Steven Fletcher situation a whole lot earlier. Two years earlier. Right when it needed managing. Failing to make peace with Fletcher before the start of this campaign was desperately self-defeating for Levein. In his quieter moments he might even agree with that point, that if Fletcher was playing against Serbia and Macedonia that more points would have been banked before last night. Two points gave Levein no wriggle room.
A victory in Brussels would save him in the short-term, but it’s impossible to see anything good coming from that fixture. Stewart Regan will be on his knees praying for a miracle in Belgium given that Levein is a friend as well as his manager, a bloke he has invested heavily in, not just in the stewardship of the national team but in the future of the game in Scotland. But Regan is going to come under intense pressure to make a change should things go wrong again in Belgium. Levein saluted Regan for being a “strong man” in the wake of Friday night, but is he quite that strong?
Levein ran it all through his head in that corridor. The Steven Fletcher “goal” that was disallowed on the night, the missed James Morrison chance, the penalty and equaliser, the howitzer and winner; Gareth Bale and all that. Great strike, but… always a but.
“The second goal for Wales was down to a basic error,” he said, of Charlie Adam’s calamitous lack of awareness in failing to track Bale at a free-kick. “They had a free-kick and we should have stood on the ball, stopped the flow. There was a degree of frustration [from Adam], we were in a hurry and they scored. So, we’d gone from being comfortable to needing another goal.
“We gave that foul away and instead of doing what you get told at under-11 football, he [Adam] was angry. He’d given the ball away just seconds before. You get punished at international level for making these types of mistakes. It just shows you the cruelty of football.”
Yes, football is cruel. But over the span of nearly three years it doesn’t remain cruel if you’re really on the right road. “It seems to be extremely difficult for us to build some momentum,” said Levein. If it hasn’t come by now under the manager if you wonder if it’s going to come.
“I’m trying my damndest to build some kind of foundation and play a certain way,” said Levein. “But we need to get a little break here and there, to let everybody see it is progressing. From my own point of view I’m extremely proud to have this job and I’ll do the best I can. If I thought for one second that those players were out there and not bursting a gut and doing everything they can to win that game then I have got a problem but I haven’t got that problem. I have got wide guys bursting a gut to get back to block shots and crosses and throwing themselves in front of the ball. I have two full-backs bursting the length of the park to try and help us get goals. I think we’re not far away, that’s the sickening thing for me. We’re not far away and I think every now and then you need that wee bit of encouragement. But football is about results, I admit that.”
“We’re not far away”.
“There are signs of progress”.
“We’re on the right road”.
“All we need is one win”.
These are the phrases that have dominated the Levein era. The fact that he is still using them now, almost three years after getting the job, tells you the story. Expect to hear them again after Tuesday night, but the sad part is that nobody is really listening any more.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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