Glenn Gibbons: No evidence of Levein’s ‘progress’
LONG thought to have been eradicated like smallpox, the British Disease appears to be making a comeback, although in a modified form.
The original was favoured by rather smug Europeans in the 1970s to disdain the readiness of this island’s workforce to espouse disruptive industrial action on the flimsiest of pretexts; these days, it may be adopted as an entirely appropriate reflection of the standard of performance by the four home countries’ national football teams.
The most alarming aspect of the failure of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland to muster a single victory between them in this week’s World Cup qualifiers is that it should have come as no shock to anyone – except, perhaps, those chauvinistic fans south of the border who continue to labour under the illusion of their heroes’ excellence.
Serbia’s 6-1 hammering of the Welsh and Luxembourg’s 1-1 draw in Belfast may have been worse than even their sorely tried fans would have anticipated, but such calamities are not exactly strangers.
England’s followers may be more accustomed to seeing their team scrape a fortunate victory rather than the kind of undeserved 1-1 draw they managed after being largely outplayed by Ukraine at Wembley, but that simply makes the defeat they should have sustained on Tuesday overdue.
If Roy Hodgson’s side does not yet have the dispiriting sequence of setbacks that has now been built by Craig Levein’s Scotland, the flaws and exploitable weaknesses of both are at least linked through the agency of the Premier League.
Among a number of extremely questionable pronouncements made by Levein over the time of his tenure has been the frequently repeated, but clearly ill-founded, assertion that the Scotland side has taken long strides towards greatness as a direct consequence of the notable increase in the number of its members who now operate in the top tier of English football.
This not only betrays a failure to identify the relative ordinariness of just about every player in his charge, but to recognise a wider truth; it is that the Premier League remains fixed in the collective mind’s eye as some kind of golden treasury of the European game. As a result, the higher incidence of Scots now at work there is presented – especially by Levein – as proof of a rise in their playing standards.
By looking at the evidence from the wrong angle, with a kind of distorting squint, the Scotland manager is arriving at the opposite of the truth, which is that the increased number of Scots is testimony to the lowering of the standards of the league itself.
Levein appears to have been blind to – or, perhaps more likely, has chosen to ignore – the fact that the great majority of Scottish players in the Premier League arrived with promoted clubs. With the exception of the long-absent Darren Fletcher – who has been at Manchester United since adolescence – none has made it to an authentic elite club as a direct result of his talent and remained for an appreciable time.
Charlie Adam and Alan Hutton reached Liverpool and Tottenham respectively (both for reasons that were, at the time, hard to fathom) but did not take long to drop a few rungs. Levein has had to endure severe criticism over his spat with Steven Fletcher and it is indisputably preposterous that the former Hibernian striker should not be wearing the dark blue shirt, if only to show that he warrants selection.
Much of the support for Fletcher seems to derive from the urge to bad-mouth Levein, rather than any evidence of the player’s star quality. Having done a passable job in a relegated Wolves team, he appears to have been widely acclaimed as a latter-day Denis Law purely on the grounds of Martin O’Neill’s willingness to pay £14 million to take him to Sunderland (another habitual bottom-half team).
The price on the ticket does not automatically represent quality goods – think Aiden McGeady and the aforementioned Hutton and Adam. If Fletcher were to return to the Scotland team, either in Levein’s time or after, he would have much to prove.
Levein himself becomes less convincing with each assignment. That his only victories in competitive matches should have been recorded against Liechtenstein would be an appalling statistic without any embellishment, but it has been made quite unpalatable by Levein’s incomprehensible assessment of its merit. He has not only regarded these “triumphs” as a sign of excellence, but insisted that beating Liechtenstein 2-1 at Hampden with a winning goal in the seventh minute of injury time and 1-0 with a goal gifted by the opposition’s aberrant goalkeeper represent the much-vaunted “progression”. This seems, on his part, a curious choice of favourite word, since it is a phenomenon with which the rest of us are quite unfamiliar.
With both of the opening matches in Group A yielding draws (for the loss of four points), the ideal of negotiating home advantage for both fixtures in order to make a sprinter’s start has been rendered meaningless.
In his pomp, Jock Stein would often demonstrate the kind of unsuspected astuteness that causes Sir Alex Ferguson to this day to regard him as the most complete manager who ever breathed. When discussing pre-season friendlies, Stein would lower his voice to a conspiratorial depth and say: “You don’t want to be arranging fixtures against people who are going to beat you, do you? You want the supporters to have a spring in their step, so you choose fixtures with that in mind.”
In the business of hand-picking rewarding fixtures and tickling the fans, Levein’s record is already sufficiently lamentable to make his reputation – and his position – irretrievable.
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Friday 24 May 2013
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