Stuart Bathgate: Craig Levein was judged on results – just as he wanted
IN THE end, so a statement from the Scottish Football Association told us last night, the fate of Craig Levein came down to the outcome of matches.
“The board of the SFA has taken the decision primarily due to the disappointing results,” said the statement announcing that Levein had been “relieved of his duties”.
Stewart Regan, the governing body’s chief executive, backed up that assertion when explaining his “real sadness” about Levein’s enforced departure from the post he had been in since December 2009. “He would be the first to agree that football is a results-driven business,” Regan said of the former national manager.
You might think that everyone would agree with that statement of the obvious – except, perhaps, those members of the SFA board who reportedly delayed a decision on Levein last week because they were seeking further information. What more information did they need, if, as they said, results were what counted?
Were there some results that had not yet percolated through to Hampden? Did they need more time to digest the bald statistic that under Levein Scotland had won only three out of 12 competitive matches?
It was entirely fair and reasonable of the SFA to refuse to rush into a sacking after the defeat in Belgium nearly three weeks ago. Just as fair and reasonable, too, for them to do Levein the courtesy of waiting until he returned from a prearranged holiday, so he could talk the issue through with them.
But once he had come back, which is more than a week ago now, there was really no rationale for waiting any longer. As Peter Houston said on Sunday, they had “had plenty of time to discuss it and to make a decision”.
And in any case, whatever Levein may have told the board in recent days, he had already put up a persuasive case against his carrying on in the post. With his job on the line over the past few weeks he might have argued that progress was being made no matter what the scorelines suggested to the contrary, but it was not that long previously that he came out with a pretty blunt self-assessment.
Almost exactly two months ago, for example, as Scotland prepared to kick off their World Cup qualifying campaign at home to Serbia, Levein asked to be assessed on the grounds not of popularity – he knew by then that the Tartan Army were at best sceptical about him – but of results. “You know, this job is brilliant for finding out if you’re liked or not liked,” he said. “I don’t expect, and I don’t need, to be liked.
“What I need everyone to know is that there is nobody who wants Scotland to go to Brazil more than me. Nobody. If it came down to how much you want it, we’d already be there.
“I feel I am in a better place than I was two years ago. The players are better individually and collectively. They understand the system, they have more international and club experience, and the atmosphere within the group is 100 times better than what it was. All of that leads me to believe we are better than we were two years ago. That’s where my confidence comes from, and I’ll get judged on results.”
Scotland drew with Serbia the following day, then with Macedonia, also at home, four days later.
The atmosphere in the squad might well have improved out of all recognition, but the toothless style of play remained the same. The manager’s confidence had been shown up as sorely misplaced.
Of course, football coaches often talk up their squad in public, at times in a way which boosts their players’ morale. But Levein’s exaggerated assessment of his own group’s ability had no such effect, and further undermined public confidence in him – especially as, again on the eve of that Serbia match, he had also claimed they were capable of emerging victorious from every match in Group A.
“If you’d asked me two years ago if the group we had then could win every game in our campaign, I’d have hesitated and been a little unsure,” he said. “But I think we have a squad now capable of that. Whether we do or not we have to wait and see. But we are capable, definitely. Can we do it is the question.”
The definitive answer came a day later, although many people had already supplied their own. And then, just in case the Serbia game had been a statistical quirk, a supplementary answer came against Macedonia. Then another in Wales, followed by another in Belgium. The squad capable of winning all ten matches had failed to win one of its first four.
“The view of the board is that we are not bottom-of-the-group material,” Regan said last night. That is for the next manager to prove.
What has been proven already is that Scotland under Levein were certainly not top-of-the-group material, either in the World Cup or in qualifying for Euro 2012, in which they finished third after winning three and drawing two.
The stubbornness shown by Levein in his protracted dispute with Steven Fletcher did him no favours, and the infamous 4-6-0 formation with which he took the field against the Czech Republic further undermined confidence in him.
In the end, though, as that SFA statement said, it was results which did for him.
Results, and the yawning chasm which they proved existed between his own upbeat assessment of his squad and the sorry reality.
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