THE national manager has been kicked from pillar to post but poor results have left him vulnerable to abuse, argues Tom English
REMEMBER THAT Monty Python scene, the one from the Holy Grail where Arthur, King of the Britons, encounters the Black Knight in the forest? "None shall pass," says the Black Knight. So Arthur chops off his arm. "'Tis but a scratch," says the Knight. So Arthur chops off his other arm.
"Just a flesh wound," protests the Knight. So Arthur chops off a leg.
"The Black Knight always triumphs!" So off comes his other leg.
"All right," says the Knight. "We'll call it a draw."
At times during this qualifying campaign, George Burley has sounded a bit like the ill-fated Knight. He's been brave but a touch desperate in his defiance.
When Scotland lost their opening match to Macedonia, Burley described his team as "outstanding" and said they'd get over the body blow. When two more points were dropped, at home to Norway, he did his equivalent of the "'Tis but a scratch" speech in the aftermath. When Holland beat them 3-0 in Amsterdam, he called it a mere blip, when Norway lacerated them in Oslo, he may as well have called it "just a flesh wound".
He said the drubbing, though shocking, had changed nothing. Six points from their two remaining games and they'd finish second in the group, he stated. Second in the group gives them a chance of making the play-offs. And in the play-offs, anything can happen.
Burley is really trying to be strong here, trying to be upbeat ahead of the critical game with Macedonia on Saturday, trying to rally the nation around his team, but he's been cut by this campaign, he's been hurt by some of the flak that has come his way.
"We've been knocked from pillar to post in the press," he says. "To be honest, I try not to get too involved with what the press say. If I did, it would knock the stuffing out of me. For other people – my family, my parents – I think it's way over the top. But it's something I have to deal with. I don't think it helps anybody. I don't see the point in it. We should all be in it together. But that's what's happened. It's not going to distract me."
But, clearly, it has distracted him. Or else, he'd be brushing it off, making light of it and poking fun at the perpetrators, the people who dressed him as a donkey on the back page the morning after Oslo. And those others who, he has claimed, jump on his quotes, mangle their meaning, and use it against him.
"It's like anything in life, when you get knocked down it's a test of character. That's what it is. You've got to go out there fighting. We need everybody to stick together because there's been a lot of stuff said which has been completely out of order. That's been from day one. I've already seen it again today (Wednesday] in the Daily Record, who seem to have a personal vendetta against myself – and that was before a ball was kicked in the World Cup. But you've got to stand up and be counted, to do your best no matter what's said, because you're representing your country. It's possible for us to still get to the play-offs so we've got to have the belief to do it.
"Certain aspects upset you, there's no doubt about that. I'm sure that's the same with any managerial job. There are certain things that people twist for their own agenda. That's happened, but it's something you've got to take on board."
The problem for Burley is that his poor results have left him open to denigration. And some of his explanations for those poor results have been unimpressive, to say the least. Unless he finishes with a flourish, the greatest trial lawyer in the world would struggle to present a worthwhile case for his defence. His Scotland future, therefore, will be decided in the next ten days.
"If you don't get the right result, that's something you have to take on the chin. I think the most important thing for the country, and for me, is to be strong and make sure it doesn't affect you, because if it does, it's going to hamper you doing your job. That's a test of character for me and the players and that's why it's important we're all focused, no matter who says what. I don't get involved with it (the press abuse]. It's not good for your family, but it does happen. I don't think it does anybody any favours, but you have to take it on the chin and move on. It's important to ignore it."
Part of the problem is that he doesn't ignore it. Alas, one of the key survival points for any Old Firm or Scotland manager is an ability to rationalise what's written about you and not let it fry your brain. Burley struggles on that front.
He is a decent man and a good football manager. He's proven it. But he is stuck in a bad situation now. It's not all of his own making, but it is his to deal with. There's been some daft fixture scheduling from his employers, some unpardonable trouble-making in the dressing-room and some flim-flamming leadership in high office at the SFA. But the team selections and the results are his responsibility. And he needs two good ones, back to back, if he's going to salvage his reputation.
Macedonia shouldn't be feared, but they're due a whole lot of respect. Burley insists that Scotland deserved a point from their first meeting, last September. Nonsense. Macedonia created more chances and were clear and deserving winners. A few weeks ago, they entertained Spain in a friendly. Macedonia went into a 2-0 lead with goals from Goran Pandev, their quarrelsome but talented striker. Spain, with Fernando Torres and David Villa and Xavi and Xabi Alonso all in the starting line-up and Cesc Fabregas on the field from the 48th minute, scored three times in rapid order and were ahead by the hour mark. Macedonia hit the post late in the game.
Coming within a few inches of a 3-3 draw with a strong Spanish side is decent form. Pandev's state of mind is also an issue here. He is a talented player trapped in a club he no longer wants to play for. He's fighting with everybody at Lazio at the moment, from the tea lady to the president. Clearly, his unhappiness proved something of a spur against the Spaniards. If he comes to Glasgow with the same "I'll prove you wrong" mentality, then Scotland will have a job keeping him quiet.
Especially with the problems Burley has at centre-back. There's Davie Weir – and, in the absence of the suspended Gary Caldwell, possibly not a lot else. Christophe Berra and Steven Caldwell are only inching their way back from injury and Stephen McManus, though in training for three weeks, has only played a bounce game so far this season.
"That's the reality of the squad," says Burley. "On Macedonia, I watched the DVD of the Spain game where they did very well, especially first-half when they led 2-0 through two cracking Pandev goals. He's elusive, with great movement. They're no pushovers, they've shown that, and we'll have to be at our best.
"They play with three forwards and they're quite adventurous. Usually the first half they're at their most dangerous. In the last 20 minutes they maybe slacken a little bit, so it's important for us to be patient and strong and keep going until the end. We shouldn't concede early because the longer the game goes on, we'll get opportunities."
Scotland have failed to score in three of Burley's five games at Hampden. They've only got six goals and two wins in ten games under his management. Good things have to start happening for him, and quick. For these numbers are going to come back and haunt him soon otherwise.
"Hopefully the 15 years experience as a manager before I came here will give me belief in myself because if I don't, the players haven't got a chance," says Burley. "It's still possible, there's still the desire there. I was fortunate enough to go to a World Cup and I've told the players to be really focused because they might not get another opportunity."
The same goes for Burley himself.