Tom English: Between a rock and a qualifying place

Craig Levein wants the media to stop picking holes. So maybe he should start picking goalscorers…

Craig Levein wants the media to stop picking holes. So maybe he should start picking goalscorers…

ON A human level, it is easy to feel sympathy for Craig Levein, a good bloke mired in a nightmarish situation in what is supposed to be the job of his dreams. For close to an hour the other day, Levein spoke not just about the state of the nation but the state of his mind, the flak that comes his way and the punches he is having to absorb.

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“The stuff about my glasses was just nonsense,” he said, of the dark lenses he’s been wearing. “I got them because my optician suggested it. When there’s too much light I get migraines. I read all that shit [some mickey-taking about him looking daft] and I say to myself, ‘What’s all that about?’ But there’s no point. You know what happens, it gathers momentum and all the rest of it and I am not going to stand there like King Canute and stop the tide coming in. My wife takes that worse than I do. She’s at the game the other night and she can’t eat, she can’t watch and I’ll no’ tell you what she said afterwards.”

Disappointment. “It hangs about and eats away at you,” he said. “After the America game, the whole summer was ruined, but I can’t afford to feel down or sorry for myself. My job is to be out front and be as strong as possible. It’s important to be strong and not feel ‘oh woe is me’. This job is about taking the punches. I accept that.”

We can feel for the man, but we have to analyse the manager. The criticism should not be personal but much of it is valid and the talk of Scotland’s prospects of making it to Brazil already being over is perfectly legitimate. Of course, Levein is right on one thing. There are many more games to play and many more points to win. It’s true also that other teams in the past have made bad beginnings in the group phase and have gone on to qualify for major championships. It’s do-able. But they all seem to have one thing in common, something that Scotland look incapable of copying.

These other nations – most recently, the Republic of Ireland, England and Croatia in the qualifiers for the 2002 World Cup, Switzerland in the qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup and Greece and Portugal in the qualifiers for Euro 2012 – all went on long winning runs after faltering starts. Just like Scotland, none of them had more than two points after their first two games. Some had only one point. Here’s the rub, though. The Republic of Ireland won seven out of their eight remaining matches and drew the other. Croatia won five of their remaining six and drew the other. England the same. Switzerland picked up 20 points from an available 24 after winning just one point from six at the start of the qualifiers. Portugal also had one point after two games and then promptly won five in a row.

After wasting two home games and dropping four early points, Scotland need to pull out something special, something that they haven’t looked capable of in the near three years that Levein has been in charge. Technically, they’re still bang there in the hunt. Realistically, they are treading water again. There isn’t a scrap of evidence so far to suggest that they are capable of saving themselves. Even Levein, the great optimist, admitted that the performance against Macedonia on Tuesday was the worst in a competitive game since the debacle against Liechtenstein at Hampden.

“The difficulty with this job is getting the confidence into the players,” said Levein. “It’s not easy to do when most of the outside influences are going the other way. The game the other night [against Macedonia] is the perfect example as we didn’t pass the ball well in the first five minutes and that meant the crowd and the players became edgy. And that almost takes you back to square one. It took us another 15 or 20 minutes to restore confidence again. There’s a fragility there. That’s not a new thing, that’s been going on for a while.”

A fragility, for sure. And now, it seems, a growing excuse-making culture in the dressing room. Gary Caldwell thinks Scotland played poorly on Tuesday night, in part, because of the supposed negativity of the media. Blaming the media is the last refuge of a team that has lost its way. And Levein has followed suit. The negativity that the Scotland manager speaks of is particularly odd, though. He has criticised the press for talking up Jordan Rhodes and, by extension, talking down Kenny Miller. He reckons that Rhodes was over-hyped but forgets that the man doing most of the hyping in the first instance was Levein himself.

This is what Levein had to say about Rhodes a week before the Serbia game. “I know people might want to point out that it’s at a lower division [where he’s banging in all his goals], but the goals are still the same size and the type of goals that he scores requires one skill-set and that is getting to the ball quicker than anyone else in the box. That doesn’t involve being physically stronger than anyone else or being physically quicker than anyone else or bigger or taller. It involves having the kind of brain that takes you to the right spot. That in itself gives him an advantage over defenders, no matter what level he is playing at.”

Levein called Rhodes a “pure-bred predator” who he was thinking about picking for the Serbia match. On Thursday, he did some kind of weird U-turn and said Rhodes was being over-hyped and that he’s unproven outside of League One and that the calls for his inclusion were unfair on the boy – he’s 22 years old and five of the Serbian starting line-up were younger than him, but never mind. A fortnight ago, he was ready and now he “isn’t ready” to play international football. One minute it’s “the goals are still the same size (no matter what level he’s playing at)” and next it’s “remember, he’s played just one game in the Championship.”

The Scotland manager talks Rhodes up only to criticise those who are reporting what he said. In order to talk things back down again he goes too far and says Rhodes is not ready to play international football despite the striker having scored in his only start for his country. So what is Rhodes supposed to think now? Where does he stand?

“It was unusual for there to be a such a clamour for a young boy to play. It was beyond normal,” said Levein. “I think the point Gary was trying to make was that kind of stuff wasn’t helpful. And then we had some Sunday newspapers absolutely hammering Kenny. Kenny [was] really angry about the comments in Sunday’s newspapers [after the Serbia game]. The players feel that they are getting unfairly criticised. I’m not going to start banning newspapers from the breakfast table. What would it come to then? As far as I’m concerned it’s a case of letting them read the newspapers and leaving them to make their own opinions. They are entitled to their opinions.

“Gary’s not a young stupid boy. Gary’s said something because he feels it. It’s his opinion. It’s not my opinion or anybody else’s. I don’t think he’s looking for any excuse. If you know Gary Caldwell he’s not the kind of guy who looks for excuses. You could also have a look at it and wonder if he’s saying anything that makes sense rather than trying to pick holes in everything. Can you have a look at yourself and wonder if you are making it any more difficult for the team? It’s a valid question.”

It’s not valid at all. What does Caldwell, pictured left, expect the media and the supporters to do after two home draws in games they needed to win? As Levein himself said only a few weeks ago, it’s up to the players to galvanise things, nobody else. The players needed to give everybody else the reason to believe but they haven’t done it. The failure is theirs and their manager’s, nobody else’s.

Levein carries on to the next double-header in October, still believing, still working hard, still in a spot that you cannot see him getting out of. The only teams he has beaten in competitive matches are Lithuania and Liechtenstein so the idea of Scotland now going on a run of victories is a forlorn hope. Levein still feels sure he can turn it around, but many others believe they know how this story is going to end.

Good news? Darren Fletcher is closer to fitness and has a chance of playing in Cardiff. A better chance than Scott Brown, it seems. “It would be a huge, huge bonus if I got Darren back. It would give us that kind of experience and obviously his energy and his ability to cover the ground in the midfield area would be a huge help.

“[On Brown] Celtic themselves haven’t been playing him. What you are looking at is a player who probably shouldn’t be playing at all. Not just not playing for Scotland, I don’t think he should be playing for Celtic either. He’s the type of boy that in certain situations will go beyond what most people will do, not because he’s fit. He’s had injections to play in both of those [European] games [for Celtic].”

Scotland could do with Brown’s drive and energy and will to win. But, then, Scotland could do with a lot of things right now.