Craig Levein: 'Time to restore the passion'

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SCOTLANDWELL, near Kinross, is a village where, historically, the poorly made pilgrimages, seeking the restorative spring waters. The place seems as fitting a venue as any to meet Craig Levein, the Scotland coach who is hellbent on curing the nation's football ills.

• Photograph: SNS Group

Plotting the revival of a national set-up which has been starved of the stimulus of major championship football since 1998, he is beaming as thoughts trip back to yesteryear. "I remember playing one game, it was against Sweden, and the hairs on the back of my neck were standing up, quite literally, during the national anthem and the whole thing was a great experience and something never to be forgotten. That feeling has got to be something that players still strive for."

There remain some, he says, for whom pulling on the dark blue jersey is the ultimate. For others, though, he senses the honour has been diluted.

"As a kid I remember watching Archie Gemmill score that goal (against Holland] and you can't help but smile and your eyes light up just thinking about it. Kids watched that and wanted to do that, wanted to be involved, they dreamed of following in his footsteps and playing for Scotland and somewhere along the way we have lost some of that and we don't seem to think it's as important as that.

"But, one of the things I am passionate about is the importance placed on playing for the national team. Somewhere along the way it has kind of got lost and I'm not saying that's the case with every player but there is a bit of a malaise and I think as football people we have allowed that to happen.

"Maybe that's because we haven't qualified for so long, people are maybe looking at the Scotland set-up and thinking 'well, it's not as if we are going to qualify, and if I'm not there it's not the end of the world because we are not going to qualify anyway'. We have to try to change that mindset. We have to develop a group of players who have an affiliation with the SFA and for playing for Scotland and it might be that we have to work with players a lot earlier just so we can cultivate this idea that Scotland winning things is possible."

In Levein's mind things are that positive. The cynicism which seems to grow in the Scottish psyche as prevalently as the heather on the hills is kept at bay. He feels there is a change in the national mood. Instead of just moaning about what is wrong, he thinks there are a growing number of people keen to get together and actually do something constructive.

"I think a lot of it, like when it comes to achieving anything in life, is all about your attitude. If you think positively, you find more positive things tend to happen so first of all I want to give the players a good experinece of coming along, having fun, playing football and winning games, so that it becomes a self-perpetuating thing and they want to keep coming back and believe they can win. We have to look at the younger age groups and make it special again to be playing for scotland."

Only in the job seven months and with a solitary game under his belt, he has not had enough time to gauge which players amongst the current first-team contenders get the biggest buzz from representing their country but he will. And if there are two people vying for the same position, then he would be inclined to give the nod to the one who values the cap the most.

"But the fact is, there shouldn't be a situation like that. It should be the case that every player wants to play for Scotland and, you know, I think of people like Davie Narey, who probably went along to 80 Scotland gatherings and hardly played any games but he saw it as representing his country and he knew it was an honour and he would never have dreamed of saying 'sod that'. And he was a top, top player.

Scottish history is littered with top players who went along and didn't get a game but who kept going because they saw it as something to be proud of and we need to get back to that. It has definitely been diluted and I don't know what all the reasons for that are but it's not my job to look for excuses, it's my job to do something about it."

Ask about his highlight as Scotland manager so far and it's an immediate reposte. The victory over the Czech Republic. Wins breed confidence which is why he has placed so much importance on the upcoming friendly, away to Sweden on August 11. "It will be really, really tough, but if your are talking about building confidence and momentum then we want another good result to take into the first competitive matches. I would rather deal with heightened expectation than have to convince players they are as good as they are."

He says he watched his first match at the helm like a scientist analysing matter through a microscope and he was baffled by what he saw. The lack of self-belief in the players was "strange". He had expected players who are big performers at club level to walk out at Hampden, in front of their own fans, their heads held high, their chests puffed out. Instead, they seemed timid, shrinking within themselves and the shirts which had appeared to fit perfectly in the dressing room minutes earlier.

With five games in two months, having the players in on a regular basis will enable him to cultivate something akin to a club mentality and work on the self-belief, hopefully getting the results which add weight to his preaching ahead of the tougher tasks of facing the likes of new world champions Spain.

He is under no illusions how much it will mean to the nation."Football is about memories and people really get excited when they are discussing their football memories. Going abroad is the biggest thing.

People tell you about when they were in England when we played them, in Italy, in Mexico, in France, wherever. They all speak passionately about the great time they had so it's not just going to watch the football team, it's the whole experience, especially with Scotland because no matter which club you support we can all come together and share in that.

"Everybody has been waiting and waiting and waiting and when we do get there it's going to be a fantastic experience for everyone. That's what I want, for the fans and the players as well."

Long-term, though, it will take more than Levein to cure the ills. He talks openly about the amatuerishness of certain aspects of the SFA and having come from a club background he claims there are faults there as well. But he believes there is now a willingness to look into the mirror held up to them all by the Henry McLeish report and work together to improve the game.

"I am getting excited about the appointment of a Performance Director because I do think this is a significant time for Scottish football and that really does energise me. I want to get something done and I think there is a new mood and acceptance that change is needed."

At the moment work is ongoing, canvassing opinion on what the strategy and job description should be, but that should be settled by mid August, an appointment made, Levein hopes, by the end of September.

"There is a window of opportunity here and I do think people are less insular. We have good people at the SPL now and although it will mean that the SFA will have to hold out an olive branch to the clubs and admit that in the past they have got certain things wrong, they do have expertise and some money. The answer is not always to throw money at things, though, there has to be a greater sense of co-operation."

Still a "helluva long way to go", he says at least bridges are being mended ahead of the new appointment. "I have been really, really encouraged by the response from the SPL clubs, the people within the SFA.

"Our role is developing players who can play in the Scottsh national team, becasue if the team are doing well income comes in, let's work with the clubs to make Scottish players better. But it has to be something that is inclusive rather than the SFA saying here's a blueprint. That doesn't work. There are a lot of really good people at the clubs who have a lot to offer and may have better ideas so it has to be a consensus but I feel we all have a great opportunity. We all have to play our part."

Bringing back bad boys a no-brainer

CRAIG Levein says his decision to offer a second chance to a clutch of international exiles was a "no-brainer".

Outcasts Allan McGregor and Barry Ferguson were thrown a lifeline following their Boozegate antics, while striker Kris Boyd was gifted the opportunity to reconsider his self-imposed exile and, while some members of the Tartan Army voiced displeasure, Levein says he never considered his deeds to be controversial.

"I don't see it that way. Things happen and if you looked at everything that every player did away from football you wouldn't select any of them, well, very few of them!

"I just felt that something had happened and everything was blown up and no-one was hurt any more than the boys themselves and George (Burley, his Scotland predecessor].

"Coming into the job, one of the reasons I wanted it was the fact I would love to take Scotland to a major tournament and if you start from that point, of Scotland qualifying, and work your way back then everything else becomes pretty clear.

"We really need all our best players. For me, that is pretty straightforward. Also I didn't really think that what they'd done was that serious. It was stupid. But that was it."

Levein has imposed a ban on drinking at squad gatherings to avoid a repeat and, while not condoning McGregor and Ferguson's two-fingered gestures throughout the match against Iceland, he says it was obvious they were aimed at the media and not the nation as a whole. Which is why he will welcome back the Rangers keeper as a replacement for the injured Craig Gordon in the upcoming run of matches.

"Allan has apologised and Barry accepts he was stupid, and in terms of Kris, he was frustrated because he wasn't getting a game. I don't know if things had been building up because he wasn't getting a regular game at his club but that's in the past. Players and managers have individual issues at clubs all the time and you have to deal with it.

"But what I have realised on the international scene is that nothing goes unnoticed. Nothing is under the radar, it's all out there and you kind of have to accept that. With Allan and Kris etc it was a no-brainer for me, they wanted to come back and wanted to play and I wanted them back so that was all that came into it."

However, after protracted consideration, Ferguson himself has ruled out a return to the international scene. But Levein is confident he still has plenty of midfield options. "Anybody who looks at this squad will recognise there are areas of the pitch where we are stronger than others and that is why Barry not coming back was a blow but it wasn't a stake through the heart. It is something we can cope with."

'Germany's multi-cultural lead is one we can follow'

EFFORTS are ongoing to convince Andy Carroll that his international future lies with Scotland. Despite being thwarted in his initial efforts to tempt the Newcastle United striker to turn his back on England, Craig Levein says he is not willing to throw in the towel.

"I haven't given up on that one yet, not until he says 100 per cent that he doesn't want to play for Scotland. I have (Newcastle first team coach and former Scotland international] Colin Calderwood down there and he is chipping away at him."

Despite Carroll being linked with a call-up to the full England squad, having already represented the country at under-21 level, the 21-year-old has a Scottish grandmother and Levein has no problem in drafting in people born outwith the country.

"I hear people saying 'oh this player or that player shouldn't play because he is not Scottish' but Germany did well at the World Cup and they have guys from all over the place. Look at it this way, the rules are there and other people are using those rules and while there might have been some people in Germany sitting there with their arms crossed, determined not to celebrate when they beat England or Argentina because a certain guy is Polish or whatever, the majority supported the team. Looking back there were guys like, (Andy] Goram, (Richard] Gough, (Stuart] McCall, guys with different accents who were brought in and played for Scotland and they were as good and as passionate as anybody.

"When it comes down to it, we just want to win and if we do that it covers up a lot of these problems and the majority of Scottish fans will be happy."

However, he insists that another England U-21 player, Andrew Driver, should be considered a legitimate recruit following the tweaking of the FIFA ruling and says there are a handful of other gifted youngsters who have thus far slipped beneath the radar in the country of their birth and could now become part of the set-up.

"We are always looking for new players and part of the new performance director's remit will be to investigate who is eligible to play for Scotland. In my opinion that is one of the areas where we are still amateurish and it needs to be more thorough and professional.

"But it would have been a travesty if (Andy] hadn't been able to play because he has been up here since he was a kid and feels part of the fabric. I look at what is happening in the likes of Germany and guys are there for two years and suddenly playing in the national team. At least we are five years and it's a case of going to school for those five years."

MOIRA GORDON