Alan Pattullo: As Belgians flourish, we rue the ones that got way

Garry O'Connor: Failed to fulfil potential shown in first spell at Hibs. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Garry O'Connor: Failed to fulfil potential shown in first spell at Hibs. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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THERE was a lot of talk of Belgium’s golden generation in the run-up to Saturday’s friendly with England, when Craig Levein was able to see at first-hand what all the fuss is about prior to Scotland’s pair of fixtures against Marc Wilmot’s side in the up-coming World Cup qualifiers.

While you would be hard pressed to say Belgium used the occasion to further press their claims to be Europe’s up-and-coming side, there was enough to suggest that their ball retention alone will give Scotland plenty to think about.

Despite a domestic league that is as mired in penury as the Scottish Premier League, clubs such as the Antwerp-based Beerschot have done something right. Coaching tie-ups with the likes of Ajax is one practical arrangement which has reaped dividends and allowed players to develop regardless of the poor state of their own domestic championship.

The Scots’ relevance to football this summer is minimal, but there was at least some meaning in Saturday’s fixture at Wembley, since it offered a chance to gauge just how good Belgium are. And did they impress? They passed the ball around well, but, like Scotland, looked to be lacking a cutting edge. “Ordinary” summed up analyst Roy Keane, who seemed almost offended by the suggestion that Belgium are a team on the up and up.

What can’t be denied is that they are a lot better than they once were, and can boast as talented a group of players under the age of 28 as anywhere else in Europe. It all adds up to the prospect of an exciting future for Belgium, whose options make what occurred inside a white Range Rover in an Edinburgh lane last summer seem all the more regrettable for Levein, who, as recently as last Autumn, believed Garry O’Connor could enhance his Scotland team. Belgium are in spate, encouraging football observers to foam about an embarrassment of riches of players in their early twenties who have it all ahead of them. So mourn, then, O’Connor’s football career, now that it must be feared to be behind him at the age of only 29.

Then there is his old Hibs team-mate Derek Riordan, the same age as O’Connor and in the same lousy predicament of wondering where to go next to revive his career. Add in the 28-year-old Kris Boyd, who is at least currently employed by a football club, and it looks for all the world like another generation of Scottish talent can be officially considered lost.

Less than a year ago, the Scotland manager had been contemplating naming O’Connor in his Scotland squad for the games against Liechtenstein and world champions Spain. The striker had made a promising start to his second spell at Hibs but Levein finally decided against selecting O’Connor due to mounting off-field problems.

On Wikipidea, in the section on O’Connor, it advises us not to be confused with the writer and thinker Garry O’Connor. Well, we’ll try our best. O’Connor has now been found guilty of possessing cocaine and obstructing police after trying to escape arrest when spotted snorting cocaine in the back of the aforementioned Range Rover.

If this is not embarrassing enough for a professional footballer, he was quickly apprehended, and, while struggling to catch his breath, tried to come up with a false name. ‘Johnstone’ was the identity he hoped to give himself, but the game was up when, after being asked to spell it, he came unstuck at the third letter.

Both supposedly in their prime of life, O’Connor is now preparing to be sentenced, while Riordan, who was in court on an assault charge last week, will stand trial in October. Both are currently out of contract. Who will touch them? O’Connor’s apparent desire to go to the States is complicated by his conviction and the little matter of an up-coming fraud trial, while Riordan has only managed to play a handful of games in the last 12 months. Can anyone feel sorry for them? Riordan’s Twitter page has a plaintive feel to it as he struggles to deal with the stream of abuse he seems to attract whatever he does. His profile picture shows him in a Scotland tracksuit.

Boyd is already in America, and, though appearing to be happy with the lifestyle change, was a member of a Portland Timbers side eliminated from the American version of the Scottish Cup last week by a team of amateurs, with the Scot missing a crucial penalty. It’s not probably where he imagined he would be back in 2009, when he was scoring for fun with Rangers. Indeed, five years ago Boyd was on the scoresheet as Scotland defeated Georgia 2-1 in a European Championship qualifier, while O’Connor scored twice in the same campaign.

Riordan has only won three Scotland caps, all in non-competitive games. This is something which counts as a crime in itself when you consider the talent he had – and possibly still has – at his disposal.

It’s a bit much to say Boyd, O’Connor and Riordan were part of what should have been a golden generation of Scottish players. However, it was one which many felt permitted to invest at least some hope in. Now Levein must attempt to out-do Eden Hazard and friends with an adopted generation of the likes of Jamie Mackie, Matt Phillips and Craig Mackail-Smith. As so often seems to happen with home-grown football talents, their potential has been devoured by a combination of immaturity and a good old-fashioned Scottish propensity for self-destruction.

Driven Lambert well-equipped to revive Villa

IF ever there was someone who stands as a contrast to the sad story of Garry O’Connor, then it is Paul Lambert. Talk about making the best of yourself.

Lambert is the first to admit that he had to work and work at being the player he was. While there might have been flashier footballers than him around, there aren’t many who could have done such an effective job on Zinedine Zidane in a Champions League final when Lambert helped Borussia Dortmund overcome Juventus 15 years ago.

When he recognised his time with Celtic was coming to an end, he managed to convince Martin O’Neill to let him travel back and forth to Germany in order to attend the coaching course run by the German FA where he obtained his badges.

The oral parts of the course he conducted in German, the language he learned while helping Dortmund become champions of Europe in his only full season there as a player.

His status in the game did not mean he turned up his nose at the prospect of managing Wycombe Wanderers, following a difficult spell with Livingston. His rise since then has been made in incremental steps.

The 42 year-old Scot has improved Colchester United, then Norwich City and now he has been tasked with reviving Aston Villa, who were anointed champions of Europe themselves 15 years before Lambert stepped up to the podium in Munich.

Of course, Lambert was often mocked for being a mini-me version of O’Neill, whose tracksuit-bottoms-tucked-into-the-socks look he adopted.

Never mind copying O’Neill, he could be set to out-do him at Villa Park.