WE ARE engaged in a long game, Craig Levein continually reminds us. Sadly, he is right. In ten competitive games, his charge has yielded only three victories.
And even these achievements do not bear too much scrutiny since they involve one-goal victories over Lithuania and, on two occasions, Liechtenstein.
We are now well into the third year of his reign and, despite the continual assertions about improvement being made, the reality is that Scotland, in the eyes of the majority of rational observers, are at best merely plodding along. One story has emerged of a member of the Manchester City coaching staff being present at Hampden Park to watch Tuesday night’s 1-1 draw with FYR Macedonia. His conclusion? That Scotland would fit fairly comfortably into the middle-reaches of the English Championship. It could be apocryphal, but it’s also frighteningly believable. Given that six members of the starting team on Tuesday, and seven on Saturday, are ostensibly English Premier League players, Scotland have managed to become less than the sum of their parts.
It is simply not possible to have sat through the opening two games in what has been billed as Levein’s defining campaign – in the last one, both his inexperience and limited preparation have to be acknowledged – and share his zeal for players who have simply not lived up to the star rating the manager hands them. Nor is it difficult to miss the disconnection that has developed between the fans and Levein. Neither of the first two games in this campaign has been a sell-out. Tuesday’s gathering of just over 32,000 was Scotland’s lowest for a competitive fixture at home since a dead-rubber against Latvia in Craig Brown’s last match in charge in 2001.
Levein retains the support of the players, and rightly so given the protection and encouragement they have been afforded by the manager. As another inquest began, one reporter yesterday asked Gary Caldwell whether he felt it was “right and proper” that Levein should still be in charge by the time Scotland visit Cardiff next month, at the start of another demanding-looking double-header against Wales and Belgium.
“I don’t think you should be even asking that question, to be honest,” replied Caldwell, bluntly. The gathering storm suggested otherwise, regrettably. Levein is already priced at 4/5 by one Scottish bookmaker to be sacked by the end of the week.
Shaun Maloney also spoke of giving “heart and soul” for the manager, whose strong bond with his charges is one of his undoubted strengths. However, this fierce loyalty means he exists on a one-way street. It leaves no room for disagreement. Cross him, and you risk being cast out. Even though Steven Fletcher hardly gives the impression his Scotland exile is causing him any great ache, his absence is serving to help cripple Levein. Also proving damaging to the manager is his stubborn attachment to a playing system that is clearly not proving productive. This is borne out by results alone, although there is little encouragement to be taken from performances either. On no occasion, for example, have Scotland displayed the attacking zest conjured up by George Burley in his last competitive match as manager, against the Netherlands.
Incredible though it seems, Levein is now suffering from the kind of high disapproval-rating that saw Burley tipped from office. There is an element of bullying which is unedifying. Not even the most battle-hardened member of the Tartan Army could say, hand on heart and when removed from the anonymity provided by mass participation within a crowd, that they do not sympathise with the plight of a man who has become so pilloried. It is a world away from the warm greeting he received after his appointment at a relatively young age, and without much baggage.
At a charity evening early in his tenure at the Byre Theatre in St Andrews, Levein looked more than comfortable in the “An Audience with...” setting as he gave honest answers to the questions posed by Scotland fans. “Savour the welcome, it might not last,” joked the MC that night. These, though, were optimal conditions. Scotland had yet to play a match under him. Over two years later, it is a different story. If we accept that the object of the exercise is to gather points, then only on two occasions previously have Scotland made a worse start to a World Cup qualifying campaign. Levein argues that the situation is recoverable. He was doing that within minutes of Tuesday night’s game, as of course he must. We are asked to note Serbia’s 6-1 victory over Wales as being proof of their quality. But then we were also expected to view last month’s 3-1 victory over Australia as a rousing answer to the dismal loss in the United States. This is the same Australia defeated 2-1 by Jordan on Tuesday in a start to a qualifying campaign which, after three games and just two points, has managed to be even more abject than Scotland’s. There may be twists and turns to come.
However, most, including Levein, would accept that some remarkable results now have to be obtained in the eight remaining qualifiers, five of which are away from home. The manager will also know that even a defeat and a victory from two home games specially arranged to hand Scotland a strong start would have been better than a pair of deflating, uninspiring draws. Levein has emerged further bruised from the wreckage after restricting striker Jordan Rhodes to a total of only 36 minutes on the pitch.
There is precious little evidence to make anyone feel confident about gaining victory next month against a wounded Wales, who have done little to disprove Fifa’s judgment that they are the weakest side in the group. On the evidence of Scotland’s performance against Macedonia, the teams from pots four and five could easily have been switched around.
Can Scotland still qualify? We have a dream, as the old World Cup song goes. It has quickly become little more than that, sadly.