As depressing as any of the myriad muck-ups exposed by the inevitable jettisoning of Alex McLeish this week was the universal shoulder-shrugging that accompanied the Scottish FA putting their latest manager out of his misery.
The football-supporting fraternity in this country are losing their passion for the national team. And that may be the greatest charge that can be laid at the door of the SFA suits. The cataclysmic 3-0 thumping in Kazakhstan last month may have made McLeish’s position untenable. But what, it seems pertinent to ask, could ever make the positions of the SFA president or his vice-president untenable? Infuriatingly, the answer is absolutely nothing, it would seem.
Alan McRae should have left the building after he toe-curlingly talked of bringing in a friend whose testimonial committee he had headed up three decades before when, as president, he went in front of the cameras as McLeish was introduced to the media 14 months ago. The honorary president of Cove Rangers and partner-in-crime and SFA vice-president Rod Petrie were told by everyone they wouldn’t listen to that it wasn’t right to turn to a man who had struggled in the dug-out for most of the preceding decade.
Yet, now that everyone they chose not to listen to has been shown to have been wise ahead of the event, neither man has even fronted up to offer any pleas in mitigation for their mess: a mess they caused while the SFA was without a chief executive after Stewart Regan was forced out for a failed, and ultimately haphazard, pursuit of Michael O’Neill. At least, though, O’Neill was a figure whose attractiveness for the post was beyond question.
McCrae will head off into the sunset in a couple of weeks at the end of a four-year tenure in which the Scottish national game has endure new lows.
That he will be replaced by Petrie feels like a sick joke. If the pair weren’t so utterly shameless – which makes for a lethal combination when wedded to their hopelessness – they would recognise that they should have stepped away the moment they pushed McLeish out of the door. It isn’t just in the cabinet of the UK government that any notion of collective responsibility appears to have completely fractured.
Petrie is a man who would take the charm out of any charm offensive. A shunner of public pronouncements whenever possible, as Hibernian chairman he presided over the club’s longest exile from the top flight in their history. Yet he never appeared to consider whether he ought to retain his position within the Easter Road hierarchy. An unctuous individual, the idea that he would have any input into choosing a successor to McLeish causes the heart to sink. McLeish was a symptom of the mismanagement of the national team, not the root cause of it.
It is understood that chief executive Ian Maxwell will take charge of the recruitment process. Does anyone really believe, though, that Petrie won’t be lurking somewhere in the background as a malevolent presence?
The bowling club mentality that pervades as a consequence of the SFA’s structures – which Regan, to his credit, set about modernising – appears a permanent impediment to real progress. It also, ultimately, drains the association of the funding necessary to facilitate real change. Any board member of the SFA might want to consider the turn-off the national team has become to the very people that they must attract to the game. A crowd of around only 15,000 is expected when Cyprus take to the Hampden turf for a Euro 2020 qualifier on 8 June. The figure appears set irrespective of who is in charge of the Scotland team. Nevertheless, the desperate talk is of some short-term fudge even Theresa May would blanche at, with performance director Malky Mackay and under-21 manager Scot Gemmill being appointed on an interim basis. That would practically have the turnstiles grinding to a halt.
Such an attendance would once have been an outlier at Scottish football’s home for a competitive fixture for the national side. Now, it is merely a norm, with McLeish’s four games in charge never seeing the arena even close to half full. Indeed, across the past three years, only three times have there been more than 22,000 for a Scotland game at the stadium. This apathy has taken such root that the 36,000 turn-out for the Euro 2016 qualifier against tiny Gibraltar feels as if it belongs to a different footballing lifetime.
Maxwell must seek to adress this drop-off by avoiding the temptation to be clever-clever and ponderous in signing up a replacement for McLeish. That means quietly, and quickly, making the necessary move to put Steve Clarke in charge. The Kilmarnock manager as good as said he would be interested on Friday. There is no reason to look beyond a man whose coaching calibre is beyond dispute, in part fashioned among the glitterati of Chelsea and Liverpool. The 55-year-old has made the Rugby Park side so much more than the sum of its parts with a remarkable revitalising of the club across the past year-and-a-half.
Scotland’s parts are burgeoning with the stratospheric gear-shifts that the careers of such as Andrew Robertson, Ryan Fraser, James Forrest, Callum McGregor, Kieran Tierney and Scott McKenna have enjoyed in the past couple of years.
This crop, and a clutch of others, offers the sort of raw materials that Clarke has proved he would be more than capable of moulding into a competitive, effective football team.
When he was placed in charge of Kilmarnock, then bottom of the Premiership, there was a dwindling interest in the club across the Ayrshire town – it was said this represented a permanent decline. He demonstrated that this wasn’t the case. As an audition for Scotland, it seems entirely apposite.