Too much too soon for Lennon and McCoist as Old Firm pay high price for inexperience

SUMMER is still here - officially at least - yet already an autumnal gloom has settled over Scottish football. The continent’s biggest teams have yet to begin their European campaigns, but this country’s finest have ended theirs, all with several days of August remaining.

Even if Celtic are subsequently reinstated in the Europa League because of Sion’s player-registration policy, the fact will remain: on Thursday night they, Rangers and Hearts all lost their ties in Europe’s second-tier competition. Indeed, it was not even the competition proper, but the play-off round: the one before the group stages. Dundee United did not even get that far, having been knocked out in the previous round.

So that’s it then, is it? No glamour ties at Ibrox or Parkhead, Tynecastle or Tannadice, to look forward to. Just dreary domestic fare from now until this time next year.

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Not quite. There is still one chance to salvage something from the wreckage. Still one man who can lift our spirits and persuade us that there is hope for the national game.

The chance comes next Saturday at Hampden. The man is Craig Levein.

Scotland take on the Czech Republic a week today knowing that victory would represent a massive step towards qualification for next year’s European Championships. If they do get the three points - and the recent 2-1 win over Denmark was a significant boost to their hopes of doing so - they will have confounded those who have claimed hyperbolically over the last couple of days that our game is dead and buried.

Calm and generally understated in public, Levein lacks the ebullient optimism with which Ally MacLeod once captivated the nation. But he is also immune to the flights of fancy to which his predecessor proved prone, and is painstakingly creating a team in his own image: one that is hardworking and undemonstrative, but increasingly confident of its own abilities.

Still, while a win over the Czechs would be a shot in the arm (at least provided it is followed up by another three points against Lithuania three days later), it would not be a panacea for the problems which have become so evident this month. Those problems will take years, not weeks, to rectify.

Paulo Sergio, whose Hearts team produced the one bright spot of Thursday night with their goalless draw at Spurs, showed his lack of familiarity with the Scottish game when he insisted it was not in crisis - but one aspect of his analysis was nonetheless a telling one.

Maribor are not a better squad than Rangers, the Hearts manager said. Sion do not have more talent at their disposal than Celtic.

That being so, what can we conclude from the fact that those two clubs got the better of the Old Firm? Simple: Rangers and Celtic are underperforming, and failing to provide the kind of leadership in the Scottish game which has traditionally been theirs.

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And if a talented squad loses out over three hours of football to one of more modest abilities, then where does the buck stop? With the coach, of course.

There are general problems afflicting Scottish football, such as the disparity in TV revenue which was analysed in these pages last Saturday. Beyond them, however, there are specific difficulties which have to be laid at the doors of Neil Lennon and Ally McCoist.

Both were venerated as players by their clubs’ supporters, and Lennon, albeit in part for non-footballing reasons, still enjoys the overwhelming backing of the Celtic fans. As managers, however, the two have a significant question mark over them.

At Rangers, McCoist is still struggling to find his feet since succeeding Walter Smith in the summer. The vultures were circling only two games into the new boss’s reign - the draw with Hearts and the defeat by Malmo - and although subsequent domestic results have eased the pressure, the impression remains that McCoist has yet to master his new role.

His squad is so far significantly less than the sum of its parts - always a sure sign that the coach is not performing at maximum efficiency. Something similar could be said of Lennon. Indeed, the Celtic manager has had more time in his role than McCoist, and had his shortcomings exposed domestically last season, so in his case there is more evidence for the prosecution.

Even allowing for all the off-field distractions last season, the fact remains that Celtic should have been strong enough to win the league race against a Rangers squad which was down to the bare bones at times. Their failure to do so has to be ascribed primarily to the manager.

Unable to get on top of the domestic challenge, Lennon has looked out of his depth in Europe much of the time. Inexperience has played a part, for McCoist as well, but both men have also shown a lack of mental fortitude compared to forerunners of the recent past such as Smith and Martin O’Neill.

In that respect, we might be inclined to claim that what we are witnessing is not a Scottish football crisis but an Old Firm crisis. But like it or not, the reality is that the fortunes of the two Glasgow clubs have an effect on the rest of our clubs akin to that of the United States on economy on ours. When they sneeze, the rest of us catch a cold.