Comment: The men who chose Alex McLeish will be allowed to pick his replacement

The axe, when it fell, came just over three and a half weeks since the last game, several days after he attended both Scottish Cup semi-finals in what turns out was the role of notional Scotland manager and barely a couple of hours after Craig Levein told reporters it would be “a mistake” to dispense with Alex McLeish.

A pensive Alex McLeish during a 1-0 friendly win over Hungary in Budapest early in his second spell as Scotland boss. Picture: SNS.
A pensive Alex McLeish during a 1-0 friendly win over Hungary in Budapest early in his second spell as Scotland boss. Picture: SNS.

But really it was all over bar the unforgivable wait for a Scottish FA board meeting to take place as scheduled when the header from Bakityar Zainutdinov left Scott 
Bain rooted to the spot to put Kazakhastan 3-0 up against Scotland after 51 minutes of the opening Euro 2020 
qualifier. That was a month ago yesterday.

A president abdicated but McLeish hung on. A city was able to change its name in a matter of hours but it was beyond the SFA to make a decision before yesterday in order to avoid a situation where a good man has been left to dangle. Astana became Nur-Sultan during Scotland’s stay in Kazakhstan in honour of the outgoing Nursultan Nazarbayev, who surprisingly announced he was stepping down on the eve of the game. Whatever the city was now called, it was always going to represent McLeish’s Waterloo due to the abject nature of Scotland’s performance.

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Indeed, it is possible to track the beginning of the end for McLeish to the moment Scotland’s defence was split open by Islambek Kuat’s pass for Yan Vorogrovskiy’s strike to put Kazakhstan two up just 10 minutes into the campaign. After taking great pains to get the preparation right to the extent that Scotland travelled to central Asia five days in advance and stayed on British-time throughout, they started as though they’d turned up an hour before kick-off.

McLeish was always fighting for his future from that moment. He knew it, the reporters there knew it and so did the supporters who waved the players away in disgust when they attempted to show thanks to those who had travelled such a long way only to witness what is thought of as the country’s worst football defeat of all time.

McLeish was always going to be doing well to survive this, particularly when it was followed up by an underwhelming performance in San Marino – a nightmare fixture for McLeish since it was a no-win situation. Nothing was going to be enough against the world’s worst team – and making hard work of a 2-0 win fell some way below being considered acceptable.

Of course, he was an Allan McGregor wonder save from being removed from his post in November. A draw against Israel, which the Rangers’ keeper’s save prevented, would have seen Scotland finish second in their Nations League group. There would have been no security of a play-off place, the lifeboat that McLeish was clinging to and which afforded him the right to be allowed to start this year’s qualifying campaign in charge.

But the good vibes were already dissipating before Scotland had even boarded their luxury charter plane to Kazakhstan. McGregor, pictured, retired from international football days before McLeish announced his squad, news which became public shortly before the manager was due at Hampden to launch this new campaign.

The press conference was dominated by the subject but worse was brewing; Steven Fletcher scored for his club Sheffield Wednesday that very night but had asked not to be selected for Scotland in order to “manage” an injury. Ryan Fraser and Callum Paterson struck an arrangement to miss the first game in the double-header because of fears the artificial surface might aggravate existing problems. Matt Ritchie, Robert Snodgrass and Tom Cairney, meanwhile, seemed to have given up the ghost completely. Celtic’s Kieran Tierney sat out both games but returned for an Old Firm clash days later. The left back conundrum of who to play between him and Andy Robertson became a different question when both reported unfit ahead of the crucial first tie – Robertson was sidelined due to a mouth abscess.

The worst fears of those who felt the loss in Haifa in October was as revealing as a fortunate victory over the same side at Hampden, were fully realised in Kazakhstan. Scotland were quickly undone in a performance that was worse than the one in Israel, which itself had left McLeish backed up against a wall just months into his reign.

After an emotionally exhausting time on a warm night in Haifa his mistaken reference to trying to get substitute Scott McKenna on the pitch in the aftermath of John Souttar’s red card – the Aberdeen defender was already on – was understandable, but it was used as a stick to beat him. In fairness, McLeish did not seem quite as assured in front of the cameras as he had done previously but it’s a difficult task to always seem lucid following 90 minutes of see-sawing football. As often frazzled fans and reporters can attest, it’s tough watching Scotland.

The rumours of failing health dogged the manager, who turned 60 earlier this year. They were circulating even before his appointment. The SFA blithely persisted with a plan to install McLeish, who had been out of work for over a year beforehand and was generally felt to be moving down through the gears rather than up.

Of course, the normal drill would be for other heads to roll higher up the chain of command. But no, this is the SFA. Rod Petrie, credited with being one of McLeish’s most staunch allies when he was appointed, will ascend unopposed to the role of SFA president a day after Scotland have completed their next double-header assignment against Cyprus and Belgium in June after Alan McRae, another McLeish acolyte, steps down.

This is the way it is, the way it has been for too long. McLeish is the eternal warrior whose 77 caps and deeds in his first spell as national manager will sustain a reputation unnecessarily put at risk by SFA decision makers still likely to be involved in the process of naming his successor.