The churn and the shun are conspiring to leave Alex McLeish’s second spell in charge of Scotland looking fearfully ill-fated. The one step forward he took in guiding the country to Nations League success has given way to the sense he has slid back a whole 112 – the ranking of the Kazakhstan side that skewered his team on a night of unprecedented international infamy.
Yet it is difficult not to feel a degree of sympathy for the 60-year-old. He has cast his net wider than an industrial trawler in giving out 46 new caps. All because it has felt as if there are forever 46 more established internationals who have their hair to wash on the nights Scotland are playing.
McLeish doesn’t seek sympathy. He does, though, seek a degree of understanding over an aspect of the job he hadn’t quite legislated for. Which, though, in no way excuses away the bland display in the 2-0 win over San Marino the other night, never mind the unspeakably awful one that brought a 3-0 slaying in the Astana Arena. The defeat in Kazakhstan is a game it is difficult to see him living down, with the stain on the Scottish football psyche not one that will be easily washed away.
He said: “We accept that, we accept everyone just expected us to turn up and win, there’s no doubt about it and we were steamrollered after 12 minutes with goals we look at and think: ‘How the hell did that happen?’ I saw the goals at the time, we did our assessments overnight, and we have to defend better than we did.
“I never ever thought [the job] was going to be a stroll in the park, I never thought going to Kazakhstan would be a stroll in the park if I’m honest with you, especially as they have a new coach who has come in and changed their system. I know Russia then beat them soundly but I think they would have watched our video.
“I probably didn’t expect we would have so many call-offs over the last year. That’s been hard for us and we’ve had to take some punches on the chin – in South America for example, a lot of people thought we would be battered but it actually ended up a good trip as we got to see a lot of the new young players coming up such as John McGinn. Scott McTominay came on in San Marino and looked the part, and John Fleck was unlucky not to come on because we were swithering about him.”
McGinn was first capped under Gordon Strachan three years ago. This sometimes loose grasp of detail can do McLeish no favours. Credit, though, to the Tartan Army. The other night they proved sufficiently nuanced in their vituperations about the national side to recognise that it is Scottish football’s answer to Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson’s The Dangerous Brothers, president Alan McRae and his vice Rod Petrie, who should carry the can if there is a loss of confidence in McLeish. They appointed him after he had been out of work for 13 months.
His part in the current calamities extends merely to accepting the job and being a thoroughly good sort as he does his best in it. And, after the events of the last week, he is hurting in it as much as any member of the Tartan Army.
“Listen, we all feel it. We feel it,” he said. “We are desperate for Scotland to qualify for a major tournament. Everybody is really up for it and we know that. We are trying to do everything we can to help the players’ progress.”
If doubts eat away about how successful McLeish will be in delivering that progress, in part it comes from the fact he doesn’t always seem to help himself. He made six changes between Kazakhstan and San Marino, and across his 13-month tenure has fielded no fewer than nine strikers.
In terms of the former, he elected to leave James Forrest out of the starting line-up for San Marino, despite the Celtic winger having been the man who saved his skin with a double and hat-trick in the November Nations League wins that, then, seemed to transform his tenure.
McLeish lamented that he could not get close to picking the same side that won 4-0 in Albania and then 3-2 at home to Israel. Nothing was stopping him from retaining Forrest, who he left out at the start of the Nations League campaign.
In terms of the latter, Forrest has delivered some important performances and goals for Celtic as a central striker, yet McLeish doesn’t seem to have considered he might be an option as he has been forced to scrabble around, frankly, in the absence of Leigh Griffiths, Steven Naismith and Steven Fletcher. The Scotland manager may think outside of the squad, but not always outside of the box, it would appear.
Ahead of Kazakhstan, there seemed no question he deserved to be given the whole of the Euro 2020 Group I campaign before, if required, having the opportunity to take Scotland through to a first major finals in 22 years via a Nations League play-off route his endeavours earned.
The waters have been muddied by the alarming manner in which Scotland were submerged in Kazakhstan, though. A home defeat by Cyprus in the June double-header – that will conclude with an impossible assignment in Belgium – and time, and all else, will be firmly against him. For now, though, he believes it should be on his side.
“I’m just going to get my head down now for the games coming up in June and start getting out on the road again, watching players and seeing if we can unearth someone else who can be a fitting addition to the squad, someone who could blow us away,” he said. “I know the football world is fickle in this modern age but I would like to cement myself in there [the Scotland job] and try to take it forward.”
The next two games could determine his likelihood of doing that. So, heaven help us, here we go again. Another Scotland manager leading a hand-to-mouth existence as the team picks up only scraps.