Interview: Craig Levein, Scotland manager, on why he is in it for the long haul

The Scotland manager outlines his vision for the team’s future to Andrew Smith and explains how he wants to foster a culture of success that will build real momentum

ARGUMENTS can be had about where Scotland find themselves. Their failed Euro 2012 qualifying campaign was in no substantive way more productive than their previous attempt to reach a major finals. Craig Levein accepts he will ultimately be judged on competitive results. Yet he can, and does, make a compelling case that the groundwork required to deliver sustained on-field success has now picked up real pace. Whatever might be said of his 20-month tenure, he could never be accused of lacking vision or purpose.

The Scotland manager is determined to meld those driving forces to overhaul perception, pinpointing of players and planning on the international stage. Each will feed into the others. And where Levein is indisputably in credit is in the matter of restoring a sense of importance and worth to representing this country. It is why, even if tangible progress of the sort he constantly talks up has yet to be evidenced, there is genuine promise that it could be achieved as we head into next year’s 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

To that end he will use all the available international fixture dates. Luxemborg and Cyprus are being mooted as possible hosts for a game on one of the, now free, Euro 2012 play-off dates in November. Meanwhile, he will go ahead with a training camp week in Austria next May ahead of contesting two more games, those arrangements having been pencilled in as final preparation.

“I think there has been a significant improvement in the morale of the squad and a big part of that is the players being with one another as often as possible,” Levein says. “I want to see if we can keep this momentum and togetherness as a group going. I really intend to make joining up with the squad a joyful experience and one that all the players look forward to. And we can look to reinforce the things that matter.”

It is because he understands the job better now, Levein says, that he can see the importance of the friendly matches of which he was wholly dismissive when taking charge. He has had major rethinks on this front and with his system, his regard for his personnel and his playing policy, as Scotland manager. Had he been rigid in his beliefs, however, he would have been accused of an inability to learn lessons. “At the start, I was too worried about upsetting managers because I’d just come from being a club manager. I didn’t know what we would need to put in place to be successful. I’m open to criticism; I should have done that quicker but it’s taken me time to get into a position where I believe things are getting better.”

In some areas, things need to get a whole lot better still. Levein derives encouragement from the fact that his group of core performers – Darren Fletcher, Charlie Adam, Steven Naismith, Scott Brown, Alan Hutton, Christophe Berra, Phil Bardsley, James Morrison, Craig Mackail-Smith – will be approaching, then in, their peak years across the next two qualifying campaigns. Gary Caldwell and Allan McGregor, at 29, and Kenny Miller, at 31, will still be in the right age bracket too. He can add players without taking any away. After the enthusiasm for the Scotland team exhibited by such finds as Bardsley and Mackail-Smith, “word is getting out” in England that career satisfaction and enhancement can be derived from hooking up with Levein’s squad. That process, he believes, needs replicated at younger age groups where he says there has been negligence. The loss of James McCarthy and even Aiden McGeady to the Republic of Ireland can be cited as two examples of the cost that can incur.

Levein is a top-to-bottom national manager of the sort Scotland probably have not had since Craig Brown. He can live with the periods of down-time in the job now because of his willingness to travel to all corners of these isles to “cast a bigger net to catch bigger fish”. “We have had great success so far with players with Scottish relatives,” he says. “There are others in the pipeline where we have had positive feedback but don’t want to say names because we don’t want to alert other managers to them. And we have not yet concentrated on doing that at a younger level.

“We need Scotland to be associated with success. How does that happen? By producing better players. It is the one and only way. What we are picking from isn’t good enough. We need to improve the number of players available at younger age groups by working harder, but also by talent ID. Our under-17s played yesterday and Mick [Oliver] and Ricky [Sbragia] found three or four new players in Scotland, not England, because our talent ID system has not been good enough. Whoever the manager is in six or eight years’ time, if our talent ID system goes from what it is now – virtually non-existent – to a huge coverage of Scotland and England, then, allied to what [SFA performance director] Mark [Wotte] is going to be doing with the performance structure, then the chances have to be better of us having a better team.

“It starts at a young age group. If the players are coming back from an international game with a positive experience then that brings something back to the club, brings confident players back to clubs. But if a player’s going away to the international team and it is a mess, results are poor and his confidence gets affected, then players are being sent back in a negative frame of mind. So right from under-13s, under-14s, under-15s, we have to have the clubs completely on-side with what’s happening: ‘You give us your players [and] we will absolutely guarantee you we will give them an experience that will enhance them.’ That goes all the way up. Craig Mackail-Smith scored against Liechtenstein and played really well against the best centre-backs in the world [in Spain]. Nobody is telling me he’s not gone back to Brighton in a better frame of mind. That’s the type of thing that makes clubs say it’s OK to send your players to international squads.

People will laugh, but Spain, 14, 15 years ago, were fed up with the way things were going. They weren’t reaching the positions that their population would dictate they should be reaching. So they have worked their backsides off. We’ve been negligent in this country. I don’t know if there was an arrogance here that players would just keep being produced no matter what but everyone has just shot by us.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The effect of this has been to make the Scotland manager’s job a one-campaign-take-the-blame post. “Appointing a manager and hoping everything falls into place isn’t a way that works. We need to strengthen underneath so the job becomes one people want to be associated with. All of a sudden you have candidates become top names because they think they have a chance of going to the World Cup and European Championships. To get to that point requires a helluva lot of hard work, year after year, and, even starting now, it is so far away we can’t see it.

“The person who takes Scotland to a finals will be the biggest hero ever but he’ll then disappear if he is left thinking ‘what’s coming through after that’? If he could say ‘wait a minute, five of those under-21s are top drawer’, you’ve created a position people want. I’m not kidding myself on, maybe Davie Moyes would have been offered the job if those were the circumstances. At the minute, though, he’s going to say he’d rather be at Everton. I see the Scotland job as a big step up from Dundee United and, having always been fiercely patriotic, I couldn’t turn it down. If I’d been manager of West Bromwich Albion and earning a fortune then I’d maybe have said, ‘hmm, Scotland job...?’ For me it was a perfect fit, but let’s not kid ourselves, when I took it on it was not in people’s top 20 jobs. The challenge is to get into a position where being manager of Scotland is associated with being a successful manager. We need to get into the cycle of producing better players, get the right values so that successive generations are trained the same way, think the same way and behave the same way.”

The one, inescapable, fly in the ointment for Levein is that, in his first tilt for a major finals, with cohesion and unity in his squad, results went exactly the same way as under George Burley, regarded to have engendered chaos and disloyalty. “If we’d had five or six games to prepare I believe it would have changed a lot of things,” says Levein. “But we didn’t, we had two games against the Czech Republic and Sweden, then into the qualifying campaign. I tend to look at it on a timeline. I look at it that results and performances have improved as time has gone on. The first time around in the qualifiers, I didn’t have a handle on the best team, the best players to play in that and, for any manager, if you don’t know your best team and best system then that’s a difficulty. Yes, you could argue that overall there has been the same competitive results. But if you compare results as a whole, there has been a massive difference.

“If a team is going to improve there has to be a timeline for improvement. Improvement means getting better as we go along. I believe we are, but time will tell. I don’t know how to get from point A to point B without going through a process. Until it happens, people are right to be sitting on the sidelines.”

Levein, meanwhile, can’t be accused of sitting on his hands and simply hoping for the best.