Leave the maps and dossiers to MI5

Just as I like it when a novel includes a map, I’m always cheered by the sight of one in a manager’s office. The classic office photo is of the boss at his desk, Brylcreemed and pretending to be speaking on the Bakelite, while the wall behind him displays the great continent of Europe, a signifier of the club’s ambitions.

The most Brylcreemed manager that I can remember was St Johnstone’s Willie Ormond. Did he have a map? After his Euro exploits as a player with Hibs, he must have done. And I can just about see him on the phone almost exactly 40 years ago – the inaugural season for the UEFA Cup featuring, of all clubs, the Saints of Henry Hall, John Connolly and Benny Rooney – and the tournament’s beaks are getting an earful over a plan for Scotland’s third-best team to compete as “Perth St Johnstone” for the benefit of opponents too stupid to locate them. (These opponents, by the way, would include SV Hamburg, Uwe Seeler and all – dumped out in the first round after one of the all-time great nights under the lights at the old Muirton Park).

Last season I interviewed Alex McLeish after Birmingham City’s Carling Cup triumph and he had a map. Between the eras of wee Willie and Big Eck, the world has shrunk dramatically, and McLeish is probably more of a man of the world than Ormond was. Nevertheless, there was a map – an indication of his Scottishness, perhaps. Yes, this land has produced famous explorers and adventurers but it’s still small and so won’t take its place in the world for granted. Maybe there was a map in the manager’s office at Pittodrie when Alex Ferguson, with McLeish’s assistance, was plotting Aberdeen’s course though Tirana, Poznan, Munich, Genk and, gloriously, Gothenburg. Yes, you can imagine that.

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But after this Thursday, what use will we have for maps? Hearts are gone after the worst defeat in their Euro history. Rangers’ bums, if not quite oot the windae, are perched precariously – Celtic’s too. 2011-12 could well go down in infamy: our briefest flirtation with the Euro competitions, ever. All out a week before August’s done.

The X Factor began last night with its usual parade of freaks and the completely deluded, so there’s every chance that some of the worst singers around will still be in contention for their prize after our last remaining Europa League wannabes have been booted. Hearts’ only hope is that they get to stay for everyone’s amusement but that seems unlikely.

Bad for the co-efficient, that’s what they always say at dire times like these, but I have other concerns. If we forget how to qualify for Europe proper – and this is the problem now, with these early-early rounds seeming to be specifically designed to trip up Scottish entrants – then a whole culture could disappear.

If we’re going to be out first round in Lithuania we won’t be bothering with inflatables. The beach-ball industry – denied its traditional May rush for end-of-season gloating – might collapse. Europe-themed songs could be lost, including the taunt about being “home before the postcards”. And I would expect my four-year-old son, if he grows up to be even remotely curious about Scottish football, to challenge me thus: “Dad, when in history exactly were we in a position to sneer at Barcelona and Real Madrid with: ‘They may make a gallant bid’?”

Language may die, too. If we stop being meaningful contenders we’ll have no real need for “dossiers” containing info on how the continental opposition might be beaten and top spy author Len Deighton can have the word back. The term “wily fox” is used to describe a foreign manager of a certain vintage but it’s kind of redundant if we can’t put up a fight. And, for the same reason, no more will we need to be told about the “crack Italians” and the “crack Hungarians”. Coming up against our teams, they’ll all be cracks.

Once great, the Magyars’ influence on the game is now non-existent. The decline in their football started earlier and has bitten deeper but, if our clubs don’t want to go the way of Ferencvaros and Ujpest Dozsa, shorn of all relevance and most of their romance, Thursday would be a good place to start.

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