Analysis: A sense of Alex McLeish playing out time eight months into job

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It has to be questioned what sort of concoctions the SFA marketing team were ingesting when they came up with the publicity poster for last night’s friendly. Now Let’s Show Portugal What We’re All About ran the tagline.

If read in the context of a desperate evening endured in Israel on Thursday night, it was possible to interpret it as effectively saying “we were honking against a pee-poor team, now let’s watch us get a cuffing from a good side”.

Steven Naismith, scorer of Scotland's consolation goal, evades Portugal's Ruben Dias. Picture: PA.

Steven Naismith, scorer of Scotland's consolation goal, evades Portugal's Ruben Dias. Picture: PA.

There were scores of the Tartan Army who had no interest in that expected outcome, and indeed increasingly appear to have little interest in turning up to Hampden for any games involving the national team...for all the dewy-eyed sentiment expressed when the future of the creaking stadium was under threat.

It is the creaking of the team that is proving an alarming turn-off for supporters. The SFA reported that between 21,000 and 23,000 tickets had been sold for last night’s game. As it turned out, those who actually attended numbered only 19,684.

Incredibly then, if there had been some sorcery available that would have allowed the SFA to bulldoze Hampden and replace it with a 23,000-capacity arena a year ago, this stadium wouldn’t have had to post the sell-out signs for any of the five internationals played on Scottish soil in this period.

An ailing Scotland side contesting in a friendly in a more than half-empty stadium always bring on an end-of-days feel. A sense of atrophy, of ennui, of apathy. The alternative of spending Sunday tea-time at home watching Countryfile appeared positively idyllic.

It is frightening just how profound that sense of playing out time is for McLeish. These are still nominally early days for him in his second spell as international manager. He has only been in the post eight months – though that is only two months short of how long he elected to stay first time around in 2007. Moreover, he has lost only one competitive game in that time – albeit with an absolutely atrocious display in Haifa – compared to three such defeats in his so fondly remembered initial 10-game spell in charge.

Now, it is being decreed that if he doesn’t win the two Nations League games in Albania and at home Israel next month to top Group C1 and provide the guarantee of at least a play-off berth for the Euro 2020, his position will become untenable.

However uninspiring was his appointment, there seems an unseemly haste to pull apart his stewardship of the Scotland team patently in transition.

Not that there was any merit in captain Andrew Robertson’s claim pre-match that “some people” – of the pundit variety, he clarified – “prefer when we do bad”.

Gruesome post-mortems and naysaying are not so much preferences in reporting Scotland as default positions after 20 years without a major appearance in finals.

That Portugal could knock-off a convincing-enough win over McLeish’s much-changed team from the Israeli ignominy without ever appearing to be putting their backs into their endeavours will ensure that McLeish will have a few more bruises to contend with.

Yet, as sticks to beat him with, his latest friendly loss in a list of five from six such encounters really ought to be more of the twig than branch variety. He gave his detractors what they wanted by switching from a three-at-the-back to a back four. Alright, so the paucity of defensive options practically forced that on him with John Souttar, Charlie Mulgrew and Kieran Tierney all dropping out. There was a certain irony then that the first two goals conceded on an evening when the inclusion of such as James Forrest and Stuart Armstrong – moves also called for – provided Scotland with a degree of vibrancy and fluency had much to do with failings from the full-backs.

Quite why Stephen O’Donnell elected to stand behind Jack Hendry as he closed down Bruma and pointed to the space down the right that proved precisely where the ball was played to Kevin Rodrigues to deliver the telling low cross only he can answer. And Robertson stamping the turf on failing to stop his man Helder Costa applying the finishing touch betrayed the Liverpool defender complicity in the opener.

The second goal in 74 minutes that was the product of a header from Eder was also in part down to O’Donnell losing the aerial challenge that allowed the Lokomotiv Moscow forward to power his effort high into the net.

Some preposterous myths have been posited to the effect that Scotland’s defensive shortcomings in Israel can be traced to three centre-backs, and left-backs Tierney and Robertson, and right-back O’Donnell for that matter, effectively playing out of position to serve a 3-5-2 configuration. Scotland’s problems are pretty much as they have been since McLeish was first in charge, despite the desire to heap all the fault on whoever happens to be in charge of the team. They do not have a solid core, or a defensive sturdiness from which they can build a platform to get by in tricky circumstances.

Gordon Strachan, putting on his most knotted brow, discovered that to his cost. McLeish, whatever his failings, is learning that all too painfully. It is pain that the Scotland support no longer have the stomach for.

That is one respect in which no blame can be apportioned. It feels that Scottish football in international terms – and in terms of its SFA leadership where president Alan McRae and vice-president Rod Petrie are hapless influences – is trapped in Dante’s inferno. A Divine Comedy that produces only a laughing stock.