Hungary manager Georges Leekens is not among those who affect surprise upon hearing Scotland have not qualified for the finals of a major tournament for 20 years.
The 68-year-old can well believe how it is possible for the fortunes of a nation to dip. The team he is in charge of now have suffered even greater indignity. Hungary have not qualified for the World Cup since 1986 – 12 years before Scotland last appeared on that stage. They have qualified for a European Championship more recently – 2016’s tournament in France. But that was the first time in that particular tournament since 1972.
Although generations have now become used to under-achievement, Hungary’s drop in status was even harder to accept than Scotland’s has been. They were twice World Cup runners-up and lost just once between 1950 and 1956 – to Germany in the World Cup final of 1954. Now they have to endure defeat to Andorra, as happened in a World Cup qualifier last year.
Leekens can also see parallels between Scotland and Belgium, his homeland. While now enjoying a re-birth of fortunes they, too, suffered a fallow period. The Red Devils missed out on five successive major tournaments between Euro 2004 and Euro 2012.
“I can believe Scotland haven’t been to a major tournament for 20 years,” said Leekens. “It happens to lots of nations and you end up living in the past and every two years is a kick in the heart.
“But a fantastic generation will come along. It happened with Belgium and also Tunisia, another team I managed, who are now in the World Cup. I’m very proud as I put some foundations in place.
Leekens can advise McLeish on returning to manage a country for a second stint. He did so twice – with Belgium, his homeland, and Algeria. As with McLeish in the case of Scotland, 11 years separated Leekens’ stints at Belgium. He can also advise on recovering after losing your opening match.
“I know what it’s like to go back,” he said. “I would say it’s easier when you go back because you know how the federation works and it’s not new to you so you understand the basics. And of course, you change as a manager.
“It would be a miracle if everything went as you wanted it to go in your first game. That is why we need these games. I lost my first games in charge of Belgium on both occasions and Algeria but you just use them to learn.”
“The manager can’t change things in a few months. You need to be patient. That’s the only way to rebuild. I hope Alex McLeish will find young boys who are knocking on the door.”
That is what Leekens, who played three times for the Belgian national side during a career spent mostly with Club Brugge, found when he returned to Belgium for a second time in 2010.
“The first time I had a good, hard working team and a good spirit,” he said. “The second time I had a fantastic generation with Thibaut Courtois, Marouane Fellaini, Romelu Lukaku and so on but they were very young so it was a different challenge.
“We had a lot of good young players but they weren’t ready to produce results and we failed to qualify for Ukraine and Poland [in 2008] due to a lack of experience.
“But a lot of our players – like Kompany, De Bruyne, Lukaku, Fellaini, Vertonghen, Courtouis – moved abroad to play for big clubs and they brought the experience to the national team and they are qualifying again. It was a new era and we changed a lot in the set-up. I made the mistake of leaving for Club Brugge. I thought my work was done but it’s never finished and they went to the World Cup in Brazil.”