While the 3-2 win over Israel was a welcomed result, the national team head coach should not be out of the woods just yet, as Craig Fowler writes
It seems every piece of significant Scottish football news is met with a hyperbolic frenzy as the consensus veers wildly between the extremes on the positive and negative ends of the spectrum. Or perhaps that’s just an observation symptomatic of spending too much time on Twitter.
On Monday and most of Tuesday, it was the crushing disappointment that Sky Sports had successfully negotiated a new exclusive TV deal for Ladbrokes Premiership coverage, cutting fan favourite BT Sport out of the picture following the 2020 season. It didn’t matter that, on a per game basis, this deal actually represents decent value for Scottish clubs in is a landscape that has already begun fluctuating and will continue to do so over the next few years. No, this was disgraceful decision and heads must roll immediately within Hampden’s walls.
We have since been treated to the other kind of overreaction following Scotland’s 3-2 victory over Israel. Admittedly, there is no superlative fit enough to describe James Forrest’s performance, and we’re all justifiably delighted to be just two games away from making it to an international tournament for the first time since B*Witched topped the charts. But what stood out was the rush to praise Alex McLeish for what is, apparently, a terrific achievement.
Let’s face facts, this was not a hard group to get out of. Albania are a shadow of the team that went to the Euros in 2016, while Israel rank 91st in the Fifa World Rankings. It should have been a procession. Instead, were it not for a reaction save from Allan McGregor at the end of last night’s game, Scotland would have failed to take full advantage of this ridiculously favourable hand they’d been dealt.
Even within the Israel match there were some major concerns. The visitors started the much brighter side, mainly by victimising Callum Paterson on every attack. The former Hearts her must surely have played his final game for Scotland in the right-back position and may have been hauled off if there were literally any right-backs in the squad. Thankfully the home side soon settled down and showed themselves to have the superior talent. Despite the numerous call-offs, it was still a team bursting with players from the top leagues in Scotland and England, with only Steven Fletcher and David Bates lower league talents, and even then the latter looks like he could well be a Bundesliga player next term. This supremacy showed as, from Beram Kayal’s opener to the deflected strike of Eran Zahavi 15 minutes from time, Scotland played some really nice stuff and found the back of the net on three occasions.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t as comfortable as it should have been. After withstanding an initial push from Israel immediately after the second goal, Scotland began to look as if they had everything in hand again, with Steven Fletcher superbly leading the line by himself. Then McLeish decided to withdraw the striker and put Forrest up front. The Celtic winger may have looked like a striker when he expertly struck past the away goalkeeper on three occasions, but leading the line by yourself is about so much more than putting the ball in the back of the net. Suddenly it was wave after wave of Israel attacks as the hosts could do nothing to make the ball stick in the opposing half and relieve the pressure on the defence. It was six agonising minutes and not the way the match should have ended.
A week ago it seemed that every fan and pundit was willing to personally drive McLeish to his next destination. While these last two victories were much needed, and there were positives to be taken from both, pressure should remain on the head coach. It’s a step in the right direction, but the management staff have only achieved what was expected of them coming into this Nations League campaign.
It’s imperative that we have the right man in charge for those play-off matches, which will take place after the qualifying groups for the European Championships. Whether that’s McLeish or someone else, we cannot know at present. But a short leash must be retained through the opening matches of the qualifiers. There have been positives but also quite a few negatives in this tenure so far, and there is still a lot of work to be done.