Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Craig Levein: Here To Stay

That was that then.

A blessing, perhaps, that our agony wasn't prolonged. As Spain attempted to pass Scotland to death in Alicante, Czech Republic had already gone ahead in Lithuania.

When David Silva scored Spain's opener inside six minutes the game was up.

Not the agony of past failures when Scotland have teased us into believing before tripping over their own inadequacies at the final hurdle.

Our Euro 2012 hopes suffered a slow puncture and deflated over the course of the campaign.

Immediately, predictably, there were calls for the end of the Levein era. There have been similar calls since about the tenth minute of our opening draw in Lithuania.

The grass is always greener. Even if you don't have any idea who'd be prepared to mow the lawn for you.

The prosecution claims a damning charge sheet. It includes the lack of ambition so fully realised in inglorious technicolor during the horrors of the 4-6-0 formation in Prague and compounded by the stubborn refusal to shift from his 4-1-4-1 formation.

And where were our knights in shining armour in Spain? When he turned to his bench did Levein not regret the absence of Steven Fletcher, Ross McCormack and Garry O'Connor? For a variety of reasons they weren't there - although their international credentials as game changers against the world's best remain unproven.

Hindsight shows that our opening 0-0 draw in Lithuania set the tone for Scotland's failure. We had the best of that game and couldn't capitalise.

Does the blame for that lie with Levein? Or did he see a team uncomfortable in itself, struggling for confidence? If it's the latter then his ultra-conservatism away to the Czechs - as misguided as it was - is easier to understand.

Liechtenstein at Hampden was an agonising embarrassment. But one we survived.

Against Spain at Hampden Scotland came back from 2-0 to draw level. And they did that using Levein's favoured formation. There was the proof that it can offer an attacking threat. We should have seen more of that against Lithuania and, crucially, against the Czechs at home.

Was that the manager's fault? Or was it - as it seemed to this observer at the time - players still not entirely confident disappearing into their collective shell when the chance was there to seize the game?

Your answers will depend on your view of Levein. There are plenty who will continue to be vociferous in their dislike of him.

And if he's guilty of a defensiveness on the pitch he's equally guilty of a prickly defensiveness off it.

The beard, that cap in the dugout in Liechtenstein, even the extra padding around the midriff, seem to be the physical manifestation of the barrier he has raised to guard against malign influences.

It can come across as an unfortunate mix of the dull and the chippy. But we can't kid ourselves that there are not members of the fourth estate who would glory in his demise. They tend to provide fewer answers than they do brickbats.

And the public image is at odds with the loyalty he seems to have inspired in most of the players at his disposal.

This is all probably a verbose waste of time. Levein is going nowhere. He's expressed a desire to stay on and he won't be sacked.

One of the positives of his tenure has been the shifting of attitudes at the SFA. George Peat is gone and little lamented. Levein has been building relationships with chief executive Stewart Regan and new performance director Mark Wotte.

That triumvirate is likely to place a premium on stability. Starting over with a new national coach won't appeal to the SFA. You can like that or you can lump it.

I'm teetering towards liking it.

This has been a strange campaign, made all the uglier by poor performances and mistakes from the manager.

But it's not been without moments of optimism. Scotland remain limited. They will appear limited for a long time. There's been both a lack of stability and lack of a strategy at the SFA. Spain's mesmerising superiority last night is just one result of negligence on the part of the guardian's of our game.

It will take time to put that right and Levein, if he really has learned from this campaign, can play his part.

The idea that he is scared of his own shadow is not borne out by a willingness to introduce new players.

Craig Mackail-Smith, Phil Bardsley and Barry Bannan from last night's starting XI have arrived. Charlie Adam has been reintroduced, David Goodwillie displayed a precocious confidence in scoring Scotland's penalty against Spain. There are others and there will be more.

That's a more ambitious selection policy than many of his predecessors have attempted and Levein seems to have pulled it off while keeping - largely - the morale and interest of the players intact. It's also given him good reason to claim this as a campaign spent in transition.

The team will continue to evolve but he seems now to have created his own nucleus. I suspect Steven Fletcher will soon return, others will take the step up and more still will fall by the wayside.

The majesty of Spain aside this was a poor group. That makes our failure to reach the play-offs - in itself no guarantee of progression - more galling.

It hasn't killed us though. And, with some green shoots appearing, it could yet have made us - and our manager - stronger.

The pain, of course, comes from the confirmation that another major championship will carry on without Scotland.

I was 18 when we opened the 1998 World Cup. That was the sixth time in my lifetime that Scotland had appeared at a majors final.

Those appearances brought their own excitement and their own exquisite agonies.

Too many people have yet to properly experience what that feels like. If this latest exit didn't carry the same trauma as others, the longing and wistful thoughts of what might have been will return next summer.

If nothing else Craig Levein knows exactly what we want from his next qualifying campaign.

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