Sunday, November 20, 2011

Blogathon: Craig Levein

The back of this blogathon is broken now, right. Has to be? Surely tae goodness.

We're moving through the night with a run of guest debaters. So welcome, please, Ross McCafferty known to the Twitter world as @holyroodpatter

Given the somewhat combative nature of this very good cause, I thought that I would change the rules ever so slightly and disagree with a former post of Tom's (in the knowledge he is mandated to come back and disagree again!). This is the offending post. Firstly, Tom must be commended for keeping such a cool head on the day of our inevitable defeat. Given our tortuous propensity for glorious defeat, the match against Spain seemed destined to be something akin to the home match, with a late heartbreak. In Alicante, however, it was simply not to be. The almost breathtaking majesty of Spain was a small comfort, as was the confidence bordering on arrogance of Goodwillie as he coolly stroked home a goal that for our efforts we did deserve.

But this tournament was not lost in Alicante, it was lost in Lithuania, in Czech Republic, even more tellingly, at Hampden. Robbed we may have been by a heinous dive, but up until that point we were uninspiring, and it served to underline our over reliance on Kenny Miller, an incredible servant for the cause (and whose commitment deserves a place at a major finals) but who won't be along for ever. Craig Levein's catch all ancestral policy to internationalists may have yielded Craig Mackail Smith, but it is those whom he doesn't select that tells us the most about his ill fated reign. Ross McCormack must have done something wrong not to merit a place, given his goal scoring form. Stephen Fletcher seems the only person who could conceivably link well with Kenny Miller should we ever deign to play more than one person up front. I don't for a minute suggest that Fletcher is in the right. But a footballer throwing his toys out the pram? It's hardly a breaking news story, that Levein's toys shortly joined Fletcher on the floor shows the character of a man for whom cutting off his nose to spite his face is almost second nature. Had he been the bigger man, we would have the benefit of someone who shows he can score goals in poor teams. Couldn't Fletcher have been the bigger man, you ask? Of course he could, and he should have, but a millionaire premier league footballer showing humility would require a societal sea change that Craig Levein isn't going to instigate.

It is perhaps more a matter of timing that I advocate a departure of Craig. I don't doubt his passion, indeed he is somewhat grown into the role, going from a seeming half baked “well I might as well” to a genuine, if misguided believer that Scotland can beat anyone on their day. I went to our last major finals. It was an incredible experience. Call me arrogant, but I firmly believe that such events are always enhanced by the presence of Scotland fans. Loud we may be, but always well behaved, the right side of raucous and engage with all other fans around us. Partying with Moroccan and Brazilian fans in the shade of the Stade de la Beaujoire is a memory I cherish. And yet, it is edging frighteningly close to 20 years since our last major appearance. We need a one strike and you're out policy. In the nineties, mucking about with a formation and going down to an unedifying defeat against a declining Czech side would not have been a sacking offence. But in this century, we have paid the price for being over generous with our managers (whether that be letting them go without a fight, or not sacking them early enough). I want us to be in Brazil, and I don't think Craig Levein has the temperament to take us there. I can't even bring myself to type that we might not make France 2016, an expanded tournament that we must be part of. Returning to a country we last visited in a tournament shows just how long our decline has been. We cannot allow it to be terminal. We need a change. A foreign manager, perhaps? Should we break the bank for an established foreign name a la the FAI? Who knows, a Moyes, a Ferguson, a Coyle, is ludicrous wishful thinking, but we need something new. The time were we commend managers for blooding a few new players and making a decent fist of qualifying is over. We need a ruthless streak, on and off the pitch, and a new culture of death or glory might help us realise that it is success or nothing. Do or Die. Whatever cliché you prefer we need to start winning, and stop bottling the big occasions. Show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser, said Vince Lombardi, and while he has done some good, Levein remains, to all intents and purposes, a loser.

Bloody hell, we all find a role in life. Seems mine is choreographer of the Craig Levein cheerleaders troupe:

Dearie me.

Poor Craig Levein.

Bad enough that he doesn't have someone around to tell him to lose the beard.

He's also got to suffer the brickbats of a hurting Scottish nation.

Levein is a stubborn man, he's prickly in the face of criticism and he seems to have scant regard for the Scottish football media.

None of those things are necessarily bad things in a manager.

But they seem to exacerbate the impact of his mistakes.

The qualifying campaign he presided over was often uninspired.

The 4-6-0 was a move that always looked like being a disaster. Worse than that it gave the impression that he didn't trust his players.

You know why?

Because he didn't trust his players.

In the away game against Lithuania our hosts paid us the most unusual compliment of looking scared of us.

Did our brave boys push on from there, asset their dominance? No, they saw fear in the eyes of their opponents and they matched it with fear of their own. They retreated into their shells and the game could just about have been lost at the end.

We saw that again at Hampden more than once.

This Scotland team is scared of its own shadow.

The manager's fault? To an extent, yes. But he needs to build them up.

Could he widen his selection policy? I don't think it would make much difference. Levein and the SFA are searching all over the place for new talent.

So I'd say that Levein reckons the players people keep thrusting into his face aren't going to bring much to what he likes to call the "group."

The group. That's another thing. The players seem to enjoy the experience of international football under Levein. Yes, Fletcher remains an outcast but the manager has shown a willingness to build bridges with others who fell out with previous regimes.

What's so bad about a manager expecting a player whose behaviour threatened to destabilise the group apologising to him rather than the other way round?

But say we accept the idea that Levein is a numpty.

Who is the next manager we'll turn to? I can't see many Scots finding favour with a support that seems trapped in the mindset that we should be at major championships by default.

A big name? Who would take this job that could be said to have the stature of a big name?

It would be a brave SFA that repeated the foreigner experiment. Might be a brave foreigner who would take the job if they were to believe Bert Vogts' claim that a Scotland supporter spat on him.

So what do we have?

An inexperienced international manager with the loyalty of a developing group of players and the lessons of a disappointing qualifying campaign behind him.

We have an averagely talented group of players who seem to buy into Levein's methods but are too often hamstrung by their own timidity and fear.

The trick Levein needs to pull off is to convince them that they are good enough to compete, good enough to control games. Because we lack players playing at the very highest level too many of them find that unfamiliar in international matches.

Like the manager they need to learn.

I'm not convinced that either Fletcher or McCormack would be suited to the role that Miller plays. Mackail-Smith has shown he can do a passable imitation.

That's not snubbing, that's searching for a sensible continuity.

Here's what it boils down to. Our decline started long before Craig Levein took over. It started long before we stopped qualifying for tournaments - and that, essentially, is all we could do, we've never been a serious international team at these tournaments - and we've done hee-haw about it for too long.

If Levein, who is absolutely not leaving this job for the foreseeable incidentally, takes us to Rio, he'll be a hero.

If he doesn't he won't be the architect of our failure, he'll be another victim of the complacency and inaction of a nation that spent 24 years thinking all was well because they could spend a week or two at an international tournament and the come hame.

We should have sympathy for him. Because we're all victims of the same thing.

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