I realise this is maybe a bit of a downer with two even more vital than the time before qualifiers on the way, but having thought about this today, I felt the need to get this into blog form.
To my mind, there are a number of reasons why the Scotland national football team fails to do very much these days (including the sheer inability to qualify for a major international tournament). Some of these are inherent to Scotland and we can do nothing about them; some of these are so intrinsically stamped on the country’s footballing and national culture that they will take decades to shift; and some are points that the SFA, the SPL, the manager and the players could put in place without too much bother.
So here are what I think are the reasons. Let me know if you agree or disagree.
1. Scotland’s size
Now this, unless we try some mentalist colonisation in Central America again, is something that can’t really be helped. Scotland is a reasonable-sized country (the Highland area itself is bigger than Belgium). What it lacks is people. There are only 5 million of us – finding 11 top drawer footballers is easier for say, Brazil (190 million), Spain (47 million) or indeed our neighbours across the border, England (53 million). Where this argument perhaps falls down is that two of the last 16 World Cup semi-finalists (that’s Uruguay in 2010 and Croatia in 1998) have populations lower than that of Scotland. Therefore population is undoubtedly a factor, but it can’t be an excuse for failure.
2. Player choices
The path of the Scottish footballer in the modern era is a fairly well-trodden one. Start out at a provincial side (it seems to be either Hibernian or Aberdeen these days for the most talented ones), move to (pre-liquidation) Rangers or Celtic after being hyped to the heavens or move to an English club of some description, then stagnate. It has been a constant source of frustration for me that our players (and more likely, their agents) never seem to look beyond a trip to Glasgow or the lower reaches of the Premier League. Particularly when one looks to the two most recent Europe-class players in the Scotland side (John Collins, and to a lesser extent Paul Lambert), both used their time abroad to develop their game at a far greater rate than they would have here or in England. They then used those experiences to the benefit of club and country on their return to the UK.
And there is so much Europe out there. A Scottish footballer could learn and develop his craft in Portugal, or Belgium, or Greece, or Ukraine, never mind the bigger nations. Allan McGregor has at least taken an interesting step forward with his move to Besiktas (though one wonders if he will find the nightlife in Istanbul quite as rewarding as he did in Glasgow) – it would be fantastic if more of his international team-mates would follow suit.
This in part relates to my point ab0ve. When a Scottish footballer (and let’s take Kenny Miller as a case in point here) makes the big move to Rangers (until this year) or Celtic, in my view his fight and his willingness to consistently better himself disappears. Complacency sets in. To my mind there is no real challenge for a Scotland-level player in playing Caley Thistle, Hibs and Aberdeen week in, week out, winning 80% of the matches and strolling to a league title which in the grand scheme of things means very little. A mind that this is all pretty easy sets in, to the point where, when either club or country do have to travel to the big (or even mediocre) guns of Europe, invariably things go horribly wrong.
This may be less true now than it was 5 or 10 years ago with more of the Scotland squad now plying their trade in England. It may be, however, that that complacency now works the other way. It would seem that from our current manager’s perspective (see more below) that if a player finds himself in the squad (never mind playing regularly) of an English Premier League side, they appear to automatically qualify for the Scotland squad. Again, no incentive to approve, and no credible agent is likely to recommend a pay cut to move on unless it’s absolutely necessary.
Scotland, as we all know, has a more deep and meaningful relationship with alcohol than most countries. It is a rite (and indeed a right) of passage to start drinking around the 14/15/16 mark (perhaps even earlier) and thus get thoroughly trollied at least once a week through one’s teenage years and early 20s. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that this is something that never quite leaves our footballers.
There have been several reports in the last few years of Scottish footballers getting into fights in nightclubs when they should probably be tucked up in bed (Derek Riordan seems to be a particular exponent of this trend), and I myself have seen Caley Thistle and Ross County players living it up in Inverness on various nights out. There was also of course the wonderful “Boozegate” , in which the Scotland national side’s own players (the aforementioned Mr McGregor included) managed to live up to the stereotype. Arsene Wenger proved that cutting the relationship for English footballers between themselves and alcohol worked a treat; it’s about time all of Scotland’s footballers drifted into the late 1990s and learned the same.
5. Lack of infrastructure
France has Clairefontaine. England has the newly opened (and long overdue) St George’s Park, the Netherlands has the KNVB Academy. Scotland has… an occasional trip to Loch Lomond. Yes, Celtic and Rangers now have academies at Lennoxtown and Murray Park respectively, Hearts have Riccarton and the Highland Football Academy in dear old Dingwall provides decent facilities in the north. But what this country lacks, and will continue to lack with the current SFA management in place, is a national centre such as the one in France in particular.
Largs is, though may not continue to be, a centre of coaching excellence (Mourinho and Lippi, among others, have been through there) which must be used to its fullest. Build a St Andrew’s Park (as its name will inevitably be) in Falkirk or Stirling or somewhere else in the Central Belt and we might just be able to provide an environment for all young Scottish players to thrive in.
6. The current regime
I do feel the final piece of this puzzle is, unfortunately for him, the removal of Craig Levein from the Scotland job. He has managed competitive wins against 2 sides in his time in charge (Liechtenstein and Lithuania), and indeed is yet to win a competitive Scotland match by more than one goal. 4-6-0 against the Czech Republic was the start; refusing to acknowledge it was a terrible idea (and getting aggressive with the press when they said otherwise) made it all the worse.
Then there was and is the Steven Fletcher saga, where arguably the form striker in the Premier League is being kept out of the Scotland side largely, it would seem, due to Levein’s pride. There comes a time in everyone’s life that compromise and being “the better person” is the best way to reach a solution to a problem. Fletcher has himself recently declared (via Twitter) that he would come back into the side if asked; Levein said no.
The current campaign has also showed Levein for what he is (a dour man and a dour tactician) in several ways. Firstly, and this may seem a silly point, but those Reaction lenses are what he’ll be remembered for. Just as it was reasonable for Steve McClaren to grab an umbrella when it was arsing down at Wembley in 2007, so too is it reasonable for Levein to account for his imperfect vision in all light conditions. The media, one suspects, will not be quite so accommodating when his inevitable resignation comes.
Secondly, the negativity first seen in that 4-6-0 match continues unabated. Serbia were there for the taking in the first match – a side low on confidence with a number of teenagers in the side would have encouraged a normal manager to at least play 2 forwards at home. Not so Levein who, out of being thrawn more than anything, left the change until the last 5 minutes (as well as Jordan Rhodes). The game against Macedonia (which was worse than the 0-0 draw against Serbia in Scotland having to come from behind) was much the same – 1 up front and no attempt to actually win the game until the dying minutes. I would much prefer if Scotland played well in either game and got beat 3-2 than dirged their way to a draw – we at least had to try to win because 2 draws were useless in any event. Not so for Mr Levein, it would seem, who remains pointlessly optimistic.
So there are my thoughts. Would welcome some of the interweb’s too.