On Monday night Andy Murray achieved his maiden Grand Slam title as he won the US Open, finally breaking his duck and fulfilling the potential that had so often being questioned and threatened to hamper his progress as a player even further.
If Scotland manager Craig Levein was watching Muzza’s flushing meadow victory, he must hope to one day be able to emulate his fellow Scot in being able to turnaround and look at his critics with contempt, but he will have to qualify for a major international tournament first – no easy feat since it has been 14 years since the last time Scotland managed it.
Levein and his players were booed off the Hampden Park pitch following their 0-0 draw against Serbia on Saturday in their opening game of the World Cup 2014 qualifying campaign. Normally a draw against a team sitting five places ahead in the FIFA rankings would be considered a fair result, definitely not one to be greeted by jeers and boos. We all live for the moment, but after Wales took a 6-1 beating at the hands of Serbia, perspective is perhaps now regained…
In reality, that perspective won’t have lasted more than a second, as the Serbia result became a distant memory following the 1-1 home draw with the Balkan football power house Macedonia (who put in a plucky display against Croatia on Friday losing 1-0), which signalled the dooms day dread that Scotland’s World Cup qualification is over before it has even started. It was thanks to Kenny Miller that Scotland got anything out of last nights game, a player who went full circle from villain to hero in the space of a few days, but Levein won’t be that lucky.
Following his appointment in 2009, Levein hasn’t won many friends amongst the Tartan Army faithful, with his pragmatic approach deemed to be ultra-conservative and boring, whilst his team selections have also sparked controversy as the former Dundee United manager is accused by his detractors of refusing to blood young players into the team.
Levein has defended his choices by claiming that the media (and the pressure they contribute to generate) pile unnecessary pressure on his team’s shoulders and feed unrealistic expectations. But Levein remains defiant as he commented after the Macedonia game “Today was a little bit disappointing we did not pick up the (full) points. But I look at the situation in the table – three teams on four points and we are on two. We are one win away from going top of the group”.
Such pragmatism and long-term outlook has failed to warm up Scottish hearts as fans bemoaned Levein’s choice of leaving promising youngster Jordan Rhodes on the bench again, while relying to veteran Kenny Miller, who at least justified his, and his managers selection, with his goal. Miller has come in for a lot of stick, but in reality, he is the only proven goalscorer at international level Scotland have.
Miller now has 17 goals for Scotland and no one else even comes close. His direct rivals? Fellow forwards Jamie Mackie, Ross McCormack and Steven Naismith and…defenders Christophe Berra and Steven McManus all with two goals apiece – this team is hardly boasting firepower.
Of the seven midfielders selected by Levein for the games against Serbia and Macedonia, only James Morrison and Robert Snodgrass have scored for their country, a fact that highlights Scotland’s lack of choices in the engine room.
Calling for young players to be given an opportunity could be said to be as obvious as it is misguided, as it’s not just the age of the players to swing the fortunes of a team, but their overall quality. We could point out that there were hardly any players under 25 when Scotland qualified for both Euro’96 and France’98 (Scotland’s last major tournament) and Scotland relied heavily on old heads. What underpinned these ‘successes’ was the quality of players available, the fact of the matter is the current Scotland squad just isn’t very good.
The Scotland sides of Euro’96 and France’98 could boast quality, but more importantly players with experience and a winning mentality. Gary McAllister, Paul Lambert, Colin Hendry and John Collins were all winners with their club sides at one time or another, plus there were a host of Celtic and Rangers players who were already familiar with success in top-flight football.
In the current Scotland squad (with the exclusion of long-term absentee Darren Fletcher) only Gary Caldwell, Charlie Adam, Steven Naismith, Kenny Miller, Alan Hutton, Allan McGregor and young Jamie Forrest have won a league title during their career and none of them, with the exception of Forrest (and arguably Naismith), ply their trade for clubs who can poise a real challenge for trophies.
These factors make it impossible to ignore that Scotland’s decline at international level, following five consecutive appearances at the World Cup between 1974 and 1990, and two European Championship and a World Cup appearance between 1992 and 1998, has arrived together with the slow, yet undeniable, decline of Scottish football.
Scottish champions Celtic have only one player in the national squad, whilst there are only two other players in the 24 selected by Levein for the games against Serbia and Macedonia who play their football in the SPL. Rangers? Let’s not even go there.
There are some good players, but it doesn’t seem the current crop are quite good enough to achieve the heights that players such as McAllister, McCoist, Lambert, Hendry and John Collins did – more talent is needed.
The future is not all gloomy – the Scottish Government, together with the Scottish FA, has promised to invest up to £25m to deliver Scotland’s first multi-sports performance centre including a National Football Academy which should open its doors in 2016.
Scottish fans hope that, by then, they’ll be getting ready to travel to France for the European Championship, but for the next fews years at least they need to be realistic about their chances of success and a decision needs to be made whether to blood youngsters now for the long-term and sacrifice results, much like Wales, or use the older players at there disposal and see what happens. Either way results are not guaranteed and Scotland fans need to be prepared for the long haul.