When it comes to supporting a national side, there are few groups of fans that can claim to be put under more duress than those who religiously follow Scotland. For over two decades now the Tartan Army have been treated to nothing but failure, the one tenuous thread of comfort that fans have desperately clung to, is that this failure has been occasionally glorious.
Last year’s conclusion to the World Cup qualification process was no different. Needing a win away to Slovenia in the final group stage game to guarantee a play-off place, Scotland made the ideal start; Leigh Griffiths coolly volleying home from an acute angle giving the Scots a valuable half-time lead. Despite being forty-five minutes away from achieving their goals, there wouldn’t have been a single Scotland fan in the world confident of progression. Their neuroses were realised in the seventy-second minute when Slovenia netted their second, easily-avoidable, goal. Both goals came from routine long-balls into the Scotland penalty area, causing a level of mayhem matched only were the ball to be replaced with a primed nuclear warhead. Though Scotland were able to level the game in the eighty-eighth minute through Robert Snodgrass, it wasn’t enough to secure the win the country so desperately desired.
After the game the nation was forced to ask itself an almost indecipherable question; should manager Gordon Strachan be applauded for changing his approach and salvaging what looked like a dismal campaign, or should he be lambasted for his archaic approach that forced him into such a drastic change of tact?
The majority of the nation fell into the latter category, including a number of high-ranking members of the Scottish Football Association (SFA). A decision made all the easier with Strachan’s frankly bizarre post-match comments, where he suggested that the faults of the National Team were down to genetic frailty. Without a hint of irony, he said, “Genetically we are behind.” And then, “Genetically we have to work at things, maybe we get big women and men together and see what we can do.”
Pass-marks for originality and creativity, a failure for reason and logic.
On the 12th of October Strachan finally left his post, a decision reached, in his own words, “by mutual consent”. That was over four months ago and, finally, after an exhaustive four-month recruitment process, the SFA, have selected their new gaffer. The road to reach this point has been long and thoroughly embarrassing, where the suits at the SFA changed their ideal candidate more often than they change their socks.
The clear favourite for much of the process was Northern Ireland’s manager Michael O’Neill. It is clear from the off why those at the SFA would cast an admiring glance over the Irish Sea. O’Neill’s work has been nothing short of incredible; overcoming a stuttering start to lead his nation to the European Championships in 2016 and to within one dodgy refereeing decision of this summer’s World Cup in Russia. His achievements are magnified when you consider the pool of talent available to him. Aside from Gareth McAuley, Steven Davis, Chris Brunt and Johnny Evans, the Norther Ireland squad is comprised of players plying their trade in the lower-reaches of English football, as well as in the Scottish Premiership.
His talent is perhaps best demonstrated with how he managed to coax brilliance from his talisman Kyle Lafferty, at a time when the rangy striker hardly featured in domestic football. Despite scoring just five domestic goals between 2014 and 2016, Lafferty managed to double that tally when playing in his nation’s green kit. Goals, such as his stylish double in the 2-0 away win against Greece, proved invaluable as Northern Ireland qualified for their first international tournament since 1986.
The marriage between O’Neill and Scotland looked ideal, especially when you consider the manager still lives in Edinburgh. Despite such a lengthy recruitment process, in which the Northern Irishman seemed to be the only candidate, the SFA were unable to put forward a convincing enough case as to why he should manage the country he has made his home.
O’Neill’s reasons for rejection were plain enough, saying, “The right thing for me to do was to stay with Northern Ireland.” He went on to say, “It’s very difficult to leave your own country to manage another country.”
Such myopic thinking meant that a blank sheet of paper titled “Plan B”, drifted aimlessly through Scottish football’s corridors of power. Subsequently, there was a rushed job to try and secure a new manager. An amateurish, disconcerting, public display that, allied with a failure to secure sponsorship for next season’s Scottish Cup, cost Stewart Regan, the now former Chief Executive of the SFA, his job.
Such a singular focus on O’Neill, fused with such a protracted recruitment process, negatively impacted the national team, in more ways than the beemer-inducing obvious. The unnecessary passing of time allowed a number of high-calibre, potential recruits to slip through their grasp and find themselves employment elsewhere. David Moyes would have made a highly competent, if uninspired coach, yet he is now at West Ham, showing signs of life in a career most thought had flatlined.
Paul Lambert is another who could have taken the reigns, yet he too resides in the Premier League, currently imbibing a fragile Stoke City side with a defensive steel that was all too absent during Mark Hughes’ tenure.
In the absence of obvious targets, some strange names were thrown into contention.
First up, there was the touted recall of Walter Smith, the gruff, elder statesman of Scottish football. At first glance it looks a sensible enough appointment. After learning his craft under such luminaries as Sir Alex Ferguson and Jim McLean, Smith enjoyed a storied managerial career of his own. One in which he won ten Scottish League titles, Five Scottish Cups and Six Scottish League Cups. Perhaps most impressively, he guided a delipidated, threadbare, workmanlike Rangers squad to the Uefa Cup final in 2008, eventually being out-gunned by an Andrey Arshavin-inspired Zenit St Petersburg
To further boost his CV, Smith can also boast to have been Scotland coach once before.
Overcoming a shaky start, Smith managed to raise Scotland’s FIFA rankings seventy places, claiming some momentous scalps along the way. Despite having a win ratio of just 47.75%, Smith was wildly popular, generating an aura of pride and belief that had been missing for a few years. All of this good work was cast aside when he abandoned the National Team, re-embracing his old flame Rangers when the Ibrox club came calling.
This, understandably, soured his memory for many Scotland fans. The other negative aspect to his potential rehiring, was the fact he hadn’t managed for over seven years. This length of time spent out of the game left many feeling as though he has become obsolete in the modern game, and while you can say that football is timeless, that lessons learned are universal, it is hard to shake the feeling that time has probably left Walter Smith behind. A legendary gaffer growing smaller in the rear-view mirror as the sport he adored races further and further away from him.
With the first two names on the search unresponsive, a menagerie of strange names were linked to the job. We had Malky Mackay, a manager who remains tarnished after his time at Cardiff City, where a stream of offensive texts were leaked to the press. In those he ticked the three big boxes, homophobia, racism and sexism. Thankfully, the SFA wish to keep him out of the spotlight and confine him as the head of ‘Project Brave’, the nation’s poorly titled quest to produce more young talent.
Next to be linked we had Alan Irvine, a manager who has never been able to raise himself above competent, Scot Gemmill, the current manager of the under 21’s, and someone who has never managed a senior game and Gary Caldwell whose best managerial achievement is guiding Wigan to promotion from League One. Worryingly, Caldwell is probably more famous for looking like Sid, the evil child living next door to Woody and Buzz in the Pixar classic Toy Story, than he is for any managerial prowess.
The one manager capable of generating a modicum of buzz is Kilmarnock’s current gaffer Steve Clarke. After his unfair dismissals at West Brom and Reading, Clarke is currently rebuilding his reputation in Ayrshire. In just a few short months he has transformed Killie from relegation candidates into one of the form sides in the division, one that is unbeaten in four games against the ‘Old Firm’.
Sadly, Clarke pre-empted an approach and ruled himself out of contention. It is a dismal state of affairs when a Scottish manager of a modest, provincial club deems the National Team job as a step-down.
With a paucity of obvious candidates and no one within the organisation willing to demonstrate the smallest degree of gumption needed to consider someone not indigenous to the British Isles, the SFA inexplicably chose Alec McLeish as the new Scotland coach.
McLeish, like Walter Smith before him, is someone who has already endured a spell as the Scotland boss, before jettisoning his post when a role in domestic football presented itself.
This, if possible, stung even more than Smith’s perceived betrayal. McLeish had buoyed the nation to a level of exuberance that hasn’t matched since. His win ratio, the highest for any full-time gaffer, sits at 70%.
North of the border, McLeish was an unmitigated hit, thriving at Motherwell, Hibernians and Rangers. Ibrox is where he forged his reputation winning a plethora of trophies and leading the club to an unprecedented last-sixteen Champions League place.
This image of success was not one he replicated after making the move to England. Of course, he guided his unfancied Birmingham side to a League Cup win over Arsenal, but this was followed almost immediately by relegation. To compound the fan’s woes, McLeish then decided to cross the Birmingham divide and take up the vacant managerial role at city rivals Aston Villa.
His time at Villa produced some of the most turgid, soulless, mind-numbing football the Premier League has ever witnessed. Narrowly avoiding relegation by two points was not enough to secure his job.
It could be argued that not even Peaky Blinders’ Thomas Shelby, and all of his murderous rampages, drug-infused infidelities and wanton disregard for those under his protection, has done more to sully the image of the City of Birmingham.
Brief spells in Belgium with Genk and at Egyptian heavyweights Zamalek have done little to improve his image.
It is hard to convey just how bad of an appointment this is. International football currently faces something of an existential crisis as more and more folk, particularly of younger generations, shun it in favour of its domestic variant. Scottish football suffers more than most after two decades of abject failure. At best McLeish’s unveiling was met with a collective shrug and at worst it has caused huge swathes to turn their back on the countries’ footballing endeavours. A final, carelessly dropped straw limply resting on the camel’s bloating corpse. Only tiny archipelagos of excitement can be spotted in the midst of a sea of ambivalence.
The reasons for McLeish being handed the reigns are clear – he was receptive and, much more importantly, his hiring did not require a fee.
McLeish’s defenders are quick to ask the question, “well who else actually wants the job?”. I am afraid that McLeish being the only man keen to be selected is simply not good enough. It is the SFA’s job to be proactive, to paint the job in a positive light, to sell themselves, to make managers feel as though something momentous could be achieved with them at the helm. All of this appears to be too complex a task for those leading the Scottish game.
The arrival of a new manager could have been the harbinger of a new dawn, instead we have McLeish and a fumbling attempt at to relive the glory days of the past, this time with a twist – his days weren’t that glorious to begin with.
Worryingly, ‘Big Eck’ seems to on the verge of replicating one of Strachan’s biggest errors. Strachan turned his fortunes around when he became less deferential to his Premier League players, and began to mould his starting team around those in form. McLeish demonstrated this by saying, “what I see in the young guys coming through is a lot of athleticism, a lot of speed, some dynamism and some guys playing in the Premier League and also what’s a really fantastic fillip is that the guys who are appearing in the Premier League now are really starting to excel.”
Four months after parting company with Gordon Strachan, many fans are left with the worrying feeling that, if anything, Scotland have regressed. Ex-Celtic attacker Kris Commons summed up the SFA best, saying, “it seems like there’s six people in a bar, all drunk, and they’re not sure which one’s going to get the next round in.”
The fumbling appointment of McLeish leaves you wondering if we should take Commons’ words literally. It certainly feels like a decision made after one pint too many.