27 March ~ Anyone who endured the excruciating horror show that was Scotland’s performance against Liechtenstein six months ago should be viewing today's match against Brazil with deep trepidation. Yet recent matches have caused a rising level of quiet confidence to the extent the SFA actually agreed to a match against the South Americans. How much of Scotland’s improvement over the intervening period, firstly with an inspiring performance against Spain and then two 3-0 victories against the Faroe Islands and Northern Ireland, is down to manager Craig Levein rather than the seemingly sudden appearance of a group of international-class players is a moot point.

It is fair to say that Levein’s cautious nature has caused him to make a fair few mistakes in his first year as an international manager, most famously in the 4-6-0 formation against a Czech Republic team who had just lost 1-0 at home to Lithuania. Against Liechtenstein, he picked the international experience of three Middlesbrough players over Charlie Adam, James Morrison, Christophe Berra and Graham Dorrans. In fact Adam, who has been available all season, has only played 45 minutes of the European Championship qualifiers as Levein felt he hadn’t hit his stride early season.

His wish to depend on experience has stretched to the recall of players discarded during the Craig Burley era – David Weir and Lee McCulloch, whose international retirement was not mourned by many. The argument for picking Weir is that there are no alternatives, but his lack of pace determines the shape of the rest of the team detrimentally. Meanwhile Berra, in his second season in the Premier League regularly playing against world-class strikers, is restricted to friendlies or last-minute appearances. While he hasn’t exactly set the heather on fire in a blue shirt, neither has he been able to gain the experience to develop at this level.

However Levein is developing a "club" atmosphere, with a group of players who genuinely want to turn out for a friendly in Aberdeen against the Faroes in November, something which wasn’t always the case; witness the drop in the number of call-offs before games. He has also been lucky enough to benefit from the sharp improvement in the quality of the players he can select. Alongside the mercurial rise of Adam, Stephen Naismith has finally overcome injury to justify the hype surrounding him as a teenager and Phil Bardsley has suddenly realised he is Scottish. These are all international class players, while Barry Bannan, Danny Wilson and Robert Snodgrass soon could be.

If Stephen Fletcher’s name could be added to that list the potential would be greater, however the Wolves striker has retired from international football – a grand gesture from someone who can’t hold down a first-team place for a relegation-threatened club. Fletcher's frustration at not being picked caused him to speak out about the 4-6-0 formation. Levein dropped him over this while at the same time courting players such as Barry Ferguson who had no intention of playing for Scotland again. Fletcher claims Levein hadn't spoken to him in months when perhaps a paternal hand on the shoulder would have encouraged him to stay in the squad.

While it is far too early to jump to any conclusions about Levein’s reign, with 15 Scots playing in the English Premier League, there is a fear that his conservatism might limit the potential of Scotland’s best group of players for a couple of decades. Gordon Cairns

Comments (7)
Comment by martinjferguson 2011-03-28 14:26:41

Levein has an extraordinarily difficult task in terms of meeting the fans' expectations. Scotland simply doesn't have a big enough population - or enough full-time teams - to provide it with the quantity of quality players needed to mount a successful qualifying campaign. Gone are the days when the Tartan Army can consider non-qualification to be a failure. Finishing second in the group stages should be deemed a success.
Scotland's population has decreased annually for the last few years, providing the nation with long-term socio-economic challenges that directly impact the game's ability to engage with youngsters and cultivate talent.
Aside from a new multi-purpose complex built in the shadows of Hampden Park a few years ago, investment in football facilities has been limited when compared to other European countries.
Scotland's national game is also hampered by its fragmented administrative structure. While the SFA and SPL - separate organisations - posture at the top level, there are a myriad of amateur and youth leagues (and the Scottish Junior Football Association) working on their own at the grassroots. There is almost no cohesion. This makes obtaining investment, spending money and sharing revenues extremely difficult. If Scottish football were looked at as a business, it would be considered disfunctional, clunky and embarrassingly inefficient.
I'd be interested to hear people's ideas on how the game in Scotland could be improved, both in the offices and on the pitches.

Comment by Dalef65 2011-03-28 17:55:46

It would also be legitimate to ask whether Craig Levein is actually up to the job.

As far as I can see,the only time he stepped outside of the narrow SPL comfort zone(at Leicester),he failed miserably...
Does he have the required credentials and/or experience to be a National team Manager,or is he just a Soldier from the Ranks who has been over promoted....??

Comment by ChrisBud 2011-03-28 20:22:08

"Scotland simply doesn't have a big enough population - or enough full-time teams - to provide it with the quantity of quality players needed to mount a successful qualifying campaign."

Really? Slovenia? Slovakia? Uruguay? Honduras? etc etc. That is simply not a valid excuse anymore. If anything, the size of the country is arguably less of an issue in the modern athletic game than it was in the past, as teams of fit, well organised and disciplined can hope to compete with the so-called stars. If we had a team full of 11 Jim Baxters nowadays, we wouldn't be doing any better than we are.

Comment by martinjferguson 2011-03-28 21:56:56

@ChrisBud - I see where you're coming from. And I think your point has a certain amount of validity. I had, in fact, considered that other nations of a similar size to Scotland have recently qualified for World Cups (the point is probably less relevant in terms of the EC, though arguably there are less places to play for, too). Perhaps, I should have explained my argument more concisely and in greater depth. Scotland's small population is not the only reason it does not qualify for international competitions. But I believe it is a significant enough factor to merit mention. It is our small and diminishing population, in addition to a lack of investment (public and private) and endemic social problems that together stifle development and make qualification for WCs or ECs no longer a foregone conclusion. A Tartan Army foot soldier could have reasonably expected the team to qualify for tournaments in the 60s, 70s, 80s and even the 90s, such was the calibre of our players and the under-development of other nations. You cite Slovenia, Slovakia, Uruguay and Honduras as examples. Do you think their supporters expect them to qualify for every tournament? Do they qualify for every tournament? No. But they are all doing a lot right. Honduras have qualified twice in its history (1982 and 2010), Slovakia once (2010 & is looking strong in the 2012 qualifying group), Slovenia has also done well in the last decade. Uruguay, or course, is another matter, given they've a rich and successful history in the WC. One must remember that in most of the leagues in those countries, there does not exist the absurd saturation of foreign players, rendering it more difficult for natives to obtain regular first-team football at the highest level available. This problem was particularly acute for Scotland in the post-Craig Brown era, when Sky started to throw its money around and suddenly teams like Motherwell had eight foreigners in their starting line up. Thankfully that tide has turned. Pay-TV's disinterest in the Scottish game has meant there is now less money available to buy foreigners (or any players) and as such the emphasis is returning to home-grown talent. And you're right, 11 Jim Baxters wouldn't cut the mustard nowadays. And if it were only a question of population, China, India and the US would qualify for every tournament. However, volume still counts for something. Scotland's small and falling population is unquestionably a mitigating factor in its recent and continuing failure to prevail in qualifying campaigns.

Comment by ChrisBud 2011-03-29 16:46:52

As I understand it, the Scottish population has risen every year between 2002 and 2009. I haven't seen any more recent figures. While this is due in part to immigration, we are now starting to see the odd young player in the Scottish youth set-ups with for example Pakistani or Somalian roots, so this can only benefit us in the long run.

Investment and social problems I will give you, although I am pretty sure the other smaller countries who are managing to qualify for tournaments have just as many problems as what is a pretty prosperous small country.

I think much of the problem really lies with the coaching system in Scotland, not to mention the absurdly antiquated governing bodies and the committees of blazers. There is money there, almost certainly more money than most small countries, but it is not used at all well.

Players are not educated from an early age the way they are in many other countries. Witness the Scotland U21 team at Glasgow Airport before flying out to Belgium this week filling up on muffins from Starbucks. Witness players like Scott Brown reaching the level he has without a single shred of tactical awareness or discipline - where could he have gone if he had been brought up in a decent coaching environment?

Comment by martinjferguson 2011-03-29 18:06:30

@ChrisBud - to be honest I think you're bang on about the population. Having just done a little research, the population hasn't fallen since the early naughties. I was getting confused with recent reports about the number of graduates leaving Scotland in search of work. I've nothing really to add at this point because I think we are in agreement with regards to your last two paragraphs.

Comment by Bill Bones 2011-03-30 11:23:48

"and suddenly teams like Motherwell had eight foreigners in their starting line up. Thankfully that tide has turned. Pay-TV's disinterest in the Scottish game has meant there is now less money available to buy foreigners (or any players) and as such the emphasis is returning to home-grown talent."

This is a common misconception I'm afraid. The last game I attended was Motherwell's feeble away defeat to Kilmarnock earlier this month. Now both sides have a reasonable reputation for giving youngsters a shot. Now,of the 25 players who featured in teh match 18 were non-Scots. Only 5 of the players who featured could be described as young, home grown talent-Bryson,Kelly,Saunders,Forbes and Murphy.

Your point about diet is spot on. You see youth team players in Scotland eating Big Macs and gorging on Gregss. And that's before they hit the bars.

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