Ronnie Esplin relfects on an encouraging Euro 2012 campaign for Craig Levein's Scotland
Craig Levein sat defiantly in the basement of the Estadio José Rico Pérez in Alicante on October 11, following Scotland's Euro 2012 qualifier defeat by Spain, and told the media the future of the national team was bright. The manager bullishly claimed his side had "improved enormously in the last year" and looked forward to building on that for the 2014 World Cup qualification campaign.
Scotland had finished third behind Spain and the Czech Republic with three wins out of eight matches in a group which also included Lithuania and Liechtenstein. With journalists frazzled after a night battling with local technology in a bid to file their reports of the expected defeat, and the media bus waiting to go to straight the airport for the SFA's charter flight home, it was not really the time for in-depth analysis. Consequently, Levein's comments went unfiltered, a feature of the last double-header in what had been a long, drawn-out campaign.
Three days earlier, following the narrow 1-0 win in Liechtenstein that had kept qualifying hopes alive, if only just, Levein had bristled when asked if he really believed his claim that the play-off spot was "ours to lose". Scotland would go to Spain one point ahead of the Czechs, who would be playing in Lithuania in their final match. Levein spoke articulately and passionately but his confidence was at odds with both the quality of the opposition, who were looking for a clean sweep of Group I wins, and Scotland's previous performances.
The last major tournament Scotland took part in was the 1998 World Cup. The chances of ending that dismal record were severely dented by the goalless draw in Lithuania on matchday one. However, the two games against the Czech Republic, a side on the wane, were more damaging – not only to qualifying hopes but to the manager's reputation. In Prague Levein surprised everyone, including his own players, by employing his now infamous 4-6-0 formation, which unsurprisingly resulted in a 1-0 defeat. In the return fixture at Hampden Park, another hard-luck story unfolded as the visitors scored with a dodgy penalty in the last minute to grab a fortunate 2-2 draw.
For many people the final two games against Liechtenstein and Spain were academic. On a wet and dreary night in the tiny, 6,000-capacity Rheinpark Stadium in Vaduz, Craig Mackail-Smith scored in his first start to secure the three points. But chances of an upset in Spain were ended when Scotland conceded within five minutes. A first-half double from David Silva and a third goal from David Villa meant that David Goodwillie's 66th-minute penalty was a mere consolation.
Talking to the press after the match, Gary Caldwell admitted that Spain were "exceptional" but kept on-message by adding: "We were up against the best team in the world and many teams would have folded but we didn't and that was very encouraging." The Scotland plane had barely touched down in Glasgow before the SFA chief executive, Stewart Regan, had congratulated Levein for "what he has done to Scottish football, based on what he inherited a couple of years ago – which was a national setup in disarray". A long list of former Scotland managers and players including Craig Brown, Alex McLeish, Gordon Strachan and John Collins sprang to Levein's defence. Returning fans were also supportive.
There seems to be a desire and togetherness that was missing under previous managers and the players at Levein's disposal are of a higher quality than in recent years. Darren Fletcher, Barry Bannan, Christophe Berra, Charlie Adam, Alan Hutton, James Morrison, Phil Bardsley and Caldwell all play in the Premier League. Still, Levein didn't get the best from what he had to work with and even a country getting too used to failure will demand better in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers. While there is obviously no one of the calibre of Spain in the group, Croatia, Serbia, Belgium, Macedonia and Wales will cause more trouble than Liechtenstein and Lithuania. Scotland have to be more clinical at home and bolder away from Hampden if they are to have any chance of making it to Brazil. Levein will not enjoy, or expect, the benefit of the doubt should he fail again.
From WSC 298 December 2011