George Burley is the new manager of Scotland. Neil Forsyth reports on a four-way battle for the job and the challenges facing the former Southampon boss
If Scotland are to continue the renaissance of their national team following the despair of Berti Vogts’ reign, then it is George Burley who will now be leading them onwards. The Southampton manager was the selection of the SFA after a lengthy search that culminated in a shortlist of Burley, Mark McGhee, Graeme Souness and Tommy Burns. It was a quartet that failed to produce a clear favourite among fans and media, with each having decent credentials for the task without standing out.
Burley’s hugely successful short spell as Hearts manager in 2005-06 is still fresh in the Scottish football psyche, and McGhee is currently impressing at Motherwell, as well as handling the tragic death of club captain Phil O’Donnell with appreciated dignity. Souness was the Ken Clarke of the leadership challenge – a big beast who was always going to be quoted, but who offered little in the sense of change or innovation. Burns, a cynic would perhaps say, was there to provide an Old Firm balance to proceedings, with Souness involved and the SFA chief executive and kingmaker Gordon Smith a former Rangers player.
There were few other serious contenders to succeed Alex McLeish. The shadow of Vogts is likely to leave the possibility of a further foreign coach impossible for a few years yet, while the depressing truth for Scotland fans is that the most attractive possibilities – Sir Alex Ferguson, Gordon Strachan and David Moyes – would be uninterested in the role.
Smith himself was to have an unexpectedly prominent part in Burley’s unveiling. The two months of little information had clearly breached the concentration span of some in the Scottish football media, who started to fill their pages with a faintly ludicrous campaign against the selection process itself. Why was there an interview process at all, asked the most extreme of these learned tabloid observers, when the four candidates were so well known?
It was an idiotic charge, one that should have been easily dismissed, yet it had clearly rattled Smith. A few questions into Burley’s triumphant press conference, Smith interrupted proceedings to attack that section of coverage. With the event being covered live on more than one channel it was an excruciating moment, with the appointment of the national manager temporarily resembling the controversial and fractious election of a bowling club official.
Such slapstick will all be forgotten, of course, once Burley’s reign gets under way with a friendly against Croatia at Hampden in March. Although at times he sounded slightly shocked in the aftermath of his appointment, suggesting he had genuinely not expected to be offered the role, Burley has quickly taken some clearly individual decisions. The provisional choice of Terry Butcher as his assistant caused some rumblings, perhaps not least due to Butcher’s most iconic picture featuring him at the end of an England match while appearing on the verge of bleeding to death. Others, however, appreciate that Butcher’s John Bull-tinged buoyancy could very well be the perfect foil to the more studied Burley.
A much touted friendly with England in May, to which the SFA have been openly keen to commit, has been quietly abandoned after Burley saw little value in putting his players through such demands at the end of the season. He knows very well that it is the 2010 World Cup qualifiers where his legacy will be decided. By 2010 it will have been a dozen years since the Tartan Army marched off to a major finals and this fresh challenge is approached not overburdened with confidence. Despite currently being ranked 14th in the world after the wondrous performances of the Euro 2008 campaign, the draw wasn’t overly kind to Scotland, with Holland (not to mention Norway) standing between them and automatic qualification.
It is another qualification process where the team will be urged to perform consistently beyond the sum of their parts. In his two most successful managerial postings, Ipswich and Hearts, this was the very situation that Burley excelled in. Now, the self-described “boy from Cumnock” has his greatest challenge, which offers the greatest reward.
In the Hampden press conference, once Smith had finished his regrettable intrusion, Burley described 2010 World Cup qualification as “the dream”. It may well be, but he’ll be acutely aware the upturn in Scotland’s recent fortunes means that it is a dream that he and Butcher are charged with making real.
From WSC 253 March 2008