Alex McLeish takes over when Walter Smith walks out. Neil Forsyth is worried
It takes a special kind of team to suffer an apparent plummet in stature and expectations without the players taking to the field. Scotland may be the unlikely leaders of a Euro 2008 qualifying group that includes Italy and France, but recent events have made this situation appear more like a temporary aberration soon to be rectified rather than a possible springboard to qualification.
Walter Smith’s defection to Rangers and the eventual appointment of Alex McLeish as his replacement might not have cost the team a single point, yet you could be forgiven for thinking that failure was now an inevitability in a campaign that has so far been conducted brilliantly by a manager who was reborn in the role.
Smith had been out of management for nearly three years when the SFA selected him above popular choice Gordon Strachan to replace the woeful Bertie Vogts in 2004. Vogts had been a brilliantly strange character, with a capacity for unintentional comedy that sadly slipped into areas such as tactics and team selection. The antidote, the SFA decided, was an injection of Scottish realism – or pessimism, as others might call it. This victory for the dour saw Smith pip the fiery Strachan to the role, but the decision soon resulted in a remarkable change in the national team’s fortunes.
The team predictably adopted 4-5-1 and a genuine 4-5-1 at that, none of this “switching to 4-3-3 when attacking” nonsense, but it worked. Smith, with his assistants Tommy Burns and Ally McCoist, pulled together a team heavy on experience and cajoled them to wondrous levels of commitment.
The pinnacle of the renaissance came in October when Scotland harried, pestered and eventually mugged a Thierry Henry-led France at Hampden Park, somehow conjuring a 1-0 victory over the World Cup finalists. The suggestion of such a result could have had a Scotsman sectioned under the Vogts regime, but now it seemed more than possible that Smith could lead Scotland to our first finals since France 98.
Yet a reign that was created through the shortcomings of a foreign manager would end because of the failure of another. When Paul Le Guen’s floundering at Rangers was ended in early January, chairman David Murray decided to bring Smith back to the club he had successfully managed in the 1990s. This proved dishearteningly easy, with Smith and McCoist clearly not needing much convincing that a struggling club side outweighed the national team in importance, and so began the hunt for a successor.
McLeish is a heavily capped former player with a respectable club management record in Scotland and, perhaps more importantly, was not tied to a contract. His candidature was sealed by the rather desperate-looking list of other possibilities that the media put forward with little enthusiasm.
This unsatisfactory beginning to yet another new era for Scottish football continued into the observations of McLeish around the time of his unveiling. In searching for ways to continue Smith’s fine work, it is the pragmatism of his predecessor that he has reached for first. “It doesn’t matter if Alex Ferguson was in charge of the team, or José Mourinho,” he said when asked to judge the severity of the challenges that lie ahead. “Expectations have gone through the roof, but we must keep our feet on the ground.”
Although it is unfair to judge McLeish on a single comment (and he also spoke of aiming to continue the “trend” of Smith’s reign), the generally depressive manner in which January’s events have been covered is frustrating to those who would like to see recent success be used to build confidence rather than be portrayed as a monkey on the back of the new regime.
No right-minded person in Scotland sees the national team as numbering among the world’s elite, but neither should any closing of the gap be accompanied by this continual, supposed need to dampen optimism. It makes one wonder what would happen if we were somehow to go on to win the European Championship itself. A day of mourning, perhaps, followed by assurances of a calamitous attempt to defend the title.
From WSC 241 March 2007. What was happening this month