So another qualifying campaign is over and another tournament will pass by without the skirl of a pipe or the swirl of a kilt. Yes, it was agonising, ‘glorious failure’ yet again for Scotland on a frustrating final day of qualification.
I was a fresh-faced 15 year old the last time Scotland were represented in a major tournament but I remember it vividly; the rush to get home from school in time for the curtain raiser against World champions Brazil. I remember being in awe of the men in dark blue and being griped by passion and pride as they walked out onto that field. Proud that Scotland were there, proud that the world was watching and proud of the men representing my nation.
I also remember the gut wrenching agony of watching Morocco put three unanswered goals past us, sending the much adored Scots home. In the 13 years that have followed, it is this latter feeling that has been predominant.
But despite the most recent failings, I feel an unusual sense of optimism towards the national side. There seems to be a new togetherness within the squad. The egos, so often present in club football, seem to be left at home when packing for an international trip and there appears a genuine desire to play for the shirt again. The multitude of call offs have momentarily ceased and players seem desperate to shake off little knocks to be part of the team, regardless of who they face the following Saturday.
Having met and spoken to Craig Levein on a number of occasions, he is definitely a man who takes no nonsense. He is one of those managers who looks for the right type of player. No one is too good for the team and no one is guaranteed their spot. Granted there isn’t a plethora of players to choose from in Scotland, but Levein has altered the attitudes of certain players for the better. Those who refuse to buy into it, spend their international weekends in Wolverhampton until they do.
In saying that, it has not been a completely calamitous free campaign. A dour 0-0 draw in Lithuania, a highly unconvincing 97th minute win over Liechtenstein and the infamous 4-6-0 formation in Prague didn’t point towards a renewed energy with the Scotland set-up.
But let’s not forget, Levein inherited a shambles. George Burley will be remembered more for being the man at the helm during the ‘boozegate’ scandal than anything else. He clearly didn’t have respect from a section of his squad, perhaps in his insistence of self rating in the dressing room didn’t help. Asking players to mark themselves out of ten after matches, ultimately led to him being marked him down in the eyes of his team.
Levein has also shown his ability to experiment with his squad, introducing new players and re-introducing others to the international set-up. To have Allan McGregor back is invaluable to Scotland and Charlie Adam’s ability both on and off the ball is well known. Barry Bannan has already established himself as a fans favourite and Craig MacKail-Smith proved the hero in Liechtenstein but Levein has also included the likes of Murray Davidson, Chris Maguire, Danny Wilson, James McCarthur and Danny Swanson in recent squads. Some have had their chance, others will have to wait but Levein is looking at the bigger picture. There are going to be times when players are unavailable, so the more young guys with experience of an international squad the better.
The sore point for fans is the defeat in Prague. The 4-6-0 formation that clearly didn’t work in the way Levein thought it would. A formation few had ever seen before and one that I’m sure few will ever see again. It is the ‘what if’ part of the qualifiers that points solely towards the manager. But what if we had been able to put the ball in the net against Lithuania? What if we had held onto our lead at home to the Czech Republic? Personally I don’t feel like going down the ‘blame’ route. You win as a team, you lose as a team, it’s how you deal with it and move on.
Levein is part of a whole new era at the SFA. Stewart Regan as Chief Executive and Performance Director Mark Wotte, have the development of Scottish football at the forefront of their mind. There is a desire to bring the game on and produce a generation of Scottish players with genuine competition for places at international level. This isn’t going to happen overnight and it’s clear that Levein is regarded as being a long term appointment. In terms of an international manager having a say in the development of our young players I don’t think we could have many better. Danny Swanson is a perfect example, finding himself in the Scotland squad just three years after Levein plucked him from Berwick Rangers.
Like I say, I feel optimism towards the national team and the direction it’s heading but I am also a realist. This is going to take time and the SFA need the patience of the fans. I firmly believe the World Cup qualifying campaign will provide a better understanding of where we stand. Qualification aside, I expect, and want to see us progress as a team, to bring back that sense of Scotland being an organised, passionate, hard to beat unit. In my lifetime, we’ve never been a free-flowing goal scoring side, and that doesn’t look likely to change, but we were a team that was viewed as a difficult proposition by our opponents, even the World Champions, and that is what I want back again. A return of that pride I felt all those years ago.