Interesting words from Craig Levein in the Scotsman:
He says he watched his first match at the helm like a scientist analysing matter through a microscope and he was baffled by what he saw. The lack of self-belief in the players was “strange”. He had expected players who are big performers at club level to walk out at Hampden, in front of their own fans, their heads held high, their chests puffed out. Instead, they seemed timid, shrinking within themselves and the shirts which had appeared to fit perfectly in the dressing room minutes earlier.
This echoes what Fabio Capello said in similar circumstances when taking England over two years ago. “Fatigue” seems to have overtaken “confidence” as the “expert” diagnosis on England, for the time being: it’ll be interesting to see how the Scottish dialogue shapes up as Levein gets through his first round of games.
In Levein’s mind things are that positive. The cynicism which seems to grow in the Scottish psyche as prevalently as the heather on the hills is kept at bay. He feels there is a change in the national mood. Instead of just moaning about what is wrong, he thinks there are a growing number of people keen to get together and actually do something constructive.
There has been a change in that direction, and it’s been good to see. And Scotland only thinks that it’s more cynical and defeatist than other countries.
Only in the job seven months and with a solitary game under his belt, he has not had enough time to gauge which players amongst the current first-team contenders get the biggest buzz from representing their country but he will. And if there are two people vying for the same position, then he would be inclined to give the nod to the one who values the cap the most.
“But the fact is, there shouldn’t be a situation like that. It should be the case that every player wants to play for Scotland and, you know, I think of people like Davie Narey, who probably went along to 80 Scotland gatherings and hardly played any games but he saw it as representing his country and he knew it was an honour and he would never have dreamed of saying ‘sod that’. And he was a top, top player.
Given that the pay gap between footballers in Scotland and Scots on average earnings is less than that between Premier League players and the English general public, Levein is saying something here that’s more interesting than a repeat of that old English control-freak canard about overpaid primadonnas. This is about low expectations.
At club level, it’s far more easy for a player to conceptualize some kind of success and to believe in it. That’s partly from necessity. The club pays the wages. But it’s also from experience: only clubs that are really trapped in a relegation spiral won’t win or draw some games along the line.
At international level, with so many fewer games, so much less continuity, and a different kind of “home advantage”, history, you might think, hangs much heavier on the players. Scotland go into qualifying tournaments leaden with previous all-so-nears. And a great deal else besides. England arrive at tournaments with an “experienced” team whose experience consists of fickle support, evisceration by the media at the first hint of failure, long years of their privacy being constantly and hideously violated, and the knowledge that anything short of a semi-final will leave them regarded as traitors to the nation.
Scottish fans – insofar as I’ve seen – don’t share the English view that high wages “should and therefore do” discount all questions of pressure, confidence, mental energy, tiredness and what happens to you after you’ve been subjected to the Premiership circus for ten or more of your more emotionally-vulnerable years. Only the Rangers-Celtic divide generates anything like the acutely personal and constant hatred that is directed at a large chunk of the England squad for a great deal of the time.
But at least England do have some unquestionably fine performances to draw upon – it’s been some time since Scotland enjoyed a comfortable victory over opponents at their own level to compare with England’s home and away wins against Croatia. Fighting rearguard wins over France, as experience has shown, are hugely cheering, good to look back on, and useless as measures of progress or builders of momentum.
Scotland have to find that momentum: no one wants to wait twenty years for the McLeish report to work whatever magic it has to offer. The mix of profound realism in Scotland about the quality of the players available, combined with Levein’s morale-boosting energy and excitement, makes this a good moment to start.
Long-term, though, it will take more than Levein to cure the ills. He talks openly about the amatuerishness of certain aspects of the SFA and having come from a club background he claims there are faults there as well. But he believes there is now a willingness to look into the mirror held up to them all by the Henry McLeish report and work together to improve the game.
And why not Scotland, after all? There’s nothing inevitable about decline and poor performance. But shifting low expectations is hard, harder even than an experienced, successful manager like Fabio Capello once thought. But Capello’s travails are an opportunity for Levein. Capello solved England’s self-inflicted qualification woes: now he is determined to repeat the trick and do the same at tournament level. If Levein can do likewise – that will be the standard he’ll have matched. It’s a target worth the shooting.