Early Doors

Scotland and Levein put out of their misery

When Spain took Italy apart in the final of Euro 2012, a rueful look probably crossed the face of Craig Levein. Here was international football's greatest ever team producing their signature performance, and without so much as a striker on the pitch.

Less than two years earlier, Levein had achieved his own signature performance when using a 4-6-0 formation away at Czech Republic, with rather less stellar results. A 1-0 defeat in Prague courtesy of Roman Hubnik's header after 69 minutes surrendered top spot in Euro 2012 qualifying Group I following a result that was, in Levein's own words, "terribly disappointing."

The pong of abject negativity proved impossible to shake and so yesterday, when it was confirmed he would be leaving his post as Scotland manager, it came as some relief for the Tartan Army, and after a convoluted and unnecessarily painful process of removal, probably the manager himself. As the Scotsman put it: "Axed Levein put out of his misery."

Misery is about right. Scotland fans have no right to expect qualification for a major tournament any more - their golden era passed some time ago, with a brief final flicker at World Cup 1998 - but they are surely entitled to at least being seen to have a go.

Under Levein it felt from the moment he announced a starting line-up without a striker against a Czech side well below its best that he had under-valued his players, thought them incapable of enterprising football. Early Doors has seen tortoises with more attacking instinct.

Inhibition brought regression. A record of three wins in 12 competitive matches tells its own story, and it doesn't scan well for the man formerly in charge. Successive home draws to Serbia and Macedonia at the start of World Cup qualifying were fatal - Levein reluctant to try out the free scoring Jordan Rhodes in two more unambitious displays - before defeats to Wales and Serbia finally tipped the SFA over the edge, and even then only just.

Quite why they look so long to remove Levein is a matter of some mystery. The Belgium defeat occurred 20 days previously and it was clear then that his time was up. Yet cruelly the SFA made him cling on, his fate in the balance, while they pondered and deliberated more.

Eventually they announced that results were not good enough - results that have been unchanged for weeks of course.

As former SFA president George Peat said: "I can't believe that it took three weeks to make a decision. To be honest, it could have been made in a couple of days. I certainly would have had the decision made long ago. I understand Craig was on holiday for a week, but that's only one week out of three.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out how much he was getting and what was the balance of his contract. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out, had he stayed, what the SFA would have lost in revenue from three home matches because the morale of the supporters is rock bottom and I could not see a full Hampden Park had he carried on."

It is no secret that the meekness of Scotland's displays drove many to anger. This was a country that brought us William Wallace, the Glasgow kiss and history's greatest James Bond. Its men are so comfortable in their rugged masculinity that their national dress is a kilt. Scotland revel in punching above their weight - to go down without even swinging was unforgivable.

This bunch of Scottish players are no world beaters, we all know that. Furthermore, defensive tactics per se are clearly legitimate. Look at how Celtic almost took a point from Barcelona with a vastly inferior side. Grit and determination can win the day without it feeling like an embarrassment. Yet Scotland were not playing Barcelona, they were playing Czech Republic and Macedonia.

And while Levein may have felt his squad was weak in terms of attacking talent, there were some decent players in there: Shaun Maloney, Kris Commons, Charlie Adam. Players who can create chances and score goals.

Of course, the biggest issue of Levein's reign was the fact that the man most able to stick goals away - Steven Fletcher - was unnecessarily exiled from the team. His text message to withdraw from the squad to face Northern Ireland in February 2011 was ill advised, no doubt, but Levein's failure to bring him back to the fold for so long was a critical one. By the time of his return, against Wales, it was pretty much too late. Eighteen months was too long to go without the country's most dangerous player.

The argument that Levein could have done little else with the players at his disposal holds little water. Alex McLeish and Walter Smith had arguably inferior squads, yet they both enjoyed memorable wins over France and pushed for qualification in their respective campaigns. Failure, ultimately, yet there was some excitement along the way.

Under Levein, Scotland gradually became ever more impotent.  There were some positive moments - a narrow 3-2 home defeat to Spain came just after the disaster in Prague, even if it only highlighted the folly of being so negative against the Czechs - but the mentality on the pitch was regressive, overly cautious.

The squad named today for next week's friendly against Luxembourg is unlikely to be much different from what Levein would have chosen - having given caretaker boss Billy Stark just a day to sort it out the SFA have hardly allowed much time for considered change - yet it is not so much the players that are the problem, but the way they have been used.

Qualification for a major tournament could well prove beyond Scotland in any case, but playing in such negative fashion only reduces their chances of doing so. At least with Levein gone, Scotland have some hope of progress.

It has been said that author Irvine Welsh has traded in "Scottish miserabilism", but even the pretty bleak 'Trainspotting' found time to pay homage to Archie Gemmill's famous goal against Netherlands. For Levein, there were no such highlights.

- - -

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "I'd like to apologise to supporters who felt aggrieved by it. Did I think it would cause such a commotion? Of course I didn't, otherwise I would have told Robin to exchange the shirts away from public view." - Andre Santos is forced to say sorry for swapping shirts with his former team-mate Robin van Persie at half time. This is all getting a bit silly now, isn't it?

FOREIGN VIEW: Real Betis' chubby playmaker Benat has been getting admiring glances from Manchester City of late and the Spain midfielder scored a glorious free kick in a 4-2 win over Getafe on Monday night. Get it while it's hot.

COMING UP: It's D-day for Manchester City as they prepare for possible elimination from the Champions League when hosting Ajax. Arsenal are not in such a precarious position but need a good result away at Schalke following a run of poor form. There are six other games to keep you occupied too, including the small matter of Real Madrid v Borussia Dortmund. Prior to tonight's games, Paul Parker files his latest column and we catch up on the latest goings-on in Serie A with Pitchside Europe.