analysis Afforded a second campaign, Craig Levein must qualify for Brazil to be considered a success, writes Michael Grant
Scotland has acknowledged its decline as a football power to the extent that the nation will allow a manager one failed campaign in a World Cup or European Championship without calling for him to be sacked. But it wouldn’t tolerate two.
It is startling to realise that since Craig Brown resigned exactly a decade ago, no Scotland manager has stayed in the job for two full qualifying campaigns. Yes, Walter Smith and Alex McLeish were headhunted and left when the SFA would have wished for them to stay, but it still amounts to a job in which men do not hang around for long.
Levein has ingrained himself deep in the fabric of the new SFA administration and there are elements of his influence and reach which in some respects make him the most significant manager the country has ever had. He was the one who gave the thumbs up to Mark Wotte’s appointment as the first national performance director.
The SFA cardinals -- president Campbell Ogilvie and chief executive Stewart Regan -- would resist the notion of ever getting rid of Levein until almost their dying breaths, but the climate would change swiftly if his claims of progress and evolution for the Scotland team are not backed up by better competitive results than he’s delivered so far.
Scotland’s World Cup group looks quite difficult but not impossibly so. Taking points off Croatia, Serbia, Belgium, Macedonia and Wales will involve a relentless sequence of battles but, frankly, if the players and team are all that Levein cracks them up to be this will be the time to start proving it. All of those teams must be respected but there is not a truly daunting opponent among them. There’s not a Spain.
Levein and Scotland’s failure in the Euro 2012 qualifiers -- and that is what it was, because the target was to finish in the top two despite being third seeds -- was treated calmly this week. Some supporters do want him out but that is not the mainstream view and frankly it would make no sense.
If Levein has often seemed as though he over-eggs the pudding when it comes to talking up the extent of the improvement and potential in his Scotland team, it is certainly true that they are more convincing now than they were a year ago. They are beginning to win matches, too. They took almost twice as many points from the second half of the campaign as they did from the first.
It would be pretty daft to sack a manager who is now getting more from his players than he used to, if the case for getting rid of him was based on tactics he used in a match more than a year ago.
Levein was too cautious at the start of the campaign. Scotland were okay in Lithuania in the first game, but no more than that. They didn’t seize the initiative and set a forceful tone. They dropped points there, almost did so at home to Liechtenstein, played in Prague as if paralysed by an inferiority complex and then finally showed some life when they were 2-0 down to Spain at Hampden.
Levein would sing from the rooftops about his players now, if he could, yet damage was done to the campaign by his apparent belief that they weren’t good enough to open up and take teams on. Charlie Adam is one of the iconic figures now but, for almost the entire first half of the section, he didn’t get a look in. Levein was up against it in Group I because of decisions made a year ago.
The 4-2-4-0 formation in Prague, that now infamous tactic about which Levein is tender, meant an otherwise unremarkable scoreline -- a 1-0 defeat in the Czech Republic -- made headlines in which Scotland were mocked for being barren and hopeless.
They’re neither of those things. Even those of us who believe the team’s performances and results have yet to justify all the claims made on their behalf are eager to embrace the contribution made by new additions such as Phil Bardsley, Barry Bannan and Craig Mackail-Smith.
The emergence of the busy, mobile, gutsy Brighton & Hove Albion man will be especially pleasing for Levein because, while Scotland have an impressive figure in their forward line, there will be fewer mentions of Steven Fletcher.
Levein and Fletcher seem as thrawn as each other, both saying it’s up to the other guy to make the first move. It would be a pity if there comes a day when Levein is away from the Scotland job and rueful that he could have given himself a better chance by trying to “manage” Fletcher rather than refuse to blink first in their staring competition.
What Levein has achieved with Scotland is the removal of anything resembling an awkward squad. The culture of multiple call-offs has gone and the players may as well be reading from a script, such is the unity them show when publicly praising him and his management team.
They seem to like him and that is not insignificant. If Levein is able to pick pretty much the best players available to Scotland, and they are willing to answer the call and give everything for him, he has pulled off something that was beyond a few of his predecessors.
Ultimately he’ll be judged on the same criteria as all the others, though. It all rests on getting to the World Cup now.