THE country is into its third month without a Scotland manager.
It is now 65 days since a vacancy was created by Craig Levein being relieved of his duties and so far there has been no puff of white smoke above Hampden signifying the appointment of his successor. In only 28 days the team will play its next match.
Gordon Strachan remains the obvious candidate and since November there has been little to suggest the job will go to anyone else. From the Scottish Football Association, and Strachan himself, there has been no public confirmation of anything but there has been contact between them and both parties are receptive to the idea of him taking over. Chief executive Stewart Regan is heading the effort to replace Levein and in time an appointment will be ratified by the SFA's seven-man board. They are acutely aware that if Strachan was out of the equation, credible alternatives would be thin on the ground.
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Joe Jordan, Alex McLeish and Walter Smith have all taken up new jobs since the vacancy arose. Billy Stark and Owen Coyle have their admirers but neither of them have Strachan's profile or experience as a prominent former Scotland player. Kenny Dalglish has never shown much interest in managing his country. On the online betting comparison site, Oddschecker.com, Strachan has been the clear market leader from day one.
No meaningful criticism has been directed towards the SFA over the amount of time being taken because there is a sense that for now the national team is comatose. Scotland are bottom of World Cup qualifying Group A and an insurmountable eight points behind joint leaders Belgium and Croatia. The prospect of reaching the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil has gone. It is another 20 months until the start of the Euro 2016 qualifiers, the next campaign from which there is any chance of qualifying.
Why rush, then? Why begin paying around £35,000-a-month to a manager – that is what Levein earned; perhaps Strachan will expect more – any sooner than is strictly necessary? The SFA has saved money by taking its time, clearly reckoning that there was little point hurrying someone into position only for him to shove a pen around his desk for a few expensive weeks. Issues such as Celtic's defeat of Barcelona and qualification to the Champions League's last 16, Rangers' share flotation and league reconstruction have served as distractions while the Scotland manager's office has remained empty.
Having said all of that, with less than a month until the team plays again the seeds of impatience will soon grow. Tickets are already on sale for the friendly against Estonia at Pittodrie on February 6. The SFA was criticised for taking too long to dismiss Levein and it could soon be criticised again for taking too long to replace him.
The understanding is that Stark is manager on an interim basis and will therefore be in charge against Estonia unless he hears otherwise. One of the minor obstacles to be overcome in that respect will be the fact he is also supposed to be somewhere else that day: his under-21s will be playing a friendly in Greece.
Estonia at Pittodrie in February does not rate highly in attractiveness, and that's putting it mildly. Multiple call-offs can be expected given that the game comes before a full league card and a week before Celtic v Juventus and other European ties. But the fixture is not without significance and nor, despite Scotland's inept Group A campaign so far, are the remaining qualifiers starting with Wales at Hampden on March 22 and Serbia in Novi Sad four days later.
Qualification may be a lost cause yet it would be wrong to suggest the rest of the campaign is meaningless. All six remaining ties are important for Scotland because any points taken (or dropped) in them will count towards the seedings for Euro 2016. Scotland sit in pot four of the provisional seedings but if they continue to spill points in World Cup games they could slip into the wilderness of pot five. Strachan or anyone else needs to hit the ground running when the qualifiers resume.
"We have said we will have someone in place for the Wales qualifier and that's the plan," said Regan yesterday. "We are working towards that and are going through our own internal process. I don't want to go into the detail behind it. We are going through the process and will deliver a manager in time for the Wales game. I don't want to talk about shortlists – it just opens the door for agents to get involved. Billy will possibly be in charge for Estonia. Anything ahead of March is a bonus. If we can get someone in place quicker than that, then it could be in time for Estonia. But that's on February 6; the clock is ticking."
In the meantime, Stark and a team of SFA staff including Mick Oliver, Ricky Sbragia, Scott Booth, Dean Gorre and national performance director Mark Wotte will fan out to cover Clydesdale Bank Premier League, Barclays Premier League and Championship matches over the next three weeks with a view to compiling a form guide on the Scotland players ahead of the announcement of the squad to face Estonia. Stark had the Luxembourg friendly in November and he will get Estonia too. After that, things point to the job coming to Strachan eventually.