Glory in Tedium: A Recap of Modern Scottish Failure

Glory in Tedium: A Recap of Modern Scottish Failure

The most impressive international teams of the last few years have had a core plucked from their most successful clubs: Germany were built around the Bayern Munich machine; Spain were infused La Masia alumni; Antonio Conte transposed his Juventus side to Italy; Wales used a few Swansea boys to give the ball to Gareth Bale.

The logic is that there simply isn’t the time to coach a disparate group of players a few times a year into a group capable of doing something remarkable, so it is best to copy paste something that works from the micromanaged world of club football and build your way from that.

If that logic holds true, what happens when there are no clubs worthy of emulation or no superstar names to lean on? Some end up like the anomalous Greeks of 2004, ponies proud of their one-trick glory. Others would be happy just to be there.

The Tartan Army once pined for the manager to pick Steven Fletcher at all costs.

This guy’s a £12 million signing! Scotland fans would say.

In the Premier League!

What appears in hindsight to be something close to the nadir was, in fact, the natural urge of fans in dire need of an attacking outlet.

To understand this, you have to go back to Craig Levein’s time in charge of Scotland. Levein played house at Hampden for three years after an unspectacular career in club management.

Reactions to his appointment ranged from the muted to the uninspired, but he had the distinction of not being George Burley, which was enough to give him a fair crack of the whip.

Despite a sloppy performance, things started brightly enough ahead of their Euro 2012 qualification campaign with a narrow 1-0 friendly win over future group rivals the Czech Republic in March 2010. This was followed by a 3-0 defeat in Stockholm before his first competitive game in charge: a turgid 0-0 draw in Lithuania.

The game in Kaunas was part of a doubleheader, a supposedly guaranteed six points. Beat the Lithuanians in a semi-tricky away game and hammer Liechtenstein at home.

Pad out our goal difference and probably sit pretty at the top of the group for a while, the collective fans agreed, assuming Spain wouldn’t put ten past all comers by default.

Who says we can’t beat the Czechs away? Maybe sneak a point at home against Spain. We’ll be on nine points after four games, maybe ten. Could be twelve, but c’mon. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The Tartan Army howled and sighed their way through 45 minutes of on-pitch drivel. Liechtenstein had kept Scotland at bay, and had looked surprisingly competent. They would even managed a shot.

The second half started, Scotland made their way up the pitch. Not for the first time, their attack broke down. Not for the first time, Liechtenstein cleared the ball. The ball went down the away side’s left and found a man in space. Scotland backed off. A pass. Two versus four in Scotland’s favour. No need to panic.

Liechtenstein’s forward, Mario Frick, controls the ball on his thigh and turns to face the goal.

Stephen McManus stands between him and the keeper, Allan McGregor.

The forward jockeys and hints. McManus is close, but not close enough. The ball gently rolls to a standstill, awaiting instruction.

A pause.

An eternal second later, the forward decides to shoot. He forgoes the usual run-up, channelling his inner Ronaldinho. If anything, he is moving backwards as he hits it. The ball whistles past the rooted defender and spins inside the post.

The forward, on his 36th birthday, slides enraptured on the pitch. His teammates follow suit, piling on top of him. Hampden finally hears his name over the tannoy.

Frick isn’t a word commonly used by fans at Hampden Park. Maybe those of a more self-conscious disposition would use something similar if they thought there were too many kids around. But Frick? Frick’s made up. Frick’s a joke. Frick’s an unfortunate name you might make fun of if you spied it in the matchday programme.

Ha, look at this, you might elbow.

Look at that guy’s name.

Mario Frick, half-Swiss, playing in Switzerland after a spell in Serie B and some time in Serie A. Liechtenstein’s all-time top goalscorer and appearance maker. Their ever-dependable, ever-ready captain. A nobody, apparently, had put Liechtenstein one-up on the night.

The groans grew louder, the moans more desperate. Kenny Miller hit an equaliser almost as delicious as the opener, rifled in off the crossbar, but it still was not enough. Corner after corner, pass after ineffectual pass, the clock struck 90 and the assistant held up his board. The tannoy made sure the stadium knew how long, a special inflection on the word minimum. Another corner.

This time, McManus met it. This time, it went in. Deep into the 97th minute of the game, atonement, but still embarrassment. They had avoided their pub quiz moment and erased the name Frick from memory. No need for the predictable tabloid headlines.

Two games in, two goals scored. Three scraped points at home and a point etched out away. Scotland sat top of five-team Group I with a plus one goal difference. Lithuania beat the Czechs away, moving Scotland’s 0-0 into suddenly passable territory and making the Czechs a soft-touch, an almost guaranteed three points. Even we could beat them.

Spain had only played one game. And so the group rumbled on.

The term false 9 is commonplace in football nowadays. You don’t have to have to be an anorak to have an idea what it means: after all, Pep Guardiola helped popularise the concept with his absurd Barcelona sides.

Strikers no longer had to be strikers; they could be midfielders further up the pitch, or forwards dropping off. Sometimes, they were both. Drop off, link up, make space for runners. An indeterminate troublemaker. Opposition centre backs could get confused, dragged out of position, not knowing who to mark or when to move, if to move at all.

Craig Levein has been described as a lot of things over the years, but as a visionary, he has not. Whether that is fair is up for debate, but what is undeniable is that his choice of formation for the game against the Czechs away from home could be seen as ahead of its time.

The ultimate pragmatist influencing idealism? After all, Spain were in their group, and they were up next. Surely they had a scout in Prague, taking notes. There is a chance Guardiola watched the game on TV. Who knows what wonders Levein may have inspired.

Maybe the backlash was all down to nomenclature. Maybe if the team was said to have featured a false 9 instead of being described as a 4-6-0, it would’ve helped Levein’s cause. Or maybe – just maybe – he reckoned his team could barely score against Liechtenstein, so they should just play for a draw and see what happens.

The game against the Czechs came a month after Frick gave the Scots their scare. When Levein named his squad for the games against the Czech Republic and Spain, Steven Fletcher was conspicuous in his absence, even if he hadn’t played any of Scotland’s opening two qualifiers.

He had recently sealed a move to Wolves for £6.5 million – a joint club record – and was, by all accounts, doing quite well.

He was still young enough at the time to be considered something of a hot prospect and had already had a taste of the Premier League with Burnley, who themselves made Fletcher their £3 million record signing from Hibernian, scoring a respectable eight goals for the relegated side. He was famously scouted by Real Madrid in his days at Hibs and was seemingly on the up.

If Levein’s Czexperiment (again, preferable to 4-6-0) had paid off, no one would’ve blinked. Fletcher wouldn’t have gone to the press and lambasted his manager, the fans wouldn’t have been split down the middle about whether Fletcher/Levein was right to do so, and Spain might have played Cesc Fabregas up top a little sooner. Instead, it backfired.

Scotland barely created anything and saw hardly any of the ball. When they made it wide, there was no one to hit in the middle. When they went through the middle, no one knew what they were doing. When they threw on a striker, it was Chris Iwelumo.

The Czechs eventually scored, through a set piece, and the game finished 1-0. Levein was left humiliated, and despite a traditionally heroic 3-2 defeat against Spain at Hampden, Scotland were still on four points.

The group petered out, Spain reigned supreme at Euro 2012, and Scotland stayed at home, another tournament missed since France 98. Fingers were pointed and answers were sought, and still Steven Fletcher sat at home.

Through a bunch of he-said, no he-said ruminations, it was revealed that Steven Fletcher turned down a later invitation to the squad via text message to Levein, who then considered him not worthy of selection.

A host of other strikers tried and failed to cement themselves as Scotland’s true nine – David Goodwillie, Chris Iwelumo, Steven Naismith et al – but the chances were thin on the ground or, in the case of Iwelumo, side footed over the bar instead of into an empty net.

Qualifying for a World Cup is harder than qualifying for a European Championship. Everyone knows this. Only the teams that finish top qualify automatically for the tournament; the rest go into the playoffs. Of course, there are automatic spots for certain best placed runners-up, but the odds of two teams racing away from the rest in a group consisting of Belgium, Croatia, Serbia, Scotland, Wales and Macedonia were long.

Some smaller nations prefer a group where there’s one outright and established favourite – say, Spain – that will run away with it, leaving the rest to scrabble for second (or third) place, but when in a group like Group A, things get a little more complicated.

Belgium were Belgiumy – full of stars, not a team, led by Marc Wilmots – and Croatia were supposedly along similar lines.

Macedonia were considered the usual whipping boys, more important in the qualification narrative for who they take points from, rather than the points they mustered for themselves. The goal for Scotland was to not be one of the teams they wanted other teams in the group to be: do not choke against Macedonia, especially at home. Beat Wales and Serbia, especially at home. Maybe sneak something against Belgium and Croatia, especially at home.

It will be tough, but we just need to make a good start, especially at home.

The fixture list was kind to Scotland. Two home games to start with; two opportunities to make an early statement in the group. Serbia then Macedonia. Win then win. Simple. Except of course they drew 0-0 then 1-1, played on the backfoot, and killed any optimism in the stands.

Cometh the dour, cometh the man. Levein and Fletcher called something of a truce and resumed pleasantries for Scotland’s next two games: away in Wales and home against Belgium. In the interim period, Fletcher had completed yet another club record move to Sunderland for £12 million following yet another relegation with Wolves.

He would make his second international debut against the Welsh, who looked there for the taking given that their manager Chris Coleman had lost all four of his games in charge since taking over from the late Gary Speed.

Serbia had demolished Wales 6-1 in their previous game, giving Scotland something to work with. Fletcher played, set up James Morrison to open the scoring, and had a goal of his own bizarrely disallowed.

He played the way the fans hoped he would play: like Steven Fletcher, not Kenny Miller. Miller’s work rate was admired and he still scored his fair share of goals, but his tendency to chase the ball and initiate his own one-man press meant he was rarely an attacking presence for opposition defenders to worry about. But still, Gareth Bale scored twice in the last ten minutes and took all three points.

Belgium Belgiumed their way past Scotland 2-0 in the next game, and Craig Levein was shown the door.

And so the Gordon Strachan era began, too late to save the campaign. Friendly victories over Luxembourg and Estonia gave the Tartan Army something vague to shout about. Their next competitive games were against Wales and Serbia, both of which ended in defeat, but wins home and away against Croatia renewed optimism about the squad and the quality of the players involved. Scotland won away in Macedonia and lost at home to Belgium.

In between all that, a narrow defeat against England in what was a renewed set of annual hostilities proved to be Kenny Miller’s final international appearance. Scotland went undefeated in four friendlies in the run-up to the Euro 2016 qualifiers, but lost the influential Robert Snodgrass to a career-threatening knee injury.

The understanding ahead of the group was that world champions Germany would mop up all comers and finish a distant first ahead of the chasing pack. Poland were probably favourites for second, spearheaded by the world class Robert Lewandowski, who in turn was assisted by a young Arkadius Milik, seasoned Bundesliga stars Lukasz Piszczek and Jakub Blaszczykowski, Torino stopper Kamil Glik, and a host of 7/10 goalkeepers.

Ireland had a badly ageing squad and a hobbling Robbie Keane; Georgia and Gibraltar were there to make up the numbers.

Free from the sting of recent defeats, the mood amongst the Scots was buoyant with nary an iceberg in sight, especially in the knowledge that their performances against the bigger nations tended to yield the most optimism.

They started their campaign against Germany, losing 2-1 in Dortmund. 1-0 home wins against Georgia and Ireland sandwiched a 2-2 away draw against the highly-fancied Poles. Gibraltar were dispatched with a 6-1 ease the way Liechtenstein should’ve been, even though the minnows managed to take the lead, the way Liechtenstein did, but this time was different. It felt different.

Scotland were flying, especially at home. This was it. This was their chance. Momentum was there, and it was tangible. Five games, ten points, the two toughest games on paper already out of the way.

The draw was even kind enough to give them Gibraltar in the last game on the off-chance a result was needed.

Top two go through! Worst case, playoffs. This is it!

‘The Georgia Game’™ is always cited as the turning point, the day the dream died in Tbilisi, a woeful 1-0 defeat against a team content to sit deep and wait against a team without a clue how to break the opposition down. The day Scotland did a Scotland and choked a so-called easy game.

Except the game before that was the template; the game in Dublin where the kids became self-conscious, left college, and worried about their mortgage.

The Irish went into that game two points behind Scotland and Germany, and three behind Poland. They had already claimed an 94th minute away point in Gelsenkirchen and had managed to win in Tbilisi, but the feeling was that Scotland had the upper hand: not only had they already beaten Ireland in Glasgow, but they did so with a combination of attrition and silk, Shaun Maloney curling in from an exceptionally well-worked corner routine that gained praise, shares, likes and retweets the world over.

Ikechi Anya is a limited player, erratic in his dribbling and delivery from wide, but his pace forced teams onto the back foot, and he had seemingly built up a fine working relationship with the marauding Andrew Robertson at left back, so when Strachan announced that the industrious Steven Naismith and conservatism’s Craig Forsyth would take their place for the return trip, memories of the 4-6-0 resurfaced.

On paper, Scotland didn’t play without a striker; they played with Steven Fletcher. They also played with the sort of reckless caution capable of placing a campaign’s sails in a vacuum. Forsyth looked unsure of himself at left back and was a repeated target for Irish attacks, and Scotland were lucky to emerge with a draw via a deflected goal from a performance defined by a single shot on target and repeated profligacy from their hosts.

That 1-1 set the tempo for the rest of the campaign. Ten points from five games became fifteen from ten, two points shy of Ireland in third place. In a universe where the rest of the games somehow played out exactly the same, a win in Ireland would have rendered a hiccup against Georgia irrelevant, and the Germans’ foot-off-the-gas defeat in Dublin would have been less cruel.

Germany eventually finished top, Poland runners up. Ireland defeated Bosnia & Herzegovina in the playoffs to join the rest of the quasi-Home Nations in France; Scotland stayed home once more, nursing the foot they shot themselves.

Craig Levein was interviewed two-and-a-half years before that game in Dublin. The interview was partly a way of getting himself back in the shop window, to take the stink off his reputation and to assure everyone that he did his best with a limited bunch.

There was one passage in particular that continues to resonate. He was asked about his 4-6-0 and what inspired it – in essence, what were you thinking? – and he said he was probably mistaken for trying such an unorthodox line-up with a group of players still new to him. He went on to explain that he was inspired by watching Rubin Kazan use a similar system to eke out a point against a rampant Barcelona.

What no one seemed to explain to him at the time was that the Czech Republic were not Barcelona, and that international football is not a yawning group game in the Champions League.

He has alluded to behind-the-scenes factors making his job more difficult, and how one day he’ll write a book on the subject, which is sure to win a Pulitzer.

Whatever his writerly aspirations, he did happen across his own kind of profundity: “Whenever you do anything different, it becomes a stick to beat you with.” It’s a thought that fits many contexts, all of which have tarred Scottish football in the years before and since.

Onwards, then. Russia 2018. Top spot qualifies, second for the playoffs. The draw, the hope, the best-case scenario. The excitement of playing The Auld Enemy again. The reality: hammering Malta away – not before a scare – before drawing at home to Lithuania. Consecutive 3-0 away defeats to England and Slovakia. Four games, four points, next to no hope already.

Strachan out! Fletcher out! Martin out! Play Griffiths! Play Burke! Where’s our defence? Where’s the passion?

But Strachan’s still here, a win in the next game puts Scotland back into contention (on paper!), and Steven Fletcher is just the latest in a roll call of boogeymen not fit to wear the shirt.

In his Scotland career so far, he’s scored nine goals in thirty games, which is decent for a target man. But it should never be forgotten that seven of those goals have come in three games against Gibraltar and Malta. The other two, against Iceland in 2009 and Poland in 2015, are examples of what he can do: a poacher’s header and an instinctive, technique-ridden curler, the kind to make Mario Frick proud.

The problem is more than those being his only relevant goals in the course of six years, it’s that Steven Fletcher is a red herring dressed as an easy target. He turns 30 on the day of Scotland’s next qualifier at home against Slovenia.

These days he plays for Sheffield Wednesday. He joined them on a free transfer.

The Tartan Army will be apoplectic if he starts and delirious if he scores. He is the perfect embodiment of Scotland as a footballing nation.

Strachan himself has said this is a must win game, and he’s right. His latest squad features the usual Scottish mix of promise and dread. The central defensive options are worrying at best, but the names on the attacking side of things promise a brighter future ahead, even if Jamie Walker has surprisingly missed out.

But still, the tune is the same as it’s been since Craig Brown lead Scotland to qualification for France 98, a 21st century opus composed by Messrs Vogts, Smith, McLeish, Burley, Levein and Strachan, produced by the SFA: maybe now, maybe this time, but if not this time, maybe next time.

There are some new band members, with the likes of Walker, Stuart Armstrong and Ryan Fraser fizzing with possibility, shoving their foot in the door and letting a sliver of light shine through.

Maybe Oliver Burke, Jack Harper and Ryan Gauld can make their breakthrough on the continent and yank that door off its hinges.

Maybe Malky Mackay will prove all the doubters wrong and oversee the kind of root-and-branch overhaul of domestic football the nation needs to consistently produce top quality talent on both sides of the line.

Maybe John Souttar will be a tartan Franco Baresi.

Maybe an Ian Cathro can be a Del Bosque one day.


By Grant Jendo