BY OLLIE McMANUS
Last month, Alex McLeish returned to the post of Scotland national team manager; his appointment followed a protracted search for Gordon Strachan’s successor during which current Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill and Rangers legend Walter Smith were targeted, publicly leaving McLeish as at least the SFA’s third choice.
With relatively little excitement surrounding the appointment there is a distinct yearning amongst supporters for structural change within the organisation and also a revamp of how the game is played on the pitch. All of that begs the question – why Alex McLeish?
The Scottish Football Association were adamant from the outset that the manager they were going to appoint would be British, preferably Scottish, which immediately narrowed down the pool of talent they could choose from. Let’s not forget that Slaven Billic, Ronald Koeman and Marco Silva were all available throughout the process and, without a doubt, would have injected far more enthusiasm and passion into both the players and fans.
Even for a British manager, McLeish is hardly the one of the first names that springs to mind when you talk about nurturing young players and rebuilding a team from, what is essentially, rock-bottom. Despite being ranked 31st in the world, there’s nothing in recent memory to warrant the nation being even remotely close to such levels.Embed from Getty Images
The reasoning behind that can be summed up with one word, “inconsistency”. In order to even dream of qualifying for a World Cup or European Championship – which would constitute success for the Scots given their failure to qualify for the last 10 major tournaments – the squad needs to be able to string together a series of consistently competent performances over the course of a 10 match, 14-month qualification period.
Unfortunately for them, far too many performances fail to match expectation with draws against Lithuania and Slovenia directly leading to their elimination. A win against either opponents would have seen them advance to the play-offs for this summer’s World Cup finals.
And therein may be the reasoning for McLeish’s appointment because with all the tinkering that took place to the starting XI, through tactical changes or injuries, it was always going to be nigh on impossible to achieve a winning rhythm.
But the problem isn’t even new, it’s been endemic since the turn of the century – at the very least – with Scotland consistently getting off to good starts in qualification before being pegged back in the latter stages. All of which suggests that the team have problems both physically and mentally.
It’s not only stamina that’s an issue but, to be frank, so too is the talent pool to choose from; to such an extent that Gordon Strachan went as far as to say “genetically, we are behind” about the team he was then manager of, suggesting his squad were too short, slow and weak to mix it at the top level of international football.
Look deeper into the statistics though and you’ll find that Scotland – the second shortest team in 2015 – are in good company, with Spain being the smallest and Portugal being third shortest. Strachan (himself 5ft 6in) helped his country qualify for three major tournaments so it’s fair to say his genetics argument has been proven to be erroneous.
Then you come to the point that many raise; which is the Scottish Premiership just isn’t strong enough to produce top-quality footballers capable of qualifying for major tournaments. That argument is pretty much void as well, primarily because the Northern Ireland national team qualified for the 2016 Euros with a squad made up largely from the Scottish leagues.
Could it be, then, that Scotland just aren’t very good at football anymore?Embed from Getty Images
I, for one, certainly don’t think that is the case. Surely, nigh on six million people can produce a half decent eleven to put out on the football pitch and, indeed, the likes of Craig Gordon, Andy Robertson, Darren Fletcher and Robert Snodgrass are all more than good enough of turning it up a notch when required but there’s rarely in recent decades been an XI where talent is visibly running through from goalkeeper to striker.
Experience is certainly another factor and when you look at McLeish’s first squad named for the March friendlies, there are nine uncapped players, nine with less than five caps and only three with more than 20 appearances. McLeish may have these games as a ‘getting to know you’ period, but he is very aware that qualification for the next Euros will be upon him in no time. There will be little breathing room afforded him by the fans or media.
McLeish, for all the questions surrounding him, has stood the test of time within the managerial world which is more than can be said for most; he’s refused to bend from his traditional methods of playing the game – for good or for bad – but at least that means you know what you’re getting with him.
Hopefully for Scotland and their supporters McLeish can stand firm and bring about some much-needed improvement while all around him demand top-down reorganisation. He will need all his reserves of experience and composure to keep things simple and bring back the passion for the, that’s when Scotland can really make a statement to be proud of.
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