Rationalising the emotional investment of following the Scottish national side home and away is a fool’s business. Sure, there is an argument to be made that the fixture list is a merely convenient framework around which thousands can plan holidays, independent of Scotland’s footballing form, but the palpable deflation among the away contingent of Brussels’ King Baudoin Stadium for the latest World Cup qualifier shows just how important the final score is.
Of course, the most significant damage had been inflicted four nights previously. Some faint optimism had been nurtured with the timely return of Steven Fletcher in the build-up to the Wales fixture, and as the travelling support splashed their way down Wellington Street and Ninian Park Road there was a sense that the game could prove a turning point for an ailing side. Any such hope was misplaced.
The Welsh, themselves carrying the dying hopes of a struggling managerial incumbent, played with vigour and a semblance of attacking ambition lacking in the visitors. The made efficient use of stand-out player Gareth Bale down a right flank defensively neglected by Scotland, with only Danny Fox left to deal with the obvious threat.
For all that the Wales result has been explained away as a product of Bale’s brilliance and some shoddy refereeing, from a Scottish point of view these serves as some pretty weak papering over numerous debilitating chasms. Most immediate among which is the man in the technical area.
Those looking back on Craig Levein’s managerial tenure – a period which will doubtless soon be referred to in the past tense – will see a joyless reign. The mistakes he’s made have not been remedied or even acknowledged, stubbornly conservative team selection in particular testing the patience of supporters and journalists alike. Ultimately, a spell spanning just shy of two years with competitive victories only against Liechtenstein and Lithuania and a team playing worse than the sum of its component parts is only likely to end in one way for a man whose popularity among the Tartan Army has never been substantial.
The current malaise culminated in Belgium’s capital, where their admittedly strong side provided a lesson in swift, skilful football. Although holding out for seventy minutes through some excellent goalkeeping from McGregor and some woodwork intervention, Christian Benteke and Vincent Kompany sealed a win with a scoreline which flattered the travellers; the second a rasping strike which belied the Manchester City captain’s position. The gulf in ability and verve throughout was as alarming as it was demoralising.
It would be hollow to proclaim this as Scotland’s lowest ebb; there have been several periods worthy of such a title in the post 1998 era. That will come as little solace for Levein though, a man surely doomed in his obstinate attempts to reverse the slide. Small comfort too, for the spirited Tartan Army, as many as 5,000 of whom made the trip to both matches and drowned their sorrows in and around Brussels’ Grotemarkt with high-ABV Belgian ales. Although many will protest otherwise, citing the camaraderie and merrymaking which surrounds such trips, the final score is what counts the most, and watching a Scotland team surrender so meekly on a regular basis isn’t much fun.