Last October, Scotland went into the final game of their World Cup qualifying campaign with a clear task – they knew that a win in Ljubljana against Slovenia would almost certainly land them a play-off place, bringing them just one step from qualification. However, they toiled for a 2-2 draw which was not enough, and the old cliché of “glorious failure” had struck again. It resulted in manager Gordon Strachan uttering a now infamous observation about their failure to beat Slovenia and their overall lack of success in qualifying for tournaments: “Genetically, we are behind…maybe we get big women and men together and see what they can do.” Whether you think Strachan’s thoughts are reasonable or ridiculous, the reality is clear – Scotland have not managed to qualify for an international tournament this century. Others who have include Iceland, Albania, Panama, and North Korea. Since Alex McLeish, in his second stint with the national team, has stepped in, the beginning signs have been poor – 6 defeats in his first 8 matches. Where has it all gone wrong for Scotland? Why have a team that were tournament regulars in decades gone by, once more found itself unable to reach those tournaments again?
An obvious issue with the Scottish team is the decline in the quality of individual players. We simply do not have the same kinds of talent we had in times gone by – players such as Denis Law, Kenny Dalglish, and Graeme Souness seem so far away from what we have at our disposal now. That being said, there are some diamonds in the rough, such as Andrew Robertson and Kieran Tierney. A lack of individual talent cannot be used as an excuse, however. Some of the other nations who have qualified for tournaments in recent times arguably have players of a lesser quality than our own, and there are numerous examples in recent history of teams we should be beating but don’t. You can only play with the hand you’re dealt, and Scotland have consistently found themselves folding that hand.
Of course, when any football team is failing it is often the manager that bears the brunt of the criticism. With McLeish, the general reception toward his appointment as manager was lukewarm at best: he already had an uphill struggle trying to win over the fans. In his defence, his initial results do not look as poor when you see some of the opposition we have faced like the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal. The unfortunate truth, however, is that these losses have not been positive performances to learn from, but rather drab affairs that indicate a hopelessness about the state of the national team. Many of Scotland’s players look deflated and apathetic on the pitch, and perhaps this reflects what is happening off the pitch with the manager. The tactical choices by McLeish have been criticised as being outdated and boring, and the continued attempts to shoehorn in both of our two talented left-backs – Robertson and Tierney – into the team by playing one of them out of position is questionable. Some would suggest McLeish should step down now before it is too late, but the problems with the Scottish national team run deeper than any one manager.
The Scottish FA are the ultimate arbiters of the Scottish game, and the health of it is reliant on their actions. They have shown time and time again that they are incompetent and not fit for purpose. For example, when Strachan left his post, the SFA made a public pursuit to court the services of Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill – his success in getting a smaller nation than ourselves to qualify for a tournament made him a logical choice as the next manager. O’Neill’s rejection of Scotland to stay with Northern Ireland left the SFA red-faced, especially considering the fact he was already based in Edinburgh. This then forced them to make the much more underwhelming appointment of McLeish as manager. And that isn’t even mentioning their numerous failings in the management of our domestic game – it is hard to see how the national team can make any real progress when the governance behind it cannot do their jobs properly.
With all these problems surrounding the national team, it has resulted in lowered expectations by both fans and the management. After Scotland’s 3-1 loss to Portugal in a friendly at Hampden, McLeish said that he thought it was a “good performance”. Have standards fallen so low that an uninspiring defeat in our own stadium is seen as acceptable now? How can we expect to qualify for an international tournament if half-hearted efforts are the norm? Mentality is the key behind any great sporting team and it seems this Scotland side lack the right one to improve themselves.
Ultimately, even if Scotland did somehow achieve qualification for a tournament, it would not solve the systemic issues at the root of the national team. If change is to come, it must be fundamental: we are lagging massively behind other nations in footballing terms and a mere change of manager is not going to solve that. With that being said, the Tartan Army will still be backing their nation to the hilt as they always do, and while we acknowledge our tribulations, we must still hope for the best…come on Scotland!