Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Missing you already
MISSING YOU ALREADY
Scotland's hopes of qualifying for the World Cup appear fragile at best after a home double-header against middle-ranked teams yielded two points. Neither Serbia nor Macedonia were fortunate to leave Hampden with a draw and already, two games in to a 10-game schedule, Scotland are 10/1 outsiders to make it to Brazil in 2014. Those odds look generous.
Unravelling these two matches, few individuals are left with much cover for what lies ahead. Clearly, the national coach, Craig Levein, is among the most exposed. He talked up Serbia before the match and talked down the cost of a draw afterwards. Yet despite their demolition of Wales three days after they drew 0-0 in Glasgow, Serbia were a soft target at Hampden. Their young team were uncertain; technically superior to Scotland, but evidently vulnerable when Levein's team had the momentum. Levein, however, puts out protected teams and is married to the 4-1-4-1 formation.
Against Macedonia, he tried to open up by filling his midfield with penetrative players, but the holes created worked both ways. In the end, Macedonia had the best chances to improve on the 1-1 scoreline. Three times Alan McGregor, the goalkeeper, made three one-on-one saves. Macedonia also struck a post and the crossbar.
Levein has rarely sounded as raw as he did after the Serbia game in a flash interview for radio. He admitted he should have made changes to the team sooner than he did. Later, he would describe the dilemma at 0-0 as 'stick or twist'. In the card game '21' the latter option is that of risk-reward, the former that of caution, giving the opponent the initiative. It is an image that Levein has never shaken off as Scotland manager.
Damaged, too, are some of Levein's big players. In the first game, Charlie Adam, Steven Naismith and James Morrison, three starters who play in the Premier League in England, had perhaps their worst game for their country. Adam and Naismith were benched for the Macedonia match. In that game, however, there were shambolic periods of play when passes went directly out of play from close range, or were so far off target that it became a challenge to work out for whom they had been intended.
At the top of it all, Levein's decision to select Kenny Miller as his frontline forward and the performance of the veteran drew most of the frustration from the Hampden crowd.
The players challenging Miller for that role included Jordan Rhodes and Jamie Mackie. Levein's decision here - even without further analysis of his dispute with Steven Fletcher, the best Scottish striker of his generation and valued by the market at £14m - is illustrative of what went wrong for Scotland and why a rift now appears to exist between the team and the supporters that left Hampden heartbroken twice in four days. It's worth a closer look.
Miller is 32 and playing for the Vancouver Whitecaps in Major League Soccer. At his peak, he moved for between £2m and £3m several times, playing for both Old Firm clubs and almost exclusively in the Championship for Wolverhampton Wanderers and Cardiff City. His game is well-defined: an incredibly hard-working forward, who can keep defences honest and is quick enough to get in behind them. He has a career average of a goal every three games, less than that if we exclude one prolific season as the focal point of Rangers' attack in the SPL. In over 60 games for Scotland, his lack of composure in front of goal has been exposed as the crucial trade off for his endless endeavour. Miller has missed several big chances in big games.
Rhodes is untested at international level and a different kind of striker. The 22-year-old scored 73 times in 126 games for Huddersfield Town in League One. That led to Blackburn Rovers paying £8m for him this summer. He scored eight times in eight games for the Scotland Under-21 team. He is a pure-bred goal scorer. His lack of experience and the likelihood that he requires amendments to Levein's favoured formation counted against him.
Mackie represents a halfway house. He is a versatile forward, capable of replicating Miller's game in the 4-1-4-1. He is 26, has a similar goals return as Miller, although has played more games outside of the striker position, and he is starting in the Premier League with Queens Park Rangers.
Levein's decision to go with a limited forward, past his best and playing in a second tier league, was based on loyalty and trust and follows the club ethos that the coach has attempted to bring to the national team. Scotland have shown us that opportunities are so scarce, that margins are so narrow and that talent is so rare that other criteria must be applied.
Charles Green, the chief executive of Rangers, announced this week that his club has withdrawn their participation in the SPL's inquiry into alleged illegal payments to players and staff through Employee Benefit Trusts (EBTs) during its previous existence in the top division.
Green's protest at the inquiry and the operation of the SPL in general, was enlightening. It forced a look into the muddy waters left behind by the chaos of the seismic shifts that took place as Rangers were forced into liquidation.
The statement released by Green and Rangers revealed deal-making during the period when he was trying to have the reborn Rangers voted in to the SPL and then the First Division. In return for a new start in either of the top two tiers of Scottish football, a range of sanctions were discussed, among them punishments for what Green calls "the EBT issue".
When that vote went against the reformed Rangers, the deal was off the table. Now the SPL, who was willing to agree a punitive cost to whatever rule breaches occurred, has appointed a commission led by Lord Nimmo Smith to examine the affair. And Rangers, who were willing to cop whatever plea bargain was submitted, deny the legitimacy of an SPL inquiry whose purpose is to examine whether their league championship was influenced by rule breaches and, if so, whether those records should be revised accordingly.
Worse, the statement, in parts antagonistic and aggressive, more than the action it declared deepened the existing animosity between Rangers and those governing Scottish football - including the clubs that make up the self-governing SPL.
The debacle around the collapse of Rangers left virtually all participants stained. There is still an obligation for those parties - including the new owners at Ibrox - to move forward responsibly. Green's statement, which again suggested some member clubs within the SPL were out to get Rangers, at times read like the worst kind of rabble-rousing and damages more than the ever-fading prospects of a clean resolution to a dark chapter in the story of Scottish football.