Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Levein so soon?
This week's North of the Border examines the mounting pressure on Scotland boss Craig Levein and Rudi Skacel's affiliation with Hearts.
LEVEIN SO SOON?
With four of ten matches played, the obituaries were being written for Scotland's World Cup campaign on Tuesday night in Belgium and for the tenure of the manager, Craig Levein, too.
In Brussels, Scotland came up against the fastest-rising team in international football. Belgium have a team packed with players in their early and mid-20s, of colossal accumulative value, with a balance of talent throughout the team yet also an unmistakeable obligation to attack. It is easy to imagine Vincent Kompany, their captain and a goalscorer in the 2-0 win over Scotland, lifting an international trophy in the next ten years.
This looked a match for which Scotland's options had been removed. If they attacked, they would be massacred. They had to defend resolutely and forage for whatever scraps they could find when they had fleeting possession. Their problem, and that of their coach, is that they have played in a similar fashion when the opposition has provided none of the spectacular threat they faced in Belgium.
The 4-6-0 formation sent out in Prague in the previous campaign has since been a weight around Levein's neck. The World Cup fixtures began with a home double header against Serbia and Macedonia. For both matches, Scotland played within their shell. Belgium's brilliance reminded the spectator of just how ordinary their opponents seemed.
And even with these necessary defences, Belgium could have butchered Scotland. Allan McGregor made many fine saves before two quick second-half goals ensured a just result. One triple stop in the first half was remarkable. Had they lost 5-0, few would have found the scoreline a misrepresentation of the gap between the teams.
The previous Friday, Scotland lost 2-1 to Gareth Bale. The Tottenham Hotspur superstar dived horribly for the penalty that levelled the score, clicking his heels together once in front of Shaun Maloney and then scoring from the spot. His second goal was spectacular, but the shooting opportunity was gift-wrapped by Charlie Adam, a recent substitute, who fouled Bale and then, after a short free-kick, closed him down with all the energy of the father who lets his six-year-old son win a race to make him feel good about himself. The goal was Bale's work, but the assist went to Adam. Before either Welsh goal, a Steven Fletcher header was disallowed incorrectly. The officials ruled a cross by Adam had gone out of play when it did not.
There was misfortune in Cardiff, but there was also the fine performance of Fletcher, who was foolish but mismanaged by Levein in the stand-off that denied Scotland their best striker for more than a year. This becomes another item of evidence against the Scotland coach.
That in his favour is more abstract. Levein and those calling for patience from the Scottish FA claim there has been progress under his stewardship and that the coach has put in place a vastly improved structure underneath the national team.
Now, however, and into 2013, Scotland are bottom of their group, beneath Wales, Macedonia, Serbia, Belgium and Croatia, the top seeds who they are yet to face. That is a monumental fact, one that overshadows pretty much anything else there is to say about it all.
THANK YOU SIR (MAY I HAVE ANOTHER)
Rudi Skacel, a hero of Hearts supporters in two spells at the Edinburgh club, has been training with them again, as a free agent. It seemed an automatic fit: the Czech has no club, his former employers have a light squad and nobody who plays between midfield and attack like Skacel can in the SPL. They love him. He loves them. But they didn't get together. What was with that?
This week we found out. It turns out that Hearts have been subjected to a transfer embargo by the SPL. Perhaps, in the great tradition of Animal House, that should be a Double Secret Transfer Embargo, as it appears to have been in effect for a month, but nobody knew about it until this week.
The reason for this action is a familiar one. Hearts have not been able to pay some senior staff their October salaries, just as the September wages were also delayed. After multiple similar offences last season, the SPL added to their arsenal some extra sanctions for financial offences.
That Hearts are the first to feel its force is more of a surprise than their track record suggests. Tynecastle saw a brutal cull of the wage bill during the close season and during the summer they also sold David Templeton to Rangers. Any further cuts to the playing budget would be likely to greatly reduce their competitiveness in the top half of the division, yet here they are, still struggling to get by.
The finances of Hearts have been impenetrable since Vladimir Romanov took control of the club in 2004. The apparently strangled cashflow at a club that had the biggest wages-to-turnover ratio in Scottish football before the recession could be down to the fact that their owner - whose bank hosts Hearts' debt, which has been manipulated by equity release - seems to have lost a little love for his expensive plaything.
Hearts' Scottish Cup win last season may be hard to match in a bleaker financial future at Tynecastle. Recent signposts indicate that consequences of these new conditions may be harsher still.
The first finalists of the season were decided last Sunday, but they will have to wait until April to get it on.
The Scottish Football League's Challenge Cup will be contested by Partick Thistle, second to Dunfermline Athletic on goal difference at the top of the First Division, and Queen of the South, who lead the Second Division and who famously scalped Rangers in the quarter-finals of this competition.
In the semi-finals, they did not need the penalty shootout that did for Rangers. Arbroath were dispatched in extra time, by a Ryan McGuffie goal. Partick took care of Cowdenbeath in regulation time with a goal from Steven Craig, a forward who has played all over the First Division.
The knockout competition for the lower leagues is unique in more ways than one, not least in the length of the break between the semi-finals and the final. This is partly because no final venue is named until after the finalists are known, so as to find a venue best suited to both sets of supporters. Those discussions were taking place this week. Don't expect Hampden, but don't discount the draw of this fixture for supporters of either team.