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Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Bleak times for Strachan's Scotland

Neil White

In this week's North of the Border, Scotland fail in their World Cup quest and Dunfermline have some serious financial problems.

SEEDING IS BELIEVING

Scotland's World Cup campaign was reduced to a face-saving exercise after their chances of reaching Brazil were officially ended with back-to-back defeats in their latest qualifiers. These matches made an alternative scenario more likely: that Scotland will finish this campaign winless and rooted to the bottom of the group, destined for a drop in seeding for the next tournament. There are no talismanic talents capable of driving a mediocre group to better things, nor is there a golden generation on the horizon. These are bleak times for the national team. Scotland made it to five successive World Cup finals from 1974 to 1990, but since 1998 have failed to make it to another, or a European Championships. During that period they have had better players than they do now and they have benefited from higher seedings. To end the streak with this group of players, Gordon Strachan, the manager whose first competitive fixtures came with these defeats by Wales and Serbia, will need to inspire an against-the-odds effort across an eight-game campaign. This week he learned of the obstacles in his way. Wales' 2-1 win at Hampden was the more damaging of the two losses. Scotland blew a winning position, but before they had obtained it Wales had destroyed them in a first half from which Scotland were fortunate to escape with their goal and their pride intact. It appeared that the advantage lay in the level of application, the full-throttle pressing of the Welsh team, and that is hard to take for a Hampden crowd losing its heart. They can grumble less about the standard of player. With the exception of the lack of a superstar of the calibre of Gareth Bale, or an emerging talent on the scale of Aaron Ramsey, Wales pick from a comparable pool, which was reflected in the previous narrow defeat in Cardiff. However, Scotland are currently outgunned by most opponents. Their go-to striker, Steven Fletcher, is a low-ranking Premier League man at Sunderland. When he was replaced due to injury against Wales, on came Kenny Miller, a 33-year-old two games into his season with Vancouver in MLS. Against Serbia, Strachan was without a handful of first-choice players and ended up with a team that was low on experience and leadership. While these players came from low-ranking clubs in England's top division, or clubs in the SPL or the Championship, Serbia selected from top-four Premier League teams and the big hitters in Germany, the Netherlands and Italy. That's before you get to Belgium and Croatia, the two teams who will progress to the finals and the play-offs. And this situation will only get worse once Scotland slide down the seedings. Scotland and Strachan need to realign expectation at this point. The initial aim should be to finish one place higher than the seeding the team starts with. That will be a victory. Over eight games, and without a highly favourable draw, a top-two finish is an unreasonable target.

ADMINISTRATION ERRORS

On Wednesday we learned that Dunfermline Athletic have entered interim administration, the only alternative to liquidation after Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs obtained a winding-up order over an unpaid tax bill of 134,000. HMRC may still press for liquidation, but as the softer route is likely to yield a higher return for creditors, that appears the most likely outcome. Dunfermline were the last club to be relegated from the SPL and the huge revenue gulf between the top two tiers in Scottish football is the key factor in this outcome. However, more troubling than the long-standing dangers inherent in the SPL model since its inception is the spider's web of debt and ancillary companies around Gavin Masterton, the majority shareholder who is also a major creditor and whose businesses own the stadium, East End Park. Aside from the tax bill and wages owed to players, the majority of the debt - more than 8 million - is due to Masterton and other directors, past and present. How that level of debt - far, far beyond the sustainable for a club of this size - was allowed to accrue by the club's custodians is an issue that must now be addressed. As with the collapse of Rangers, the full story has not been mined and the mismatch between a complex business story and the reporters - this one included - whose job it is to cover sport is damaging here. This season, Dunfermline's championship moves ended when the size of the mess they were in became apparent. Since then they have slipped out of the race. Now the stakes are far higher than determining which league they will play in next season. The administrator is likely to enforce redundancies on the playing and non-playing staff. It may get worse than that. As the latest exile from a league formed at the expense of every other football club in Scotland, and one who spent big in the boom years, Dunfermline were vulnerable to this kind of calamity. In that they are not alone and as Scottish football attempts to redraw its boundaries, that debate should be formed by what is happening at East End Park and everything that has led to this point.


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