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World Cup fall-out

Scotland's soul-searching begins

September 10, 2009
By Neil McDougall

If they gave out medals for breast-beating and soul-searching, Scotland would be kings of the world across the sporting spectrum. Even before the dust had settled on the national team's wholly predictable 1-0 defeat against the Dutch at Hampden Park, the knives were out, not just for George Burley, but for a variety of SFA officials, including the hapless George Peat, who seems to believe that Scotland's failure to qualify for next summer's World Cup starts and ends with Chris Iwelumo. If only it was that simple.

Darren Fletcher
GettyImagesScotland captain Darren Fletcher reacts during the Dutch defeat.

On Wednesday evening, within an hour of the outcome being resolved, the BBC convened a think tank, including the likes of Pat Nevin, Billy Dodds and Craig Brewster, to discuss the vexed question - where now for the Scots? - which has led to media company switchboards being swamped with calls from angry supporters throughout the last week.

Yet the panel's answers merely accentuated the scale of the problems which will confront Burley's successor if, as expected, he is relieved of the manager's role later this month. Quite simply, Scottish football at the moment is advancing with all the precision of two tanked-up members of the Tartan Army trying to pass through revolving doors and the malaise isn't confined to the national side, but permeates every corner of the sport.

In terms of facilities, there has been no political will to create the indoor pitches and Astroturf pitches which might develop skills, amidst the vagaries of the Scottish climate. At youth level, there has been a chronic lack of foresight from the country's clubs, sparking a situation where promising teenagers are too often shunted out of the picture, while the SPL contenders eye foreign recruits to fill gaps in their team. And this is before we even move on to the Old Firm's domination of everything in their backyard, which has destroyed the notion of the SPL being a truly competitive league.

In short, while Burley might be an easy scapegoat, whether he goes or stays isn't the central issue. It wasn't him who disgraced his country, like Barry Ferguson and Allan McGregor, by delivering V-signs to the press and - by extension - Scotland's long-suffering supporters. It wasn't him who squandered glorious opportunities in a number of the qualifying matches, whether we hark back to Iwelumo's miss against Norway or Kenny Miller's lapse against Holland. And it wasn't him who committed stupid bookable offences, after the fashion of Gary Caldwell, whose sending-off away to the Norwegians proved the catalyst for a dramatic collapse from the Scots once reduced to ten men.

Ultimately, the reality is that they weren't good enough to merit a place in South Africa next summer. Darren Fletcher admitted as much, although his level of performance was one of the most disappointing aspects of Scotland's campaign. Yes, Burley might have perpetrated tactical errors and chosen the wrong people at the wrong time, but he was right to discard Kris Boyd, following the latter's hissy fit and decision to walk out on his country: the sort of petulant behaviour, unburdened by common sense, which springs from some players believing they are bigger than the interests of their team.

Still, the priority now must be to prepare properly for the next qualifying assignment, which is the 2012 European Championships. On the plus side, the Scots possess a number of genuinely talented youngsters and should be committed to encouraging the development of talents such as Scott Brown, Steven Whittaker, Ross Forbes, Chris Maguire, Lewis Stevenson, John Fleck and Stephen McGinn. They also boast a number of individuals, led by James McFadden, the aforementioned Fletcher, Craig Gordon, David Marshall and Kenny Miller, who have the ability and work ethic to prosper in the years ahead.

Nobody should pretend that there is an abundance of international-class talent ready to fill the boots of those such as David Weir, who will now retire from Scotland duty. But there are minuscule green shoots of recovery in the distance.

George Burley
GettyImagesBurley came under scrutiny following Scotland's failure to reach the World Cup

On the managerial front, it seems that Gordon Strachan and Graeme Souness are the favourites to replace Burley, yet neither man exactly inspires confidence, either on their previous track record or their capacity to thrive with modest resources at their disposal. During his tenure at Celtic, Strachan was never afraid to turn any minor kerfuffle into a full-scale row, and has been voluble in his criticism of fans, who swap banter/abuse on phone-in programmes and the internet, which makes one wonder how he would react to the goldfish bowl of being in charge of Scotland's fortunes.

Souness, for his part, was a man with the unhappy knack of starting a fight in an empty house when he was at Rangers in the late 1980s and fell out with everybody from the Celtic faithful to the tea lady at St Johnstone! Neither, therefore, is an ideal candidate for the job, except in one important respect: they are both out of work at the moment and would come cheap.

Whatever transpires, the coming months will serve up more illustrations of Scotland's world-class powers of navel-gazing. For those of us who believe that Strachan and Souness are the kind of characters who would stand outside a pub, waiting for the Happy Hour to end, there is no indication yet of much light at the end of the tunnel.