Scotland’s plight is deep-rooted: not so long ago they became the first ever nation to qualify for five consecutive World Cups but with the exception of the odd respectable if ultimately futile campaign, they’ve since slid ever backwards. Over the last two decades they’ve been hamstrung by under-investment in infrastructure and a lack of home-grown players getting a game at senior level. That’s not to mention the steep rise in competition caused by the breakup of the Eastern Bloc. As Scotland’s co-efficient falls, groups get tougher and qualification becomes an ever more remote possibility.
Whoever replaces Craig Levein wont solve any of these problems – they aren't going to qualify Scotland for Brazil or, in all likelihood, for the tournament after that. However, the right appointment might at least inject some optimism back into the Tartan Army and some respectability back into results. The other harsh truth is that, while Scottish managers dominate the British game, the national team is not an attractive prospect to a big name – Moyes and Lambert simply aren’t coming. Nevertheless, as Hazard, Kompany et al home into view, speculation is already rife about who might replace the under-achieving Levein should he be clearing his desk in the near future.
Strachan’s has been the name most mentioned in the press since the Welsh disaster effectively ended Scotland’s hopes of reaching Rio. As with all the possible candidates, he wouldn’t be universally welcomed but he has enough on his CV to suggest he could do a job. At Celtic he was technically more successful than his lauded predecessor Martin O’Neill in that he got the club beyond the group stages of the Champions League twice, and won domestic titles on a fraction of O’Neill’s budget. However, critics of his time at Parkhead might point to his tactical rigidity and apparent blindness to weak spots in the team. His tenure at Middlesbrough was pretty much disastrous and often in football, you’re only as good as your last job. There’s a lot more in the plus column than the minus though. His famously frosty relationship with the Scottish media could work against him, and it’s also a big leap to assume he’d want the job. He’s on record as saying he lost the passion for management and his next job would have to be right to reignite the fire – is Scotland that job? There’s only one way to find out. Overall, Strachan is probably rightly perceived as the best candidate.
Overall, Strachan is probably rightly perceived as the best candidate.
Like Strachan, his recent managerial outings have been disastrous. It’s safe to assume that he won’t be getting the keys to the city of Birmingham after his ill-fated reigns at City and Aston Villa. Before that, though, he made a pretty good fist of the Scotland job. Although criticised at the time, the years under Levein and George Burley have shown just how well he did to nearly qualify for a major tournament and claim the scalp of France along the way. Like Walter Smith before him, his Scotland side weren’t exactly a joy to watch but then neither is Levein’s and at least McLeish racked up a few points along the way. Some might see restoring a previous incumbent to post as a backward step but when what’s come since has been so abject, it might be like a return to the good old days.
The former Bolton boss may very well be back at Burnley by the time you read this, but if that doesn’t happen, Coyle has to be a decent outside candidate for Scotland. Okay, he played for Ireland but he’s as Scottish as Irn Bru and though his resume is not without black marks, it wasn’t very long ago that he was seen as one of the UK’s hottest managerial prospects and was reportedly turning down Celtic among other high-profile suitors. The Bolton dream turned sour, with relegation followed by just three wins in the Championship, but his achievements with Burnley speak for themselves and his knowledge of both the Scottish and English game would be beneficial for a squad normally composed of players from the SPL, lower Premiership and upper Championship. These are areas that Coyle knows well.
McCall’s tenure as Motherwell boss has been a raging success, with an inexpensive and largely young side finishing third in the SPL and playing in the Champions League qualifiers. He’s doing it again this season: Motherwell were early-season league leaders and will be among the favourites to finish second. Whereas he can’t lay claim to having built the squad, he has marshalled it well and exceeded expectations. His time at Bradford City ended disappointingly but the early signs were actually promising and he has fulfilled that promise to a degree at Fir Park. It’s a big jump from Motherwell to Scotland and McCall is still relatively unproven but a young coach could be seen as forward thinking. His track record as one of Scotland’s better players of recent times would earn him some goodwill, though his strong associations with Rangers would not endear him to the green and white element of the Scots’ support.
It’s a big jump from Motherwell to Scotland and McCall is still relatively unproven but a young coach could be seen as forward thinking.
Since we’re talking about young coaches, former Celtic centre-half Mackay has to be worth considering as a dark horse. He steered Watford away from relegation and took them in roughly the right direction before taking over at Cardiff City. Getting to the Championship play-offs may be an almost annual occurrence for the Bluebirds, but it’s still a notable achievement given the comparative riches of their competitors. His feat in also leading them to that epic near-miss in the League Cup Final against Liverpool means he’s on this list on merit. He reportedly turned down the chance to replace Paul Lambert at Norwich City, though, so he could be equally hard to prise away for the Scotland job.
Okay, so this one is a real long shot, with a huge amount of politics standing in the way of any appointment. His name has been mentioned in relation the infamous EBTs that played a key role in the demise of his old club Rangers and there may be a sense that he is too caught up in events still being investigated to be considered clean enough to run the national team. The image of Rangers in Scotland right now is so tainted that fans of many clubs, not just Celtic, would find his appointment completely unpalatable. Equally, Smith is a Rangers man through and through, and will doubtless be affected by what many round Ibrox way perceive as harsh treatment of Rangers, old and new, by the SFA. Finally, there’s a perception that Smith retired when he stepped down at Ibrox, but he was clear at the time was that he wasn’t necessarily leaving football forever and international management is not a bad move for someone jaded by the day to day grind of club football. If these obstacles could be overcome, would he actually be a good candidate? Another backward move perhaps, but the tedious mediocrity he achieved with the national side has become the stuff of joyous nostalgia in the light of events since. If there’s one thing Smith knows how to do, it’s make a team of under-achievers or also-rans hard to beat. If Scotland want someone to hold the fort, steady the ship or any other staid military metaphor, he’d be first in line, but in terms of building for the future, he may not be a practical long-term choice.
Foreign coaches for national sides are common as muck these days, with the journeyman coach now as regular a feature at international level as in club football. Having jumped that bandwagon fairly early, the attitude of Scotland as a whole has sadly been soured by the Berti Vogts experiment of the early 2000s. Rightly or wrongly, Vogts has become a joke figure in Scots football mythology and is seen by some as a cautionary tale. That’s not to say that the fans wouldn’t accept a foreigner but it’d have to be a pretty strong candidate and whoever it was may not be granted the same kind of honeymoon period that a well-known Scottish coach might enjoy. The SFA will be aware of this and are likely to favour a domestic solution.
You can follow John on twitter @johnclarke1
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