Judging by today’s newspapers, and the comments from Stewart Regan, it seems only a matter of time before the Craig Levein era comes to a shuddering, juddering halt. The view from the press box seems to be nearly unanimous; the national coach is about to be fired, if he doesn’t walk first. I have very little by way of sympathy.
He earns the big bucks, takes the tough decisions, and ultimately has to answer for his mistakes, as any of us would. That there have been mistakes is beyond doubt, and the group table does not lie. Its verdict is the harshest of them all. Bottom after four games, and our World Cup hopes all but gone. It’s an appalling state of play.
In the event Belgium was Craig Levein’s last stand, we will have a new manager in place by the time the national team plays Luxembourg in next month’s friendly. I suspect that if Levein is gone by then that the new man will be an interim appointment only, with the long-term future not going to be decided until early next year. There is a home friendly against Estonia in February, and then the next phase of World Cup qualifiers in March. One would imagine that this issue will be settled once and for all before those games take place.
It is not good custom to begin discussing a man’s replacement whilst the man in question is still in a job. It’s not good form. Some will call it disrespectful, and it might well be. But we’re all big boys and girls, and we all know that kind of chatter will take place, those kind of discussions will be had and the opinions put out there for debate. The media has already started … and that’s part of the problem I have with it. I am not bothered by the fact the discussion is going on. In my view that’s all to the good, although Craig’s future has not been sorted out yet. The discussion needs to happen, and the fans need to have their say.
What bothers me is some of the names being hawked up by the press. As usual the papers are full of suggestions, and those suggestions all appear to have one thing in common. They are part of the same old cabal we’ve seen time and again. In short, there are people in the media who are trying to get their mates the gig. People like McLeish, like Smith, like Davies. People with pals in the press, all of whom would take the national team backwards, and some of whom, as I’ll discuss, are damaged goods anyway. It’s scandalous their names are even being mentioned.
Let me put the cards on the table. There is only one show in town. His name is Gordon Strachan. For the members of The Tartan Army, there is clear criteria which has to be met. The next manager has to be a proven winner.
He has to have experience at the highest level. And he has to have shown loyalty consistent with the position. Gordon Strachan ticks every box.
Strachan works in the media, of course, but he’s down south, and without the network of able backers he’d have if only he wanted to experience the joys of working on the Daily Record or appearing on Clyde’s weekend talk show. Without those friends, he is deprived of key allies to promote his cause … but he doesn’t really need them.
Look at the Scotland fans who were in Brussels, at the banner reading “Strachan SOS.” Look at the forums. Listen to the chatter. These guys know who the next Scotland manager should be. They know who they want to see in the chair. Many of them wanted him there last time around, before Craig Levein’s PR people got their way. Does that sound harsh? This qualifying campaign has been a disaster, but it was no more a disaster than the Euro qualifiers. I was not convinced of Levein’s bona fides from the start, and nothing I saw changed my mind. No matter the hype that surrounded him at the time, I looked at his career, at no major honours, and I wondered “Is this really the guy that Scotland needs to go forward?”
I look at Ireland, and how absolutely right they got their last appointment, at the ambition behind it, and I wonder why we’re not similarly ambitious. And then I think, if we’re not capable of going that high, then who else was there? I look at a guy like Jim Jefferies, and I look at his career, at the trophies he’s won, at the teams he’s done it with, and I think “If Levein is considered to have the credentials, why not this guy?” And the answer is obvious. Friends in the media are more useful to a manager who wants to get ahead in Scotland than all the success in the world. If enough of the newspapers are screaming your name, anything can happen.
I look at the papers right now, trailing the names Smith and McLeish and I see two men who have stabbed the country in the back, being touted for a return. In what world do people live who think this is a good idea? I’ve heard people say Smith would never have left for anyone but Rangers, but my answer to this is “So what?” In allowing him simply to walk out “because it was Rangers”, in allowing them to take the national coach without compensation, the door was opened wide for Alex McLeish to walk out when a club offer came along. I am staggered that we consistently sell our nation short by allowing such appalling behaviour.
There’s something else about Smith, and about McLeish, which makes the idea of hiring either of them again ridiculous, even dangerous. The media is already well aware that McLeish was the recipient of a £1.7 million EBT whilst at Rangers, and there are strong and persistent rumours that Walter Smith himself was a beneficiary of the scheme. Worse even than that are the potentially devastating, if true, stories that he received payments whilst being in the employ of the SFA, when he was the national coach. When the First Tier Tribunal verdict is announced, it’s been reported that HMRC will instigate a full-scale investigation into everything that happened at Ibrox in the last ten years, and both these men were deeply involved in that period of Rangers’ dark history.
We don’t yet know how serious the revelations regarding that time will be, or of what action the Revenue might wish to take. There is talk, and it cannot be easily dismissed, of criminal charges being filed against a number of individuals, and whilst there is no reason to believe that Smith or McLeish are amongst that group – indeed, they’re almost certainly not – is it really a chance the SFA wants to take? How much more damage do they want done to the game?
Smith and McLeish have already walked out on their country, and that should be reason enough for ruling their names out entirely. Both are damaged goods, mired in a scandal which continues to grow, and which might roll on for years to come. Their names should be nowhere near the Scotland job as a result. The game in this country cannot afford another disgrace. It cannot afford another crisis manufactured in the Blue Room.
Billy Davies name is also being thrown around, not surprisingly. I say that despite the fact he too is a manager with nothing in his career so far to suggest he’s international class. I heard a ridiculous defence of his “outstanding CV” on Clyde a few weeks ago, and checked it out for myself. It’s hardly the stuff legends are made of. He got one team to the play-offs, and then the Premiership. Wow. Tony Mowbray won the Championship, and got straight promotion without needing a play-off. He came to Celtic and the size of the job overwhelmed him, and he sunk like a stone. Davies has been sacked by Motherwell and Notts Forest, he quit Derby with them on the brink of relegation and he has already been linked with, and withdrew his interest in, the Scottish national job.
To give that job to Billy Davies is a triumph of media spin over substance. The oft quoted phrase that he is “probably the best manager at this level” – said level being mid-table English Championship ignominy – came from his then chairman at Notts Forest, a year before he sacked him. I’ve heard that phrase re-jigged and trotted out so often it’s become a cliché; various versions of it have him touted as “one of the best young managers in the country”, and “the best manager in the league”. He is neither, nor is he the best manager at that level. Even if he was, I think everyone would agree the Scottish National Team is on a different scale entirely.
Davies has built a rep for himself, and his “outspoken nature” has won him media friends north and south of the border. He is, indeed, good for a quote. Who can forget that in May 2010, with his job at Notts Forest on the line, he began touting himself for every available job in football, including the one at Celtic? Although he was still employed, although Forest were still paying his wages and relying on him to have their best interests at heart, Davies gave an astoundingly disloyal interview to STV where he said “There is not a job that I would not consider.” In another interview in August 2010, he blatantly dared the board to fire him, invoking the spectre of his lawyer. “If he wants to bring in someone more mild-mannered and quieter who doesn’t get the success that he’s after, then he knows what to do,” he said of the chairman. “I have not had a complaint or a grievance in my time here. At previous clubs, my lawyer had complaints and grievances – but not here. I’ve not had one fallout with the board but what I won’t do is stop telling people what is required to get success.” The truth is, although he’s gotten clubs to play-offs, he has also caused trouble everywhere he has been.
Do we really want this arrogant, know-all who does everything with a lawyer at his side, and who would be looking for his next job almost from the moment he had the reigns, taking on the long term project of leading our national team? Davies has been out of work for over a year since being jettisoned by Forest, and it’s not because he hasn’t been applying everywhere there was a vacancy open. In Scotland there is a widely held belief that in the fullness of time he will be the manager of Rangers, and that may well be the case. But having already watched a national coach use the job to rebuild his reputation and then swan off to Ibrox, it would be staggering if the SFA gave him an office at Hampden from which to undermine Ally McCoist and lay his claim to the job, as well as creating exactly the same situation which saw Smith depart some years ago. I have no faith in Davies managerial skills, and even less in his loyalty.
Gordon Strachan is everything Davies is not. Whilst equally outspoken, and certainly arrogant, he softens the sharper edge of his tongue with humour, often of the deadpan variety. He is quick-witted and cerebral. He is one of the genuine obsessives in the game, the kind of manager who watches matches two or three times to spot mistakes. He believes in strict discipline, but his players have also spoken of him as a warm, friendly man who is always on hand to help. None of this would matter, of course, if he was not also an excellent manager.
Let’s take the bad first; the spell at Middlesbrough, his last job in football, which was, to put it bluntly, a disaster. I remember watching his press conference when he got the job, and thinking that I had never seen a man more enthused and switched on about a new job, but I had misgivings for him, because I knew it was the wrong job. Middlesbrough were in terrible shape at the time, needing radical surgery. Strachan had inherited a similar shambles at Celtic, and few can forget the dreadful start he made to his managerial career there. That he rallied so quickly at Parkhead is one thing. The English Championship, because of the pressures involved and the need for managers to get to the EPL, is one of the most unforgiving arenas in football. I knew he had time, but only a little time, with which to get things right. When he started the following season badly, I had a sneaky feeling his time in the job was up.
Yet one only has to look at his behaviour in that case to see the calibre of the man peeking out from behind that bad record. He tore up his Borough contract, and walked away, rather than force the board’s hand, be dismissed and leave with a tidy pay-off. Strachan knew it was over, and as a man with great integrity and personal pride he did an honourable thing, and left of his own free will, in much the same way he quit at Celtic when he failed to win the title in his final year.
Gordon Strachan’s time at Celtic, that last year notwithstanding, was a triumph. There is a media myth that he was hated by the Celtic fans, a myth that can easily be dismissed out of hand by reading any of the message boards or blogs about the club whenever he is on TV or radio, or indeed mentioned at all. There is an almost universal respect and affection for him amongst the supporters and this is because whenever he talks about the club it’s clear he holds Celtic, and Scottish football, in high regard, and has a deep affection for them both. Strachan is a class act. His passion for football in this country is unequivocal. No man in the English media so talks up our game, so righteously defends it, so vigorously promotes all the very best things about it.
In this sense, one can see why he doesn’t have more cheerleaders in the Scottish press. His attitude towards football here is the exact anti-thesis of theirs. Whilst they revel in talking our national sport down – and is there a media anywhere which is as destructively negative about the game in their own country? I think not – he consistently talks it up. To listen to talk of “financial Armageddon” and how poor the players in the Scotland side are would depress you. You only to look at recent press statements released by the likes of John Hewitt, advising McLeish and Strachan not to even consider the job, because it could damage their careers to see what I mean. This kind of talk is disgraceful and should be condemned as such. You hear no such nonsense from Strachan himself, who talks about the Scottish game in a different, more confident, more hopeful way.
Furthermore, he instils that same confidence in the players around him.
Can it be denied that in his time at Celtic he took ordinary Scottish born players and made them better? Take Stephen McManus, who Strachan transformed from being a bit-part player at Celtic into a swaggering captain who took on, and bested, the likes of AC Milan and Manchester United. Did he make Stephen McManus a better player? I think he did. He did it by making him a more confident one, a player who believed in himself. He did the same with Gary Caldwell, another player seriously in need of Strachan’s deft touch.
The strengths of the Strachan managerial style are backed up by the tremendous success he brought to Celtic in his four years in charge; three titles, two League Cups, a Scottish Cup and twice reaching the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League. This is a real CV. This is verifiable, measurable success, not the sort of pseudo-success enjoyed by Davies, and which the press constantly gushes over. This is the real thing, with medals to prove it, with a place in the history books which nothing can ever erase. Gordon Strachan has managed – and succeeded – at the highest level. Add to this his wide knowledge of, and love for, the game here, and it is inconceivable that the SFA could find a better, more credentialed candidate for the job.
Of course, those same credentials were evident to all the last time it became clear to everyone and anyone who mattered (the fans, not the media) that a Scotland manager was on the way out, but procrastination and lack of vision saw it go to a man who had no record of winning trophies in 12 years of management, spanning 5 different clubs.
Scotland has paid a high price for the unfathomable decision to continue with George Burley at the helm after a disastrous World Cup campaign, only to sack him two months later after losing an international friendly. Strachan was available in September 2009, when Burley’s job was reviewed and deemed to be safe.
Eight weeks later, following the 3-0 hammering by the Welsh, he was dumped, but by then it was too late, as the man who should have replaced him had already gone to Middlesbrough. This mistake must not be repeated.
Even as recently as Monday, we had one hack, Ewan Murray, engaged in a futile and nonsensical attempt to explain how “Levein was the obvious and best candidate for the Scotland post when succeeding George Burley …” I know very few Scotland fans who would accept that as being true. If people like Murray have their way the next manager will be cut from the same cloth, one of the assortment of wearying names being trotted out right now, a loser, or worse, a traitor, but one with friends in the right places.
There is a story about how one high profile candidate for the England job once hired a PR firm in an effort to get the gig. This would not surprise me one bit. A few prominent voices in the media putting your case forward can work wonders. As it happened, that was the year the FA made the decision to push out the boat and bring in Fabio Cappelo. It didn’t work (thank God) but it was bold, and it was ambitious, and it was a statement of intent. It paid no heed to a media touting those whose only discernable skill was in working the press pack. A similarly wise decision was made this year when Harry Redknapp didn’t get the job after one of the most intense media campaigns I can ever remember to see a manager appointed in football.
If the SFA review board ultimately decides that the ill-fated Craig Levein era is over, the Scottish fans will be expecting the very best man available. There is one choice, and one choice only, who can unite the supporters, bring back the passion we’ve lost, who will talk up the game here in a way which inspires people instead of depressing them, and who has the respect, the gravitas and the CV to announce our seriousness about climbing those world rankings again.
His name is Gordon Strachan. He’s the only show in town.
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