Performances are always preceded by expectations, which are always then affected by the nature of the performance. When low expectations are followed by a good performance the inclination is always for expectations to rise in accordance with the newly achieved standard.
In a perfect world of perpetual progress this would be both rational and rewarded; in an imperfect of world of eternal return it would be naïve and frequently punished. Because it happens again and again in exactly the same way, but differently, Football is like a little model of the latter, theoretical world (which, incidentally, Nietzsche said we should use as a matrix to evaluate the value of our lives: would your life be worth reliving?). One consequence of this is the belief that progress is attained simply by doing the same thing again, only slightly better. This admittedly logical assumption is complicated by the frequency of games played in each domestic season, but can be purely applied to the intermittent competition of qualification for an international tournament.
This is especially true in Europe where a maximum of 12 competitive games are played over 2 seasons, which trickle is for most teams followed by a summer entirely without competition. Where that is the case, as it is this summer for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the last performance, coming at the end of an ultimately disappointing series of results, is given particular significance. Since there is so little room for error within qualification itself clues as to the viability from a project must be sought elsewhere. Competitive fixtures are always preferable as a guide to friendlies, even more so when, as in the case of a final qualifier, they can be neatly tagged onto a different narrative.
Bad final performances, like Northern Ireland’s surrender against Estonia and near no-show against Italy, are easy to read. Something has to change; you can’t get do much about the players; Nigel Worthington resigns.
Good performances, though such as those enjoyed this week (though to different extents and results) by Wales and Scotland, are tricky.
After a dismal showing in the most recent round of World Cup qualification, Scotland ‘kept faith’ with George Burley on the basis of a positive final showing (as with Tuesday’s, in defeat) against Holland at Hampden. The SFA apparently ‘saw signs of encouragement’ against the eventual World Cup finalists sufficient to ‘back’ Burley to ‘lead us’ into qualification for the Euros. As it transpired, Burley’s backing (stated in September) didn’t last beyond a November defeat in Wales (a reverse so brutal the Glasgow Herald’s match reporter felt moved to quote Macbeth IN HIS TITLE) and he was replaced by Craig Levein in December.
Scotland at the end of 2009 serve as an object lesson against allowing one good performance to skew your expectations upwards. Each performance is a tenth of your qualifying campaign, but one good performance does not a campaign make.
Fans, the media (hoho) and, especially, football associations should, instead, employ a more holistic matrix. I am no expert (really), but I would suggest this should have to do with the trend of performances across the campaign as a whole, the emergence of players and their rapport with the manager.
Each of these criteria suggest better times ahead for both Wales and Scotland.
Wales’s case is easy to evaluate. With their young manager, captain and left-wing juggernaut and encouraged by consecutive wins (including the group stage manna of away wins) on the back of a narrow defeat at Wembley, Wales have good cause for optimism going into World Cup qualification.
Scotland’s case, partly by dint of the abortive attempt to have Burley oversee the campaign, is slightly less clear. From the quite serious low points of a 4-6-0 in Prague and a 97th minute winner against Liechtenstein, though, Levein and his players have shown an increasingly sure international touch. The emergence, too, of new international goalscorers Craig Mackail-Smith and David Goodwillie and providers Barry Bannan and Charlie Adam (who did play twice, though only in friendlies, for Burley) provides encouragement – especially since the players and manager can learn about international football together.
Looking back, then, Scotland and Wales should be encouraged by their final performances in their latest round of qualifiers and should nourish that with the progress both exhibited through the groups as a whole. In World Cup qualifying, next season, they face each other; they should look forward to it.