Craig Levein was finally put out of his misery yesterday, 20 days after the 2-0 defeat in Belgium that ended Scotland's chances of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. That result, of course, was less damaging to Scotland's prospects, and Levien's present, than the 2-1 reverse suffered in Wales and the damaging home draws against Serbia and Macedonia. After 12 competitive matches, Levein has three victories as an international manager -- against Liechtenstein, twice, and Lithuania, a record the SFA has decided, with some justification, is not good enough. Fans seem to agree and were then, temporarily at least, put out of their misery too.
There are, generally, two types of response which greet an international manager's dismissal. The first, let's call it the nationalist's, is characterized by a sense of liberation: goodbye and good riddance, Turnip head! The second, and we can call this the cynic's, is more pessimistic: well, this will make no difference. The two positions differ in their understanding of the manager's role within a nation's football setup.
For the cynic, whose pessimism we might want to redescribe as realism, the manager is merely a figurehead whose job is to do the best with what he's got, but is not responsible for most of what he's got. Such a person will use the phrase "grass roots" a lot and complain that progress in qualification campaigns is impossible while kids are obsessed with Halo.
For the nationalist, whose team is, obviously, awesome!, the manager is an albatross-like figure preventing the nation's obvious awesomeness from manifesting in its football team. Graham Taylor's treatment by the Sun after England's failure to qualify for Euro '92 is the standard here. There are lesser examples, too, though where people don't necessarily expect their team to be awesome but, perhaps, not turgid. In this case, responsibility for a turgid team's turgidity will be laid at the door of the manager. Such a person will refer, often, to history and present teams from the ‘60s/'70s/'80s/'90s/2007 as evidence that their nation belongs on the global stage.
In most cases, neither position is wholly true and any manager's failure is a consequence of both a lack of resources and an inability to live up to a nation's sense of its own worth. But it can be more one than the other and in Levein's case Scotland's fans will hope that the bulk of the responsibility will prove to be his. Such a position, of course, can only be proved after the fact, by a significant upturn in fortunes following his replacement. Providing hope for fans, then, is the very low standards against which any upturn will be measured. Levein's Scotland really were turgid.
Despite protestations to the contrary from, amongst others, Charlie Adam and Darren Fletcher, the former Dundee United did a great job of making himself look like an albatross around the team's neck. Where Scotland's recent identity has been as a defensively solid side whose main threat is carried from set-pieces and thirty-five yard screamers, the players at Levein's disposal seemed more suited to a slightly more expansive game. Christophe Berra and Gary Caldwell, by default Scotland's first choice centreback pairing, are not, first of all, particularly solid defenders; Alan Hutton has played four games for Scotland this season and none for Aston Villa. In midfield, where previously Caldwell,Barry Ferguson and Darren Fletcher have offered a sound and primarily defensive base, James Morrison, Charlie Adam and Barry Bannan would seem to require a more expansive brief. Kenny Miller has continued upfront despite a move to Vancouver and at the expensive of (until very recently) the still goal-scoring Steven Fletcher and the potential of Jordan Rhodes.
Like many fans, Levein seems to have come into his job with a preconceived idea of the identity of his side. Unlike the fans, though, Levien's perception was a negative one of Scotland as an objectively poor side who need tactical protection (hence the infamous 4-6-0). Now that he has left, the opportunity arises for a new manager to come in and take stock. Whether that is current favorite Gordon Strachan or the also available Owen Coyle, Billy Davies or Joe Jordan, fans will hope that a new manager's reappraisal will allow a more expansive and a more enjoyable national team. Whether 2 points from 4 games is an accurate reflection of Scotland's standing in world football remains to be seen, but fans will be hoping, at least, to have more fun in finding out than they were ever allowed by Levein.