It would seem reasonable to assume that criteria in the job description for the post of Scotland manager should include mention of a magic wand.
By the time the team begin what on face value appears an unappealing attempt to reach Euro 2020 – partly via the newly formed Nations League – they will be seeking to end a wait to reach a major finals of 22 years. On 23 June 1998 a Scotland side including Jim Leighton, Gordon Durie and Colin Hendry slumped to a 3-0 World Cup loss against Morocco. It was to prove an omen for things to come.
Yet in this instance it would be shortsighted to attach poisoned chalice analogies. Gordon Strachan’s successor will actually be the best-placed to lift Scotland back towards international relevance. In doing so, they must heed the lessons of Strachan’s demise.
It is perfectly routine for the Scottish Football Association to assume the position of whipping boy for virtually everything associated with what has been unavoidable decline in the country’s national sport. Nonetheless – and whisper it – in the context of its handling of Strachan, the governing body is worthy of credit. Its decision to stick rather than twist when Scotland’s World Cup qualifying campaign looked over inside just four games almost bore fruit, with Strachan presiding over the claiming of 14 points from a possible 18 thereafter. There was good fortune attached to that, courtesy of late goals plus the Brendan Rodgers-inspired reinvigoration of Celtic and their Scottish core, but Strachan did produce at least some moments of cheer.
Strachan said he could deliver a play-off spot and almost did so; falling short cost him what may well be a final job in football management. Although Strachan was responsible for that ruinous early run, plus the botched attempt to reach last summer’s European Championship, it is doubtful whether another coach would have gleaned greater subsequent reward. The scope to hire such a manager was also considerably narrower than is the case now. Strachan, out of contract, has simply been allowed to walk free.
It was poetic that a public utterance hammered the final nails into Strachan’s coffin. He has almost made an alternative career out of playing the comedian. The 60-year-old’s strong reference to genetics after Scotland tossed away a 1-0 lead in Slovenia on Sunday raised eyebrows among a public already unconvinced by his performance. If 4-6-0 is to be Craig Levein’s Scotland legacy, bemoaning player height provides the same for Strachan.
There were important subplots. Strachan showed little visible interest in the Scottish domestic scene and, his employers believed, in the national set-up’s underage teams. If the argument in the case of the former at least would be that the standard is not worth bothering about, it is at least the duty of a Scotland manager to incentivise home players. Strachan, instead, focused heavily upon the Championship; handily enough, for a man based in the Midlands.
The coach who succeeds Strachan has cause to pay more attention. Scotland’s youth teams are finally showing signs of worthwhile progress, with fresh-faced talent displayed in the top flight – Kieran Tierney, John McGinn, Scott Wright and John Souttar among them – plus the arrival of Leigh Griffiths as an international-class striker pointing positively towards the future. Andrew Robertson has recently earned a move to Liverpool and Callum Paterson is an inevitable Scotland player when he regains full fitness at Cardiff City. If Oliver Burke can add finesse to his undoubted physicality and Ryan Fraser plays more regularly, the basis of a decent Scotland team for the near future can be identified. Craig Gordon, a top-class goalkeeper, should prolong his international career for a while yet.
Strachan did not seem to know what pattern to follow with his team. He had an abundance of midfielders whom he could not properly utilise. Even currently there is enough for Scotland to be a decent, compact, counterattacking force who succeed.
The logical choice for the Scottish FA would seem to be Michael O’Neill, on the grounds he has performed precisely the job it requires in charge of another nation. For those who pour scorn on the suggestion that O’Neill – who lives in Edinburgh – would swap Northern Ireland for Scotland, there is the undeniable appeal of emerging talent and a serious domestic league. Northern Ireland’s ageing squad appear to be on a life-support machine.
Derek McInnes is the outstanding candidate if the Scottish FA reverts to the club manager template it has used in recent times. Whether McInnes would miss day-to-day interaction at Aberdeen may be another matter. David Moyes is, of course, quoted but his sharp career demise since exiting Everton cannot be ignored. Are we to assume it is fine for Moyes now, when short of options, to lead his country?
The Nations League, although the recipient of widespread groans, will provide the next Scotland manager with a possible route into a European Championship which his team simply must qualify for with matches to be hosted at Hampden Park.
There is also scope for proper groundwork before “real” qualifiers start. Add in a £500,000-a-year salary and there are far less attractive jobs in football; including this very one in years gone by.