As Craig Levein shovelled away the snow from around his car on Tuesday 22nd December 2009, he may have afforded himself a wry smile as he pondered the parallels that task had with the job remit he was about to take on. At one stage it looked like the adverse weather conditions were going to prevent him from making his vital journey to SFA (Scottish Football Association) headquarters at Hampden Park, Glasgow. However, the press conference (that was originally scheduled for early afternoon) eventually got underway in the early evening and saw him officially unveiled as the man chosen to dig the Scottish national side out of their current predicament.
Scotland have not qualified for a major tournament since Craig Brown took them to the World Cup in 1998. Berti Vogts, Walter Smith, Alex McLeish and George Burley have all tried and failed to correct that depressing fact – with some covering themselves in more glory than others in the process. Fans would still look favourably on the tenures of Smith and McLeish because of the two admirable victories against a major nation like France, but now it is up to the 45-year-old former Dundee United manager to pave the way completely to Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine rather than reinforce Scotland’s recent reputation as valiant losers.
Levein the player was a well known centre-back who made over 500 appearances for Hearts and won 16 caps for Scotland. He has had a taste of what it means to play for his country in a major tournament, featuring as one of the starting eleven in a 2-1 group stage victory over Sweden at Italia ’90 – an experience he ranks as the highlight of his career to date. Levein the manager has been at the helm of clubs both in England and Scotland, although his successful spells at Hearts and Dundee United were neutralised to some extent by a less fruitful stint at Leicester City.
Having never been regarded as a soft touch while playing or standing in the dugout, Scottish football supporters need not doubt Levein’s gutsy character. In 1994, he infamously punched, and broke the nose of, Hearts team-mate Graeme Hogg during a pre-season friendly – a deed he subsequently received a lengthy ban for. Furthermore, as a manager, there have been occasions when he has had to pay financial penalties for publicly criticising refereeing performances.
The Czech Republic will be first to face Craig Levein’s Scotland in a friendly at Hampden on 3rd March, but that is far from being the only item on his ‘to do’ list. The state of the beautiful game in Scotland, alienated first team players, and the recruitment of other eligible stars are some of the other more pressing issues to be addressed.
Emphasising the value of improving the quality of youth football is an approach Levein stresses he has implemented at every club he has managed since starting out at Cowdenbeath. At Dundee United, the club who received around £250,000 compensation from the SFA for his services, he was both club manager and director of football. This meant Levein called the shots with regard to the youth set up at Tannadice and he chose to revitalise things by bringing in several younger coaches each eager to put their fresh ideas to the test. Therefore, it seems it will only be a matter of time before Levein begins to have a major say on how he feels Scotland’s young footballers should be nurtured.
It is no secret that previous boss George Burley’s failed attempt to get Scotland to South Africa was overshadowed by the stories revolving around Kris Boyd, Barry Ferguson and Alan McGregor. Following a qualifying game against Norway in October 2008, in which Boyd was an unused substitute, the Rangers striker revealed he no longer wanted to play for Scotland while Burley was manager. Later, in April 2009, Ferguson and McGregor were both told by the Scottish Football Association that they would no longer be considered for the national team due to two separate breaches of discipline. Levein has recently stated that to qualify for Euro 2012 he does not want to rule any player out and intends to offer the trio fresh starts under his management.
But it isn’t just the old names that Levein will be looking to. Two names from the next generation constantly espoused as national team talents are James McCarthy and Andrew Driver.
Born and raised in Scotland, McCarthy has come under a fair amount of criticism from Scottish fans for opting to play for Ireland at youth level, as he was entitled to do through his bloodline. The 19-year-old midfielder is very highly rated and has been on the scoresheet for Premier League side Wigan Athletic twice in 2010. However, it has been reported in some circles that McCarthy is having a bit of a re-think. To date, he has represented Ireland only up to Under-21 level and could therefore still switch allegiance. Driver, meanwhile, is a tricky winger who currently plays for Hearts. He was born in Oldham and has made one appearance for England at Under-21 level, but under new residency rules (having had at least five years of schooling in Scotland) the 22-year-old could potentially join McCarthy in turning out for the Scotland senior team. Levein has indicated that he will make it a priority to investigate each of these exciting possibilities.
So, despite a few misgivings about his relatively young age and a disappointing period at Leicester City, on the whole Scottish football fans seem reasonably optimistic about the prospects of progress under Levein. With the qualifying draw for Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine just around the corner, they will hope that the former Dundee United boss has started how he means to go on – digging himself out of a challenging situation in order to reach his destination.
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