First of all, time for a confession. At the very last minute before the previous edition of Fios hit the printers, I shelved a segment from my column which was unfailingly, achingly, positive about the upcoming Scotland World Cup qualifying matches. Looking back at what I wrote, it is hard to remember ever composing anything which proved so spectacularly wide of the mark; my sense of relief that it never saw paper, palpable.
Gordon Strachan’s competitive reign could have scarcely begun more horrendously. Against Wales at Hampden and against Serbia in Novi Sad, Scotland were a catastrophic shambles masquerading as an international football team. The Faroe Islands in 2001, our previous nadir, was terrible; last week was much, much worse.
I have every confidence that Berti Vogts’ team – maligned like no other – would have beaten the current shower 5-0. At least. Even George Burley, nearly as derided as Vogts, managed to take his qualifying campaign down to the last match. This time, Scotland became the first European country officially eliminated from Brazil 2014 – beating San Marino, Andorra and Malta to the trapdoor of ignominy.
Perhaps even more humiliating was the performance of the BBC Scotland pundits during the studio analysis, with their ignorant warbling about ‘positives’ and ‘plusses’. There weren’t any, and only the most delusional could have happened upon any of these mirages of relief. The last two weeks have surely become an untouchable extreme of mediocrity for football in this country.
The moment which most emphasized the stench of Scotland’s fortnight – even more so than the laughable opening spell against Wales – might have been Charlie Adam’s excuse of a free-kick in Serbia. Presumably introduced as a half-time replacement for his heralded dead-ball expertise – because he certainly didn’t contribute anything in the way of passing, shooting, tackling or running – Adam proceeded to waste an encouraging position with a free-kick that failed to clear the ankles of the two-man Serbian wall. Indeed, Strachan must have been sorely tempted to sub his sub for that hideous dereliction of duty.
Additionally, the passage of play that led up to the second Serbian goal must have ranked among the worst ever witnessed. Gary Caldwell initially failed to deal with a routine punt forward, compounded his error by playing a suicidal pass out of defence, Alan Hutton was caught – as ever – on his heels by the Serbian attacker, before Grant Hanley showed the advancing striker a shot at goal, instead of down the line. An all-encompassing, unmitigated shenanigans; not fit for Fivepenny Machair, never mind the Maracana Stadium in Rio.
Part of the problem Scotland face, when compared to a generation ago, is the abundance of countries that have emerged from the ruptures in the former U.S.S.R and Yugoslavia – providing a much improved standard of team in the UEFA qualifying sections. For instance, Yugoslavia has become: Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia – all of whom, bar possibly Macedonia, are already superior to Scotland. At the current rate of Balkan progress, Kosovo will soon be surpassing Scotland as well.
Similarly, the dissolution of the Soviet Union has created a further 12 countries for Scotland to compete with in the qualifying rounds. Few of the post-Soviet countries are of the same quality as the former-Yugoslav states at football, but all are technically equipped to make life treacherous for Scotland. Not many are of this opinion, but the SFA must be firmly in the miniscule minority who curse the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe.
Still, these are excuses that come nowhere near finding the root of our problem. The fact is, Scotland simply hasn’t produced enough players in the last 15 years of the requisite standard to reach major tournaments. Darren Fletcher is probably the only player of the current generation who might have threatened inclusion in the team at France ’98. The likes of James McFadden and Scott Brown have sometimes risen to the challenge, occasionally transformed from honest toilers by the famous blue shirt and skirl of bagpipes, but never with lasting effect. Oh for the days of a Paul Lambert/ John Collins midfield axis.
Rangers haven’t produced a genuinely international class outfield player since Barry Ferguson. This is an absolutely diabolical state of affairs for the self-proclaimed biggest club in the country. And arguably, Celtic have been even worse: Paul McStay their last home-grown player who became influential for Scotland.
Now, due to this dearth of locally reared talent, we’ve even come increasingly to rely on players who aren’t actually Scottish. Without sounding overtly xenophobic, the proliferation of non-Scots who have recently infested the ranks of the national team through tenuous relative links (Morrison, Bardsley, Bridcutt, Boyd, Mackail-Smith, Mackie, Fox, Commons et al.) cannot be conducive to producing a squad bursting with the attributes – pride and passion – that we must rely on, in view of our transparent technical inferiority, to be remotely successful as a footballing nation. The 13 players who played some part against Brazil in Saint Denis, 1998, were all of genuine Scottish extraction. Unfortunately, this particular horse has long bolted from the stable.
Scotland’s last genuinely world-class player was probably Willie Miller, at his zenith in the 80s. And when you consider that Wales have had Ian Rush, Ryan Giggs and Gareth Bale in that time, this is a dire situation. As far we can see, all the continual bleating about root-and-branch reform in Scotland has produced precisely no results thus far. The national team contains a surplus of relegation battlers and championship plodders – and hasn’t had a magician since Kenny Dalglish.
The picture is undoubtedly bleak; it is the worst of times. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, despite the imminent expansion of the European Championships. Scotland, currently, wouldn’t qualify for a 48 team Euros, never mind the 24 team version to be piloted at France 2016. Let us just hope that Strachan – just as he recovered from the most mortifying start imaginable as Celtic manager (Artmedia Bratislava 5-0 Celtic) – can somehow do likewise after dragging Scotland to the very depths of despair at the outset of his reign.