Thursday, September 10, 2009

'Nearly' just isn't good enough

Last night, Scotland once again failed to qualify for the finals of a major footballing tournament. This wasn't exactly a surprise, as we've had a rather poor qualifying campaign. Somewhat more galling, this marks a major step back from two years ago, when we narrowly failed to qualify for Euro 2008 from a group containing Italy and France (the two teams who had just played out the previous World Cup final).

So, where do we go from here? Well, let's apply my universal five-step process for dealing with failure.

#1: Stop assigning blame

Yes, if George Burley hadn't alienated Boyd, he might have made a difference. Yes, if Chris Iwelumo hadn't missed that shot against Norway, we'd now be in second place and in the play-offs. Yes, Barry Ferguson and Alan MacGregor disgraced themselves.
But none of this actually helps. The Scotland team is not one, two or five individuals. There were maybe thirty (maybe more, maybe less) people directly involved in the qualifying campaign, and this is a collective failure. Singling out one person to shoulder the blame doesn't actually help the rest. Trying to identify one person may simply lead the team to disintegrate as everyone blames everyone else.

#2: Stop making excuses

This goes hand-in-hand with #1. Saying, "oh, we would have been fine except for this person being injured", or "the ref had it in for us, we never get a break" doesn't help. All it does is disguise the weaknesses of the team. Work needs to be done; let's not shy away from that fact.
A corrolory to this is that it is not acceptable to say, "this isn't so bad - we came within one game, within one goal even, of qualification." Two years ago, we narrowly failed to qualify from a group containing France and Italy. This year, we failed to qualify from a group that did not, and we can't even claim it was particularly narrow - even had we won the match we were still trusting to results in other groups to help us.

#3: Identify the problems

Once step #1 is out of the way, and we've committed to #2, the time comes to calmly analyse just what went wrong. Why was it we failed to qualify.

As I see it, there are three core problems.

  1. Certain of the players, and perhaps the majority, don't respect or trust the manager. This shows itself in Boyd's decision to walk away, and most particularly in the antics of Ferguson and MacGregor. This, actually, has been a problem in the past, where Paul Le Guen was forced out of Rangers by Ferguson's inability to work with him. There may be a pattern there...
  2. A corollary to the above: certain poor decisions on the part of the manager. The selection of Iwelumo over Boyd to play Norway is the best example of this, but not the only one. Burley simply seemed never to have the measure of our opponents the way Walter Smith or Alex McLeish did. And of course, if the manager doesn't project both confidence and competence, it's awfully hard to respect him.
  3. We're weak up-front. Once Boyd ruled himself out, MacFadden got injured, and Iwelumo was ruled out of the running (by a combination of that miss and injuries) there really wasn't anyone for the goals to come from. It shouldn't be like that - in theory we have a number of goalscorers - but it just never seemed to happen.

#4: Work out how to solve the problems

Now, that's the real trick, isn't it? Once you're confident that you have correctly identified the problems, you can start work on fixing them, but that's always easier said than done.

Here's what I think they need to do:

  1. George Burley has to go. He's going to be made the scapegoat anyway, where a lot of the blame lies with others, so that's unfortunate. Nonetheless, he simply never projected the confidence that was needed, he did make some really bad mistakes, and he didn't get the results. So, time to go. What is less clear is who should replace him. (I have heard Gordon Strachan touted as a possible successor. I suspect this would be a mistake - despite his successes at Celtic, he is another manager who never seemed to project the kind of confidence we need. We probably need someone older, someone more experience, and someone widely respected. He also needs to be familiar with the Scottish game, although I don't think he necessarily has to himself be Scottish.) This is probably the most important piece of the whole picture - look at the difference Fabio Capello has made to England, using all the same players.
  2. A clean slate for everyone. This is important because it draws a line under what has gone before. Though, frankly, it's likely Barry Ferguson will never play for Scotland again anyway - he's just not the player he once was.
  3. We need more strikers, or better strikers, or better support for our strikers. I have no idea how to develop that, though - development of players really comes from the clubs, and they aren't bringing through Scottish strikers for whatever reason.
  4. No more friendlies you're going to lose. From now on, every match is a must-win match. Winning and losing are both habits, and we're in the wrong one. (Yes, this is at odds with my "friendlies don't count" mantra. Circumstances have changed.)

#5: Do it

Once you have the list of problems, and you have the plan of action in place, the time has come to act. Start with the manager - get the right man in, then have him announce the clean slate, and set up the new set of friendlies. And make sure to win them. Meanwhile, have the manager look at every single striker who is eligible to play for the country (we can't afford to be too proud about heritage), and make sure everything that can be done is being done.

#44: "Pathfinder: The Final Wish", by Rob McCreary

No comments: