Wednesday, October 11, 2017

A Matter of Genetics

I should probably apologise for another post about Scottish football so soon, but something has really been bugging me since Sunday's match - specifically, Gordon Strachan's comment that part of the issue is genetic, in that Scottish players are on average smaller than most other Europeans. (Well, except those minnows of the footballing world, Spain, of course. But since they never win a match I guess we can discount them as being irrelevant...)

Bluntly, Scotland's problem isn't a matter of genetics; it's mostly a matter of mindset.

Scotland seems to delight in "glorious failure" - we consistently do almost well enough. And when the inevitable failure comes, it gets chalked up as another glorious failure, a mark of progress. Or, of course, we point to some singular bit of ridiculous bad luck, or a woeful refereeing decision, or something, and blame everything on that.

This applies to football, to rugby... and to most other areas as well. Even our history is littered with glorious failure, even such as William Wallace or the Darien Scheme. (And that's a ridiculously high-level summary.)

(Incidentally, Andy Murray is the exception that proves the rule. I'll get back to that.)

The problem with glorious failure is that it is, ultimately, still failure. And since winning and losing are both habit forming, that's a big problem.

But the genetic argument is nonsense, as evidenced by, yes, Spain. And the argument that we're making progress is likewise nonsense - by that metric, we've made more progress than just about any other country on the planet. Odd that we still keep falling short.

But back to Andy Murray. For years, he was yet another Scot who displayed all the traits associated with glorious failure - he'd keep doing quite well, but then he'd come up against Federer or one of the other big guns, and then he'd lose. Only he wouldn't lose every time. In fact, he was quite capable of beating Federer except when it 'mattered'. But on those occasions... glorious failure.

And then he hired Ivan Landl as his coach, and within a very short time he was Wimbledon champion, and things went from there. Lendl's main impact on Andy Murray's game? It was about the mindset of a champion - Andy Murray already had all the tools he needed to win, he just needed a few tweaks to his game... and a shift to his expectations from "I'll try" to "I will".

(Incidentally, that's why Murray was right that Mauresmo was a perfectly fine choice of coach. No, there wasn't really much she could teach him about the game, but then that was true of just about anyone he could have chosen. But she undoubtedly knew what it took to be champion, and it was that mindset, more than anything else, he needed. Alas, it didn't work out, but that doesn't mean the selection process was wrong.)

So, as I said once before, a long time ago, the problem with Scottish football is that we expect to lose in the big matches. And we grind out draws in the must-win matches, or we otherwise fall short.

Sunday's score against Slovenia was a good result - 2-2 against tough opponents, away from home, where the opposition hadn't conceded a goal on their home soil? Yeah, that's a good result.

The problem was that we needed to win, not draw, and we should never have been in that position to start with - the damage was done much earlier in the competition when we scraped a 1-1 draw against Lithuania at home. That was the must-win match, and we blew it.

For us to make real progress, the mindset has to change. We should treat every match as a must-win match, and when we're playing the supposedly 'lesser' teams, especially at home, we need to deliver that win. Get in the habit of winning, and success will follow. And stop talking about 'progress' when you mean 'failure'.

Incidentally, that's why my threshold for us achieving qualification is independence - not because independence has anything directly to do with football, but because of the question of mindset. A country that does not have the confidence to believe it can run itself is not a country likely to have the confidence to compete on the world stage. And while a lot of people voted against independence for a lot of reasons, the bottom line is that an awful lot of people accepted that we were just too poor to give it a go. There is a positive argument for the union, but that wasn't the argument that won it - "what currency will we use?" was the refrain.

Of course, it's possible for the football team to adopt the winning mentality without the country following suit, but I just don't see it.

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