What happened to Scotland and how can they fix it?
Background Photo: Cal Umbra, CC BY-SA 4.0
Three of the four Home Nations should be pleased with their work during the international break. England, Wales and Northern Ireland all had good weeks. The Republic of Ireland, not a Home Nation I'm told, also did well. Scotland did not.
A 3-0 defeat away to Kazakhstan must be the lowest point in the Tartan Army's recent history. It's 6,200 km from Glasgow to Nur-Sultan. A squad can be flat after a seven-hour flight. Regardless, Kazakhstan rank 117th in the world. Before Alex McLeish's lads arrived, they'd won one from 16 competitive matches. They've won just five since 2009. They are not a team that should disassemble Scotland like happy toddlers who figure out how to open the child-proofed drawers in the kitchen. It was humiliating.
The 2-0 win over San Marino on Sunday did little to heal the wounds. Luxembourg beat the micro-state 3-0 in the Nations League, Belarus 5-0, and those are sides of comparable quality. In World Cup qualifying La Serenissima lost to Norway, Germany and Italy 8-0. Unsurprisingly, Scotland’s players headed off the pitch to a chorus of boos from the travelling support. McLeish labelled the performance as nervous. He did not elaborate on why a side ranked 40th in the world should be nervous against No.211.
Scottish football has been abysmal for some time, but this plumbs new depths. It never used to be like this. In the old days, Scotland led the way. In its infancy, English football was dominated by Scots.
Scottish players powered Preston North End, founding members of the Football League, the first Invincibles, who won a league and cup double. Brothers Nick and Jimmy Ross, David Russell, John Goodall and Geordie Drummond became known as the "Scotch Professors". In true mercenary fashion, they moved on to other clubs willing to pay more.
As they moved farther south, compatriots followed behind. Scots continued to invade England for a century. Liverpool’s dominance at home and in Europe was built on the talents of Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen and Graeme Souness, among others. Manchester United featured the magical Dennis Law, a man who would have walked into the best Brazil teams. Andy Gray led the way for Everton in the 1980s. Dave McKay, Billy Bremner and Joe Jordan also populated a long list of supreme Scottish talent.
McLeish, we are the embarrassment of world football!
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Even the managers were world-class. Bill Shankly became a legend at Liverpool. Sir Matt Busby did the same at Old Trafford. Jock Stein led the first British club to conquer Europe. Then there was Tommy Docherty and Sir Alex Ferguson.
Wherever you looked, either on the touchline or on the pitch, there was a Scottish influence. The national side reflected that influence. They went to five consecutive World Cups between 1974 and 1990.
So what on earth happened?
Much of it has to do with failing to adapt.
After missing the 1994 competition in the US but qualifying for France in 1998, the Scottish FA didn't keep up. While the world invested in proper coaching and facilities, Scottish football rested on its laurels. Inevitably, they fell behind. The lack of educated coaches and investment trickled down, limiting player development. Other nations improved, benefitting from long-term planning. Scotland did not. They no longer had the players to keep up. It was that simple. The current squad exemplifies the problem. While Wales builds on the talent of Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Ashley Williams and Joe Allen with Daniel James, Ethan Ampadu, Ben Woodburn, David Brooks, Harry Wilson and Ben Davies, Scotland can point to Kieran Tierney, Scott McTominay and little else.
A top-heavy league holds them back too. The SPL is only just becoming a two-horse race again. No one stepped up to challenge Celtic while Rangers underwent administration. The best Scottish players ended up at Celtic and played in a one-team league. Having a few go to Ibrox again makes little difference. In the past, these same players were heading to England, competing in a bigger, better league and in Europe. The majority of the current group are Championship standard at best. Johnny Russell gave up on England's second tier to go to MLS. Few Scottish stars feature in the Premier League now and it tells.
David Moyes says Scottish football could take inspiration from England and Iceland's success in recent years, as it looks to rebuild.
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Most Scottish players are not learning under managers who can develop them. It’s telling that the best two players in the squad, Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney studied with talented managers Jurgen Klopp and Brendan Rodgers. Ryan Fraser benefits from Eddie Howe at Bournemouth. McTominay learned the defensive side of the game from Jose Mourinho and has an opportunity to open up under Ole Gunnar-Solskjaer. They're the lucky ones.
Rodgers’ spell at Celtic further highlighted the issue. He took the Hoops to another level, illustrating how far behind Scotland has fallen. Big clubs like Celtic bear blame for recruiting cheap foreign talent rather than developing local lads. Limited opportunities don't bode well for the future.
What is the solution? Further investment in youth football is essential. Look at England's success in the decade since they began emphasising youth. Nations closer to Scotland's size do the same, Iceland being the prime example. Their success at Euro 2016 was built on revamping their entire setup. The KSI focused on development, dragging the best out of limited resources, going on to shock international football. Croatia are another team that produces talent with each new generation. As Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic age, players like Matteo Kovacic, Marcelo Brozovic, Ante Rebic and Andrej Kramaric stand ready at the touchline.
A similar focus must go into coaching. Scotland must learn from their neighbours, focus on getting their best minds, or those from another country, to help reinvigorate the game. The next manager must be able to apply modern methods. Alex McLeish is not up to that job. Neither is David Moyes. Scotland need a young, talented, hungry coach and must put their money where their mouth is to sign him. Preston boss Alex Neill is an ideal candidate.
Fortunately, there are signs that the Scottish FA is heeding the warning. They drew up a new strategy in 2011. There are signs it has borne fruit at the youth level. That fruit must continue to ripen in the coming years. Moreover, they must double down on their youth investment to make up ground. Time heals all wounds. Scotland must bide theirs and begin making more intelligent choices.