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19 of 020

Craig Levein has friends in high places

Michael Grant
Chief football writer

WHEN it comes to believing that he is the man to turn around this crippled World Cup campaign, Craig Levein is not quite in a minority of one.

Nearly, but not quite. An unusual element must be factored into the clamour for the Scotland manager to be handed his P45. Levein, more than any national coach in years, is in with the bricks at Hampden. He has friends in high places and not least because he had a hand in the recruitment process.

It's almost impossible to see Levein saving himself now. It's a question of when, not if, results torpedo his remaining credibility to the point that the SFA buckle and get rid of him. If it was possible to buy into Levein's notion that everything was stable if only the press would stop all this pesky negativity, then, yes, the team could conceivably turn things around and maintain the fantasy of reaching the 2014 finals in Brazil. But it just sounds desperate. Results and performances have not been good enough under Levein and there is nothing to show that the key results will be delivered later in the campaign. By those measures, it is time to look elsewhere.

He has seen "progress" where the rest of us could use an electron microscope and find next to nothing. Claims that nothing has changed, or that no damage has been done to the prospects of getting out of Group A, have been risible. What was so depressing in the aftermath of the Serbia and Macedonia draws over the past six days was the impression that he has become a manager out of confidence and answers. He has contradicted himself and made assessments which made no sense.

His second qualifying campaign has been as uninspired as his first: too few goals, too few wins and too few points. After 22 games and nearly three years in charge everyone is entitled to conclude that this is as good as it's going to get. It is to his credit that most players seem to think the world of him, but they haven't responded with performances. Even if they aren't the collection of stellar talents he claims them to be, there is enough ability in the squad to play with far more cohesion, structure, attitude and menace than has been the case. He hasn't drawn good enough displays out of them and they have let him down.

After three wins in 10 competitive games his pleas for the country to keep believing in this Scotland team will be successful only with those compelled by blind faith. The counter-argument is compelling: the sooner there is change, the sooner results will improve. No Levein would surely mean the probable return of Steven Fletcher and even many of those who dislike the Sunderland player's petulance and apparent lack of interest in the national team would happily welcome him back into the side.

The SFA will do nothing before the double-header against Wales and Belgium in 29 days' time. Even allowing for the availability of outstanding candidate Gordon Strachan it is unrealistic to think he or anyone else could be approached, appointed, and be sufficiently prepared in time for those matches. So Levein will be given them, but then what? Right now they look like two games in which more damage will be done.

Scotland are then idle until February 6 and a friendly against Estonia at Pittodrie. There are qualifiers at home to Wales and away to Serbia at the end of March, then a daunting trip to Croatia on June 7. Whoever is in charge next summer has an August game against England at Wembley to look forward to.

The decision, when it comes, will be made by the SFA board, namely chief executive Regan, president Campbell Ogilvie, first vice-president Alan McRae, second vice-president Rod Petrie, SPL president Ralph Topping, Tom Johnston of the Scottish Junior FA and independent non-executive director Barrie Jackson. Among that conservative group, and elsewhere within the SFA, Levein is not without support. Results normally do for a manager but it could take dynamite to blow this one out of Hampden, so embedded is he in the current psyche and strategy of the governing body.

Levein had input to the formation of the SFA's performance strategy and he had a major say in the appointment of Mark Wotte as the country's first national performance director. When others thought someone from another sport could do the job just as well, Levein said it had to be someone from football. A shortlist was narrowed to seven and Levein sat in on the interviews. He has described the performance director as the most important appointment made by the SFA in decades.

Along with Regan, he spoke to various youth coaches before the strategy was drawn. Levein, Regan and Wotte share the same ideas of what Scotland has been doing wrong for years. The three of them believe clubs and SFA coaches must work together on talent identification, helping elite players reach 10,000 hours of quality ball time and creating a "best versus best" culture among players. The three of them have championed the formation of Regional Performance Schools under leading SFA coaches, and the country's first national performance centre. Levein first met Alistair Gray, a consultant in high-performance sport and a significant contributor to the national performance strategy – the SFA gave him a consultancy contract – before either Regan or Wotte came to work at Hampden.

A year ago Levein said: "The best thing that's happened to this organisation in the last 100 years has certainly been the introduction of new people, namely Stewart Regan and Mark Wotte."

Inevitably the compliments have been returned. When Wotte was appointed he said it had been crucial that Levein was on board with everything he wanted to do. "The most important thing was the commitment of Craig to this job," said Wotte. "It's not all national coaches who are interested in youth."

When Levein's first qualification campaign ended in failure only 11 months ago, Regan stood at his shoulder: "I am hugely impressed by the work being carried out by Craig and anyone who speaks to the players will realise just how big an impact he has made on a team that, frankly, was in disarray before he took over. I defy anyone to look at the squad we have now, compare it to the early period of Craig's tenure, and say we have not made considerable progress."

Regan's own popularity has slumped since then and if he makes a cold assessment of the issue he would know he could improve it by sacrificing Levein. But he will not think that way. Levein, Regan and Wotte are married by shared ideals and objectives and within Hampden the idea of changing the manager will be resisted until the bitter end.

The time is coming, though. Strategies, performance coaches, academies and talent identification are the buzzwords of football's future and Levein has helped introduce them to the SFA. The changes will be his legacy. But he is close to being brought down by the oldest measure of them all: results.

Taken from the Herald

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