“A lot of football success is in the mind. You must believe you are the best and then make sure that you are” (Bill Shankly).
“Take a walk around my centre half gentlemen. He’s a colossus!” (Shankly, on presenting Ron Yeats to the media).
In the end, it wasn’t even glorious failure. It was just failure.
When you’re a Scotland fan, you know that, just when you think you’ve seen it all, your team will invent a new way of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. But there was nothing new in Ljubljana on Sunday night. We never looked like winning. We just picked the worst possible night on which to be rubbish.
Failure to qualify for Russia was hugely disappointing but getting to the play-offs was always going to be a big ask after a dreadful start that yielded four points from four games. On hindsight, a decent return in the second half of the campaign now feels like the equivalent of shooting three under on the back nine after scoring eleven over on the front. It’s easy to play with freedom when you’re probably out of contention anyway. You achieve a respectable total without ever threatening the leaders. And it’s revealing that, with a game to go against a Slovenia who were already out of contention and with the pressure suddenly back on, we bottled it. We blew it. We choked, big time.
The post-mortem will run and run. Questions are rightly being asked. Why, in a crunch game, did the manager inform the players of a change to the favoured 4-3-3 formation only six hours from kick-off? Why, when the recovery has been driven by a nucleus of Celtic players in the form of their lives and comfortable in a big game environment, did we end up with only two of them on the park on Sunday? How do we begin to explain the baffling omission of the superb James Forrest to facilitate the continued inclusion of Matt Phillips, who was peripheral at best on Thursday and anonymous on Sunday? Why take a striker off when you need to win the game? Why bother putting midfielders of the quality of Calum McGregor and John McGinn in the squad and then not play them for a single minute over the two games? Why did it take the manager four games to discover what any supporter would have told him if he’d bothered to ask: Leigh Griffiths is our best striker by miles. Play him from the start. End of. All managers have their favourites, but there comes a moment when admirable loyalty becomes cronyism. And then the biggest question of all. Why on earth are we playing in pink?
To be absolutely fair, Gordon Strachan was lauded as a genius after Thursday’s win and pilloried as a numpty after Sunday’s abject capitulation. Such is the fickle nature of football fandom, but the questions are all legitimate and the truth, as ever, lies somewhere in between.
And there are wider issues. Can you imagine working for a company who gave you a generous and make-able target ever two years and you failed to achieve it, and then they leave it to you to decide whether you wished to continue or not? It sounds mad, but that describes precisely the situation in which Gordon Strachan finds himself. All political careers, said Enoch Powell, end in failure. The same is true for football managers, but the privilege of managing your own exit should be the preserve of Alex Ferguson, Walter Smith and, at a push, Arsene Wenger – men who have built empires and created dynasties. The privilege should not be extended to bosses who can’t grind out a win in Slovenia or Tbilisi. And, frankly, the moment Iceland (population 325,000) qualified for Euro 2016 and promptly booted England out was the moment we ran clean out of excuses.
Not that it stopped Strachan trying. His press conference after the lights went out in Ljubljana changed my mood from disappointment to anger and a cold, clear realisation that he cannot continue in the job.
People will say this is a knee jerk reaction. It is not. This isn’t a judgement made after one bad game, but after a four year body of work that has ended in failure. I also wasn’t best pleased at his suggestion that the fans wouldn’t be hurting as badly as the players. Believe me, I’ve been following Scotland through thin and thinner for over three decades. The investment, emotionally and financially, has been substantial. That’s true for thousands of ordinary Scots and it wouldn’t have hurt for him to have recognised that not insignificant commitment. To be the Scotland manager is to be the highest ranking ambassador for the treasured national cultural phenomenon that is Scottish football, and the position needs a diplomat rather than a man who sounds like the guy in your local pub who reminds you why you don’t drink in your local pub anymore.
But it was when the manager entered the realms of biological science and insisted that it was “genetics” – not baffling team selections, not poor preparation, not a goalkeeper’s reluctance to come for a cross ball, not an appalling lack of basic game management – to blame for our continuing failure to reach major tournaments that eyebrows were really raised.
This is what he said. No, really.
“Technically we’re fine,” Strachan said. “But our guys have to work harder to get on the ball than bigger lads at six foot three. Genetically we are behind. In the last campaign we were the second smallest squad behind Spain. That means that I had to pick a team tonight to try and combat their height and strength. Even at that, we couldn’t combat their height and strength at set plays. Genetically, we have to work at things. It is a problem for us.”
“We have to fight harder for every ball and jump higher because it is easier for these type of guys. Physically, we have a problem against the teams we have faced in the last couple of years.”
Presumably the following addendum was a joke, otherwise Strachan was suggesting selective breeding:
“Maybe we get big women and men together and see what we can do.”
This was dreadful stuff. For a start, nobody missed the irony in Gordon Strachan – a midfield dynamo who had conquered Europe with Aberdeen, who had scored in the World Cup finals and who had won trophies with Manchester Utd and Leeds – saying our players are too wee. He is 5’6″. Presumably the late, great 5’5″ Jimmy Johnstone wouldn’t have got a game under Strachan’s stewardship, or the relatively colossal 5’8″ forward with the name of Kenny Dalglish. And God help anyone who’d asked Billy Bremner if he felt he was big enough to play for Scotland. Wee Lionel Messi must be seriously worried that he’s now been deemed genetically incapable of tearing up La Liga defences and is therefore no longer the greatest player in the history of the world. What is Argentinian for “unlucky wee man, you’re on the subs’ bench”? We need to let him know. I tried ‘phoning him last night but he was too busy scoring a hat-trick against Ecuador and single-handedly dragging his country to Russia. Perhaps he’s been genetically modified.
There are, of course, wider issues. The governing body is no longer fit for purpose. The SFA is an organisation mired in incompetence, and its intellectual pessimism and poverty of ambition is appalling. They have also allowed our national game to be moved to the margins of our national consciousness. On Sunday, STV showed the England v Lithuania game, an event so tediously dull that the home fans spent much of the ninety minutes flying paper aeroplanes onto the pitch just to relieve the boredom. For a decade, Scotland games have been the preserve of Rupert Murdoch and the boozer, which means most Scottish weans don’t see the game. So their national team has no status, no profile and they grow up expecting major tournaments to be the plaything of bigger, more grown-up countries. And largely because Scotland has done something no other country in the world would dream of doing – sold its broadcasting rights to a neighbour.
But let’s return to immediate issue for a second. If Strachan was using the genetics argument to try to deflect attention from a woeful performance from the team and his own highly questionable management, then that’s understandable, if not totally honest. But, good God, what if he actually believes this stuff? As the writer and commentator Jim Spence has stated: “The mindset of Gordon Strachan now ensures he cannot continue in the job. If he truly believes his genetic theory stands, then he truly believes we are incapable of achieving very much at all. And that was just against Slovenia. His comment is more damaging than the actual failure to qualify.” Quite.
It was the then Labour leader Johann Lamont who told Nicola Sturgeon in 2014 that Scots “were genetically incapable of running their own affairs”. Maybe Gordon thinks something similar about the national team. Perhaps the most damning thing about the manager is that he doesn’t appear to trust players who earn a living in Scotland, and invests in players from “bigger” leagues like the English Championship – and even League One, even when they clearly aren’t very good at playing football.
Maybe Gordon Strachan, deep down, doesn’t rate us. His snide comments and continual talking down of the national game during his frequent media appearances certainly suggest that. He maybe feels that we probably don’t deserve to qualify for big tournaments. He is the Scottish cringe writ large.
If that’s true, then he is simply reflecting the mindset of many leaders in Scotland. Every unionist politician in Holyrood claims that there is no mandate for a second vote on self-determination for Scotland, despite being part of a parliament that voted for exactly that. Which means that they don’t recognise the sovereignty of the chamber they sit in or the people they claim to represent.
The lack of outrage worries me. The convergence uplift monies have never arrived. The thirteen Scottish Tory MPs immediately put their party before their people and failed to call for Scotland’s £2.9bn of Barnett Consequentials. The post-Brexit power bonanza promised by David Mundell is, of course, the fakest of fake news. Farming powers will be held in London. Farming support will be Barnettised (i.e. Halved). Remote areas will suffer disproportionately as the double whammy of reduced funding and the ending of free movement puts pressure on our essential services.
Even the farming press isn’t immune to this alarming passivity. Last week we learned that the UK government, as part of the had failed to register the Protected Geographical Indicator status for brands such as Scottish Salmon, Scotch Beef and Orkney Cheddar as part of the new CETA agreement. There seems little doubt that agriculture will be a casualty in the unseemly rush towards a trade deal with Trump America, cheap imports and chlorinated chickens coming home to roost. Yet The Scottish Farmer headline was “Scottish Beef Misses Out” – as if this was a minor inconvenience and a stroke of bad luck rather than years of hard work and brand-building being ridden over roughshod by an ideologically driven, isolationist government which is now openly admitting that a no-deal, hard Brexit outcome is more likely than not. It would have been as easy to register these brands, as every other EU member state did, as not. And yet DEFRA made a conscious decision not to bother. Let’s just think about that. And while doing so, let’s think about what this says about where Scottish farming might rank in the to-do list of the Brave New Post-Brexit World. And then let’s seriously consider if we want any part of it whatsoever.
It has been evident for some time that there is precisely no prospect of achieving a sustainable, long-term future for Scottish agriculture within the current constitutional settlement. Recent developments have only served to reinforce that view.
I didn’t particularly care for Jim Sillars putting the boot into the SNP last week but back in the day he was right about one thing. We cannot afford the luxury of being “ninety minute nationalists” – folk who give rein to their inner nationalist at Burns Suppers or football matches, and then put it back in a drawer until the next time. Folk who say “I’m a proud Scot, but…”. Folk who talk a good game but whose snide remarks and actions reveal that they don’t truly believe us, who think we’re too wee, too poor, too stupid, too genetically incapable to be a grown-up nation. People like Ruth Davidson who thought it was a great laugh to mock the braw Scottish accent of the MSP Joan McAlpine and who called Scots thieves and vandals and a burden on the state. People who we pay to talk us up but who talk us down at every turn. People like Michael Gove who talks “proper” when with his London paymasters and then turns all Brigadoon whenever he mentions Aberdeen. People who think nuclear weapons near Glasgow are a brilliant idea but who go berserk when confronted with a Gaelic road sign. People who don’t believe in us at all. People like Gordon Strachan.
Given that a sizeable chunk of the Scottish population still doesn’t truly believe that Scotland is truly capable of competing on a world stage, it shouldn’t surprise us that we have a football manager who reflects that reality. But unless we’re content to watch the football and observe world affairs from the sidelines – and I’m not – then that has to change.
And it doesn’t stop with changing the manager. Leaders come and leaders go, but fundamental change is what is needed. Not just in the corridors of the SFA, but in Scotland itself.
The bars of Moscow will have to manage without my custom during next summer’s World Cup, but for now I’d settle for joining the world. It’s been a long campaign, but I truly believe that is one that we are genetically capable of winning.
And in the meantime? In the name of Gord, go.