Under siege, there is an arid quality to George Burley's resolve. He says the right phrases, talking of commitment and hope, of honour, of what might yet still be possible, but without ever dispelling the growing sense that these are the final acts of another lost cause for Scotland. He is blankly emphatic, careworn, and seems left with nothing but his trust in an old instinct that says: never give in, not to anybody.
Scotland have two home games of this World Cup qualifying campaign left and while victory in both – against Macedonia on Saturday then group leaders Holland four days later – would guarantee second place, they could still miss out on one of the eight play-off places.
The manager seems condemned anyway, not so much by results but by a lack of bold, unimpeachable authority; it is the impression of Burley, a vagueness, which lingers disquietingly. In truth, some in the media have undermined him from the moment of his appointment, seeking in gruff disapproval a voice for their assertion that others, such as Graeme Souness, were better suited to the job. By the time of Scotland's hapless 4-0 defeat to Norway two weeks ago, the criticism was vitriolic and one newspaper superimposed Burley's face on to a donkey's head, the kind of vengeful act that would never have been dared under Alex McLeish or Walter Smith, his predecessors.
"A lot of stuff has been out of order," Burley says. "Even before a ball was kicked I was getting ridiculed. I don't think it helps anybody. We should all be in it together. But you've got to come out fighting; it's a test of character. It's part of the job, something I have to deal with."
He still blames circumstance – Gary Caldwell's red card and injuries – for the Norway defeat, without addressing the lack of leadership that saw the team's shape and composure dissolve. Macedonia, with Lazio's Goran Pandev up front, will be dangerous opponents to a team, and a manager, abruptly facing up to their fate.
"What's gone has gone and we have to bounce back," Burley says. "Macedonia are quite adventurous, it won't be a walkover. If it doesn't work out, you take it from there, but there's two games left, that's all I'm thinking."
What is left now is rhetoric, and the thin hope that somehow a different outcome than despair can be realised.Reuse content