Contrast of styles gives Levein a clearer picture
Sunday 28 February 2010
An international manager is always strategising, and Craig Levein's intention is to govern expectations. A rush of optimism is generated by a new appointment, and the prospect of a fresh qualifying campaign. This is a wellspring for Levein, but hubris has soured Scottish hearts too often in the past. He is trying to restrain anticipation, so that it remains an ally.
There was universal praise for the decision to install Levein as the successor to George Burley as Scotland manager, and he benefits from being a contrast. There is no idealism or bewilderment to him; he preaches a form of pragmatism and work ethic that the nation considers a character trait. Visionary notions are banished and the players will be grateful for the feeling of being commanded.
Once the jolt of being drawn in the same European Championship qualifying group as Spain – the holders not only of the trophy but also of the prestige of being the continent's most majestic side – was overcome, Group I began to appear a compassionate assignment. The Czech Republic are in decline, albeit from a height Scotland consider distant, Lithuania are familiar and Liechtenstein meagre.
The opening fixture is months away, but the challenges are immediate. Levein's first match in charge is a long-arranged friendly, at Hampden on Wednesday, against the Czech Republic. The goodwill from supporters at this stage is pronounced, and there will be a congratulatory air to his initial outing.
Scotland's recent record in such non-competitive fixtures is chastening, and victory would provide a source of momentum. All the same, Levein is a novice in the peculiarities of international management and there is a sense of him feeling his way into the job. He wishes to appear both encouraging and rational.
"There is always this danger – and being Scottish we do this all the time – of saying, 'the last campaign was a disaster, but we should win this one easily'," Levein says. "There is a lot of hard work to be done. It will be tough. [The Czechs] beat us in a friendly recently 3-1 and we've only won three matches in two years."
There is a bold authority to Levein, so that even quips are delivered assertively. He can be menacing, when players do not heed his instructions, but then international football is no place for timidity. Burley was too vague a character to inspire devotion; his time in charge became mired in dismay.
In his previous jobs, at Hearts, Dundee United, and even during moments of a doomed spell at Leicester City, Levein has proved to be adept at organising a team and its priorities. Scotland lack the talent to be audacious and so hope lies in combating opponents. The emphasis will be on discipline, concentration, positioning and, crucially, self-responsibility.
The manager has been canny in recognising Darren Fletcher's qualities to be central. The midfielder is playing a prominent role for Manchester United but he was already an exemplary figure to Scotland teammates. Since his appointment last December, Levein has met most of his squad individually, and the discussion with Fletcher was prolonged.
"I tried to reassure him that I will be doing everything I can so that when he goes back to that Man United dressing room after having played for Scotland, his head is held high," Levein says. "Everybody is going to have to buy into the fact that we aren't the best team in the world, [but] we are a gritty group of players who have to work hard for everything they get.
"That type of attitude is going to make us hard to beat. Once [the players] see that works, there is an opportunity to improve, although I'm not making any promises."
Levein has been uncompromising in recalling Kris Boyd and Lee McCulloch, of Rangers, from their self-imposed exile. He sought to include Allan McGregor and Barry Ferguson, who were banned for indiscretions under Burley, but the former was injured in an alleged assault outside a Glasgow nightclub and the latter is still mulling over his possible return. The rest of the squad is familiar.
The job will be onerous at times, but Levein is equipped with the wherewithal to prosper.
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