Craig Levein and Giovanni Trapattoni on brink
Scotland and Republic managers both look one more defeat away from the sack
Monday 15 October 2012
They will head off this morning, Scotland making the shortest journey to Brussels, Wales the longest to Osijek in eastern Croatia and the Irelands contrasting ones, the Republic to Torshavn, the Faroese capital and one of Europe's loneliest footballing outposts, the North to Porto. They will travel light, expectation stowed at home because the Celtic tiger has lost its bite.
Between them Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic have two wins from 10 World Cup qualifiers and one of those was Wales beating Scotland 2-1 on Friday. The other was Ireland winning in Kazakhstan thanks to a last-minute goal. Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland were held at home by Luxembourg and Wales conceded six in Serbia.
The prospects of any of them making it to Brazil in two years appears as remote as the city of Astana, where Ireland scrambled to avoid one of their most shaming results in recent seasons.
It proved only a postponement. The Republic were shamed in Dublin on Friday, while on the other side of the Irish Sea Scotland were again demonstrating their lack of progress under Craig Levein. The road to Brazil, like every campaign trail the Scots have embarked upon since 1998, already looks a dead end.
The Scotland manager, like Giovanni Trapattoni, his veteran Republic of Ireland counterpart, faces the looming prospect of unemployment should his side be beaten by Belgium tomorrow. Trapattoni's position will be untenable should he fail to return from the Faroes with victory. Both, though, insist they will remain in situ. "It's a long way to Tipperary," was Trapattoni's colourful response to suggestions that it is time for him to resign. His reasoning went like this: defeat to Germany was expected, it is the race for second with Austria and Sweden that should concern us and that is one with a distance left to run.
Trapattoni can assemble a stronger case than Levein's for remaining put. It is only a few months since he was cheered off from Dublin to Euro 2012: Ireland were back in the big time.
It was not long until they were back home, humbled and with the ink on the manager's new £1.5m-a-year contract barely dry. They have conceded 16 goals in five games, with only the great escape in Astana to check a run of defeats. The morning after the Germany defeat came calls for his head. "Trap door" was one newspaper's verdict, although others suggested the pay-off required to rid Ireland of the 73-year-old was beyond the means of his employers.
Scotland know what it is like to be humbled in the Faroes, and the islanders currently have their strongest team yet. They gave Sweden a scare on Friday yet Ireland should still survive the trip, even with a leaky defence, and so save Irish officials a trip to the bank manager. Defeat, though, would surely prove terminal for Trapattoni and hang the expense.
There are options for a successor. Roy Keane wants to return to management, Mick McCarthy is available and so too Owen Coyle.
There seems little hope of Scotland emerging unscathed from their visit to Belgium. Later this week Stewart Regan, chief executive of the Scottish Football Association and a friend of Levein's, will meet with his board and if Scotland have two points from four games it will be hard to argue for the status quo. Since Levein's appointment in late 2009 Scotland have won three competitive games, two of them against Liechtenstein.
"I hope I'm given more time," said Levein. "I have a way of doing things that I believe is the right way. You don't throw the whole plan away because the results haven't gone for you."
The players back him, but beyond that support is melting away and Brussels has the look of an end game.
There is a degree of misfortune in Levein's fate coming to a head now. While he will be judged over the entirety of his tenure, Scotland were unlucky not to have beaten Wales. Had they done so then it is Chris Coleman who would now have been facing an anxious future.
"Relief," was how Coleman summed up his feelings on Friday. The win saved him from being relieved of his post. Instead it is his Celtic cousins who are fighting for their futures.
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