Who knows better than George Burley the way football can shift its favour with sudden lurches that carry the great force of the unexpected? For so long during Scotland's ill-fated World Cup qualifying campaign, he seemed a man forever on the brink of some fraught calamity, and there was a growing feeling that separating him from the job that was drawing such deeply careworn frowns on his greying features would be an act of mercy. Yet now, almost two months on from the defeat by Holland that confirmed again the Scots' place in the margins of the game, he is still in charge, and defiant in his own sombre, practised manner.
Sitting at his desk, behind the glass walls of his office, he is hunched over some paperwork and before you enter he removes his glasses, folds them up and tucks them away out of sight. It seems a hopeful gesture, something glibly optimistic. When the Scottish Football Association announced a review of the qualifying campaign after that draining night against the Dutch, Burley's fate seemed so certain that the speculation focused on who might replace him.
But then this is a manager who led Ipswich to fifth in the Premier League only to be relegated the next season, and who propelled Hearts to the forefront of the Scottish Premier League with such a swift and magnificent authority that the whole of Scottish football might have mourned the abrupt collapse of his relationship with owner Vladimir Romanov and departure after just four months.
So he knows that everything need not always be as it seems, and despite the damnation, the press criticism that cut with callous precision deep into his reputation, the players who abandoned the cause or fatally undermined it, and the misjudgments of his own mind, he kept faith.
It was a belief in the certainty that the final two fixtures, when his team were boldly surefooted against Macedonia and bravely forlorn against Holland, revealed enough of the best of his promise to deserve a second chance. And the dramas and incoherence of the early stages of the campaign? He might admit that they could be seen as experience, as essential lessons for a manager still finding his way in the disconcerting folds of the international game.
"Of course, the press saw it as a review of whether I was staying or not, but that was never said to me," Burley says. "The media made a big thing of it, but it never affected me. I never one day thought about walking out, which the press asked me in every interview. That's something you've got to handle. Those last two games at Hampden gave me great heart. We were a bit unfortunate not to win [against Holland] and that would have taken us into the play-offs. We're going in the right direction."
It can be said that Scotland fought with passionate conviction and some small residue of accomplishment against the Dutch, but also that points were squandered carelessly in other games, such as the 1-0 defeat to Macedonia in the opening fixture, the goalless draw with Norway at Hampden or the 4-0 defeat in Oslo that seemed nothing less than a catastrophic loss of nerve. Burley arrived home from the latter to headlines proclaiming him a Norse's Arse, while those journalists who considered him a flawed choice for the job from the outset were vehement in their criticism. In every sense, it looked and felt like a nadir.
"It's always personal," he says of the reaction. "It certainly affected my family, but because we've been in football so long and I have a great wife and kids, that hasn't affected me. I've managed to not let it distract me and maybe I've even got stronger because of it, and more determined to do well for my country. The most important thing for me is to be focused on my job. The press is secondary, they're going to have their opinions and you're never going to change them. It's summed up for me in that before we even kicked a ball in Macedonia, the press said I shouldn't have the job."
We watched Burley be reduced by this role, stripped down to a sort of hapless caricature. The bright assuredness of his work at Ipswich and that short assertion of his worth at Tynecastle seemed like half-forgotten memories. Something about the Scotland job exposed Burley and left us nursing an accumulation of doubts. There was a gaucheness in the way he described Kirk Broadfoot, the Rangers defender, as a player of "limited ability" after selecting him, and in the way he dropped Davie Weir for the trip to Norway, only to need to recall him for the final two fixtures.
Burley can be indistinct in the way he reaches for the same phrases, talking of commitment, passion and honour, and so much is kept beneath the surface that what we are left with is merely an outline. He is generous, fair-minded and, irrefutably, a coach who understands the game and considers it vital that it is played with an element of style. Those who have worked for him at club level talk warmly, too, of the light, personable touch of his man-management, which leaves us wondering why this campaign is in some ways defined by the breakdown in relationships that occurred during it.
Kris Boyd withdrew himself from selection after Chris Iwelumo was brought on as a substitute instead of him in that 0-0 draw with Norway at Hampden. Then Barry Ferguson and Allan McGregor's role in a drinking session at the team hotel last March, which involved several players, led to them being disciplined and then banned by the SFA after they made V-signs to photographers while sitting on the bench in the home game against Iceland. Both subsequently announced their retirement from international duty.
"Boozegate", as it came to be known, cast Burley again as a bewildered victim of circumstance. He says: "Players will judge whether or not they let themselves down. It was an accumulation of things, but in general they know it's important when you represent your country that you act in the right manner. I'm totally clear where I'm coming from, everybody's got to be focused on Scotland. Players are human, it's their right to make that decision [to retire]. If they're honest and they feel it's not right for them to play for their country any more, I respect that. But I'm open to everybody who's taken themselves away or who comes in."
Still, Burley finds himself in the midst of an earnest confusion, with a recent rule change on eligibility meaning that Andrew Driver, the England Under-21 cap who plays for Hearts, can be selected for Scotland. While the player waits to commit his international future publicly, Burley is again caught in the glare of a situation that is beyond his control. "Nothing's changed," he says wearily. "If players are not going to commit themselves, they're not going to get picked."
We might recognise that in international football perception is forever shifting, and had Iwelumo scored with the goal at his mercy against Norway at Hampden, a different outcome to the group may have revealed itself. But a record of just three wins from 13 games is hardly an ally to Burley's cause. Scotland now face the chastening prospect of being among the third seeds when the draw is made for Euro 2012 qualifying.
"People in Scotland generally realise we don't have the quality of players that we had 30 years ago," Burley says. "That's the deep-lying problem of Scottish football. We're not just going to walk into World Cup finals like 30 years ago. The press will say that, but we need the quality of players coming through. Just because your ranking is better doesn't mean you're going to qualify. The most important thing is that we keep progressing."
Complications seem to dog Burley, though, and the squad he took to Japan for last month's friendly was so diminished by call-offs that it resembled a B team. This was seen as a reflection on the manager's faded command, an accusation he bridles at. Next week, he intends to select the strongest possible squad for the friendly against Wales in Cardiff on 14 November.
"Northern Ireland had 10 [players] out for their last game, and it was a World Cup fixture," Burley says. "Darren Fletcher's still not played [for Manchester United] and it's disrespectful to say the players called off because it was a friendly. What a load of rubbish, they're desperate to play for their country."
It is not hard to see an admirable quality to Burley's perseverance, even if at times he seems locked in an endless struggle with hard judges beyond his influence. This next campaign, when it comes, will be probed with a scathing intensity. Every manager is, after all, laid bare by results.
Barry Ferguson, Allan McGregor and "Boozegate"
"The players will judge whether or not they let themselves down. It was an accumulation of things, but players in general these days know that it's very important when you represent your country that you act in the right manner."
Being ridiculed and condemned by the media
"It's always personal. It certainly affected my family, but because we've been in football for so long and I have a great wife and kids, that didn't affect me. I have managed to not let it distract me and maybe I've even got stronger because of it, and more determined to do well for my country."
Scotland failing to reach the World Cup finals
"People generally realise that we don't have the quality of players that we had 30 years ago. That's the deep-lying problem of Scottish football. We're not just going to walk into World Cup finals like we did 30 years ago."
Speculation about his future as the SFA reviewed Scotland's World Cup campaign
"The press saw it as a review of whether I was staying or not, but that was never said to me. The media made a big thing of it, but it never affected me. I never thought about walking, which the press asked me in every interview."
Accusations that players did not turn up for the recent Japan game because it was a friendly
"Darren Fletcher has not played since and it's disrespectful to say players called off because it was a friendly. What a load of rubbish, they're desperate to play for their country."
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