Craig Brown is a man noted for ensuring that preparation mirrors the real thing, but he must have felt the pilots of the airline Sabena were mocking him when they went on strike on Thursday. Thousands of Scotland supporters were grounded in Brussels Airport, going through the perfect dry run for the World Cup finals. Scotland will not be getting on the plane for Japan and South Korea next summer.
Brown, though, has almost certainly reached the departure gate. The pain could be clearly seen in his eyes later on Thursday, as he sat solemnly at Hampden for a press conference that masqueraded as a court.
Europe's longest-serving national manager will pay the price for Scotland's failure to reach a seventh World Cup finals in eight attempts. If that sounds harsh, then the likeable Brown, now 61, can take pride that he outlasted everyone in a job that spares not even the greatest of reputations.
When Brown, a man with a modest playing CV who guided Scotland's youth and Under-21 sides, took over from Andy Roxburgh in October 1993, the headlines screamed: Craig Who? The tabloids know who he is now, and have been gunning for him since the Euro 2000 play-off defeat by England. Brown could have consoled himself with the fact that Louis van Gaal was receiving an even fiercer scrutiny for Holland's failure. Indeed, all his more celebrated contemporaries – notably Kevin Keegan and Berti Vogts – have long since bitten the dust.
Arrigo Sacchi, the man opposite Brown in the dugout on his Scotland baptism in Rome in 1993, is one of just four Italian managers the Scot has seen off. But time has now caught up with him, as far as the Scottish public are concerned, even though he says he will honour his contract which expires in December.
The toothless manner of the 2-0 defeat by Belgium sounded the final call for Brown and many of his players. He has worked wonders in the last eight years by steering an ageing squad with no recognised goalscorer to the finals at Euro '96 and France '98. Only an astonishing save by David Seaman in the dying moments of a 1-0 win at Wembley in November 1999 prevented another European Championship finals appearance.
Brown's organisation had squeezed more mileage out of his side than Scotland had a right to expect, but in Brussels they were running on empty. Only the peerless Paul Lambert reached the level required and he is now retiring from international football at 32. Craig Burley and Dominic Matteo disappeared in midfield – the latter has yet to give even a hint of his Leeds form in a Scotland jersey – while Don Hutchison struggled to resemble a forward who had just changed hands for £5.3m. Brown's inherent caution somehow kept the direct Colin Cameron chained to the bench until 15 minutes to go. Yet it is the deeper seam of caution that unpicked Brown's reputation for the 13,000-strong Tartan Army.
A failure to promote younger talent meant that Everton's Gary Naysmith was the only Scotland player in the encounters with Croatia and Belgium under the age of 27, though Brown resists the charge. "If you look at the Belgium team, many of them were in their thirties," he said. "Experience at international level is essential and we don't have youngsters like Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard, the way England do."
Alex McLeish, the bookmakers' favourite to succeed Brown, concurs. "I watched England's Under-21 side beat Albania 5-0 and they have an embarrassment of riches." Youth, though, appears to be a hindrance rather than an asset when looking for an international manager. McLeish may have won 77 caps for Scotland, but at 41 he still feels he has some growing to do. "It is not for me at this moment," he said on Friday. "It's not that I think I'm naive in terms of tactics, but I want to achieve much more at club level, and with Hibernian in particular."
Those who see that as a lack of ambition would do well to remember the case of Glenn Hoddle, who took the England job at a similar age and with less club experience under his belt than McLeish.
If the heir apparent does not seem cut out for the job, what about the eminence gris? Sir Alex Ferguson is the man every Scot wants. He is thought to be out of reach, principally because of money and his future role at Manchester United. However, the timing could not be more opportune, with Ferguson bowing out at Old Trafford next May but with a restless nature that aches to be satisfied. Ferguson could dovetail his impending United consultancy to fill the empty hours that haunt every club manager who takes over an international post.
Though Ferguson is a patriotic Scot, he is unlikely to perform the task for free and the SFA would have to quadruple Brown's £200,000 salary to catch his attention, but when set against the £15m which will be lost by failing to make the World Cup finals, it is small change.
If you don't ask, you don't get, as another Scot found out last September. Luckily for England, Adam Crozier's pursuit of Sven Goran Eriksson paid off.Reuse content