Great Scot! Where have all Scotland's good players gone?


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The Independent Football

As expected, Craig Levein’s Scotland were soundly beaten by an emergent Belgium team in Brussels on Tuesday, heaping more pressure on the already trouble-laden coach and leaving his team in need of wins in Serbia and Croatia if they are to stand the remotest chance of qualifying for 2014 World Cup.

It is surely now a matter of time before the SFA decides to pull the plug on Levein’s reign, one which has yielded three competitive wins in nearly three years.

Should this happen, he will join Alex McLeish, Kenny Dalglish, Steve Kean and Owen Coyle in the list of high-profile Scottish managers to get the sack in under six months. It wasn’t long ago that Coyle, sensationally headhunted by Bolton in 2010, was being touted as a future Scotland manager. There appears to be little chance of that happening now.

There remains, however, a strong contingent of Scottish managers plying their trade in the English Premier League. The perennial fixtures of Sir Alex Ferguson and David Moyes, in addition to Paul Lambert, have been joined by first-time appointee Steve Clarke, who has been working wonders with West Bromwich Albion since taking over at the Hawthorns in June. Together they make up 20 per cent of the top-flight managerial roster, down from 35 per cent last season when they outnumbered their native counterparts for the first time in Premiership history.

Former Manchester United captain and Scotland centre-back Martin Buchan – now of the PFA – believes “passion” and “sheer love of the game” are the reasons why Highlanders excel in the hot-seat. The two-time World Cup finals participant told The Independent: “I feel privileged to have known such greats as Sir Matt Busby, Jock Stein, Sir Alex (Ferguson), all winners of the European Cup. Bill Shankly was a giant. David Moyes has done sterling work at Preston and Everton over the years. Each had an inner core of steel and determination.”

Suffice to say, then, the Scots have some serious managerial pedigree. But what about the players? Where are the Gemmills, the Grays, the Laws, the Lorimers of yesteryear? Alan Hansen was the last truly world-class Scottish footballer and he earned his final cap in 1987. Of the Scotland team selected for their 2-0 defeat to Belgium, only six currently play regular Premier League football, and just one plays in the Scottish Premier League – Kris Commons for Celtic. The two Fletchers, Darren and Steven, are probably the only players in the current Scotland squad who would feature at all for England.

Buchan believes Rangers’ relegation to the Scottish Third Division will have an adverse effect on the national side due to the inferior quality of their weekly opposition. However, the National Secretary of the Scottish Youth Football Assocation (SYFA), David Little, rejects this view.

“I don’t think Rangers moving to the third division this season has had a huge effect on Scottish football at national level. I think the decline started long before the Rangers scenario appeared. We don’t have a good side at the moment. We’ve got some average players people have talked up.

“We never invested in young players at the correct times. I think the financial state of Scottish football has necessitated young players to be drafted in to first-team squads and there has recently been the influx of average, cheaper foreign players.”

These are sentiments shared by Buchan, who added: “I strongly believe that the development of home-grown talent has been stifled over the years by too many Scottish clubs signing too many second and third rate foreign imports who weren't good enough for the English Premier League or the Championship. Just because an overseas player's name ends in vowel, it doesn't mean he's a good 'un or, more importantly, better than what's on your doorstep.

“Glancing through last night’s (Tuesday's) line-up I see one player from Celtic and one from Manchester United. In the past there would be at least three players from both sides in the squad, if not the team, and two, three or more from Leeds and Liverpool, the two top English teams of the seventies, and we quickly got used to playing together.”

So, what’s the answer? How does Scotland go back to producing players like Dalglish and Hansen? Buchan says the Scottish FA’s plans for a National Performance Centre may hold the key but believes that truly great players essentially “produce themselves”.

Scotland’s smaller population – five million to England’s 52 – and considerably fewer financial resources to that of their Southern cousins mean they will always be limited in the number of top-class players they can produce. But it is worth bearing in mind that the Belgium team who dismantled them earlier this week – a team arguably better than England’s on paper – was drawn from a population of just 11 million people.

Players like Jan Vertonghen, Moussa Dembele and Thomas Vermaelen were no accidents. They were raw talents, hand-picked and refined by Belgian and Dutch academies where the virtues of technical control and possession football are inculcated from a tender age, an approach which Scottish football, Little says, is actively seeking to adopt.

“(The) SYFA have, in conjunction with the national association, produced a National Player Pathway. Effectively what that did was it introduced 4-a-side, 5-a-side, 7-a-side and ultimately 11-a-side football. So, a young player, or a parent of a young player who turns up with his six-year-old son can see a training path in front of him that will enable him to develop as a player and as a person.

 “This is skills-based, small-sided games that give players many, many more touches on a football and the more opportunities to be on the ball should increase the standard of player at grassroots level, so when they go to professional clubs they should be receiving a player of a much higher calibre.”

It remains to be seen whether Scotland’s football culture is sufficiently flexible to incorporate the European model. It also remains to be seen whether Levein will be at the helm long enough to see the initiative bear fruit.