The Last Word: Andy Murray flouts the stereotype, while Scots fans conform
There are few good explanations for Scotland’s decline; still fewer solutions
If nothing else, Andy Murray's Grand Slam breakthrough should reprove a patronising tendency, south of the border, to place Scotland's sporting achievers in an unbroken lineage of Pictish rebels, reivers and rustlers, issuing from the glens on some bloody, insolent sortie before retreating into caves as civilisation restores its boundaries. Certainly, home success against England at Murrayfield is invariably depicted as an ambush of complacent superiors, reduced by mud and wind and driving rain.
But Murray, consistent with his awkward mien, declines any such caricature. Instead their condescension must be confined to irritations that say more about the English than about Murray. In his stubbly, hangdog, snowboarder bearing, they have long perceived the slovenly disaffection of a generation that wilfully abjures their values; and yet now they find themselves obliged to salute his sullen refusal to embrace the ancestral role of plucky loser.
Aesthetically, Murray is the very opposite of that slick, shimmering seraph Federer. In New York, his ugly black trainers might as well have thudded round the court with laces trailing. But just as Murray has restored the barbarously violated name of his delightful hometown, Dunblane, so he rejects crass categorisation of his race.
The English find themselves suitably grateful, then, for his national football team. Just a few hours after Murray had made Scotland so proud, a fresh irruption of Caledonian self-loathing convulsed Hampden Park. This time, moreover, mockery could extend from the inadequacy of the players to the delusions infecting fans and media. For whatever the perceived failings of Craig Levein, it is bewildering that anyone should hope to contrive a bacon butty from such a sow's ear, never mind a silk purse.
Mutual acquaintances on the Turf describe Levein as a man of substance, acuity and integrity. And the increasingly petty, personal timbre of criticism would seem to justify his complaints about a "hysterical" reaction to draws in Scotland's first two World Cup qualifiers. Certainly, you would think that those lampooning his choice of spectacles might hesitate before so opening themselves to a charge of myopia on their own account.
The Scottish game is in an Augean mess, and Levein is trying to clean it up with a toothbrush. The disaster at Rangers means that two of the domestic divisions are now turkey shoots. And while the surviving hegemony of Scottish managers in England confirms an innate football genius, it seems nearly extinct in those actually eligible to play. So it is that Levein finds himself vilified for failing to start a 22-year-old who has played barely a dozen times outside the third tier of English football. His new club manager, Steve Kean, confessed "surprise" that Levein did not make more use of Jordan Rhodes. Perhaps the Tartan Army would prefer Kean instead. Or perhaps they should be a little more careful what they wish for.
They cannot abide Levein's "negativity", most notoriously his 4-6-0 experiment against the Czechs last year. Within months, of course, Spain were winning the European Championship without a striker. Clearly, the two teams are a world apart. But both managers were merely cutting their cloth according to their means.
Nobody has had the decency to assess Scotland's 0-0 draw with Serbia in a fresh light, following the 6-1 thrashing Serbia administered to Wales (Scotland's next opponents) four days later. By all accounts, meanwhile, 1-1 against Macedonia was a flattering result. But the reality – despite a theoretical gulf of 50 places in Fifa rankings – is that Levein does not have one player fit to lace the boots of Goran Pandev. Fans and pundits should not have deceived themselves into the slightest entitlement against a team like this. Macedonia had conceded only one goal across four previous matches, and that was against Croatia five days earlier. On home soil, Croatia mustered seven attempts on goal against Macedonia's 13.
England's own cupboard is so bare (their hilarious No 3 Fifa ranking notwithstanding) that the linchpin is suddenly supposed to be Tom Cleverley, mysteriously transformed into an international playmaker after 13 appearances for Manchester United – not a role many were urging while he was playing with equal distinction on loan at Wigan. His former team-mates there, Shaun Maloney and Gary Caldwell, are two of the better talents available to Levein, who is otherwise supposed to build a competitive team around the likes of Alan Hutton and Charlie Adam. Misfortune has meanwhile shorn him of one Fletcher – Darren – albeit misjudgement, in some mutual degree, arguably accounts for the unavailability of another, Steven.
Even without Vidic and Stankovic, in contrast, Serbia can still summon stars from Chelsea, Manchester City and the top clubs in Russia. Players from Dortmund, Zenit, Benfica and Udinese watched from the bench. And, by that measure, things will only get worse against Belgium and Croatia.
There are few convincing explanations for Scotland's deterioration since the days of Jock Stein; still fewer solutions. In the words of the anthem, those days are past now. But whatever corrections Murray may have made to external perspectives, perhaps it is time some of Levein's compatriots were themselves sent homeward, tae think again.
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