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Craig Levein's zeal and a whole lot of luck required to restart Scotland's cycle
Scotland have not contested a major finals since France 98 and unless they rediscover excitement at playing the game, they will not be doing so again for some time yet
When I first saw Scotland qualify for the World Cup finals, the Hampden Park terraces were made of compacted ash held in place by railway sleepers. In those monochrome surroundings, we were still living in splendour because history was being made.
That night in 1973 someone headed the winner against Czechoslovakia. Given the unsatisfactory view amid 100,000 spectators, it took a few moments to spot the hero. The goal had come from a 21-year-old substitute by the name of Joe Jordan. There were evidently some useful figures, even on the fringes.
Scotland had not been to the finals since 1958 but starting from 1974 they qualified for six out of seven. By France 98 I was a journalist and part of a press pack complacent enough to be indignant about always getting eliminated in the group phase. I now have a craving to taste that underachievement once more.
Craig Brown and his predecessors of the 70s and 80s were lucky in the footballers available to them. The line-up for that victory over Czechoslovakia contained Danny McGrain, Billy Bremner, Denis Law and Kenny Dalglish. The remainder of the side had to settle for being very good.
It is the dwindling quality of the candidates that has seen Scotland collapse. Now the SFA has reacted responsibly by approaching the outstanding candidate to succeed the sacked George Burley. Craig Levein is a tough and intelligent character who has had an impact at Hearts and Dundee United. Many of us continue to be nonplussed by his miserable stint at Leicester City.
He will at least have a perfect understanding of the problems that await him. The most recent United line-up chosen by Levein contained just four men born in Scotland. A full appreciation of the sparse native talent made it certain that he would extend his duties well beyond the national team.
Levein will involve himself in all levels of the game. No one should ever sneer at a zeal for regeneration, but the desire to reshape football has been gnawing at Scotland managers for more than 20 years. Andy Roxburgh, just like his successor Brown, doubled as the SFA's technical director.
No one ever doubted their sincerity or dedication and Roxburgh has gone on to become Uefa's technical director, but the decline of the sport north of the border is yet to be checked. Its club football, to decreasing effect, has mostly been shored up by foreign signings.
Facilities will never be perfect, but even at grassroots level they are immeasurably superior to those experienced by that 1973 side and their predecessors. It used to be a faint consolation to suppose that young people were simply relishing a diversity of sporting opportunities as they were released from the fixation with football.
The miserable truth may be that exercise is out of favour with children. A study by Essex University has just claimed that a 10-year-old in 1998 was fitter than 95% of his or her counterparts today. The tests were carried out in Chelmsford, but the forces behind that trend exist north of the border as well.
Comments about computer games and televisions holding kids in thrall come across as the grumbles of old-timers, but they are not entirely without foundation. Scotland has to rediscover an excitement about playing football that has receded. One generation used to inspire the rest and many of that 1973 line-up, for instance, would have been stirred by the exploits of Scottish clubs in Europe in the previous decade.
A landmark success is needed to restart that cycle of impetus. Levein will appreciate that nations are not necessarily doomed because of a small population. Slovenia, a country of two million people, will be appearing at the World Cup finals next summer, just as they did in 2002. Given his feeble means, however, the Scotland manager elect will have to get very, very lucky in the Euro 2012 qualifiers.
Taken from the Guardian/Observer