Scotland World Cup Qualifiers: How Scotland's Future Is Tied to the SPL
Remember that time Scotland beat France?
In fact, no, do you remember that time Scotland beat France twice in the one qualifying campaign, finished ahead of Ukraine and only narrowly missed out on the playoffs after a defeat to Italy in the final game, a game where some of the key decisions were dubious to say the least?
Results like Friday's loss to Wales might make it hard to believe, but that campaign did actually happen. And what's even harder to believe is that it was only six or seven years ago.
Six or seven years ago, the biggest and best teams in Europe genuinely feared coming to Hampden, and with good reason—so many of them were sent packing, sent "homeward, tae think again." Nowadays, teams like Wales and Macedonia travel to Hampden in the hope—and let's be honest, the expectation—of getting a result, and Scotland are able to do little to stand in their way. How times have changed.
To start asking "where did it all go wrong?" would take up the sort of time that neither you nor I have, and it's not a question that can be answered over the course of a few paragraphs.
There is, however, one obvious and quite illustrative comparison which can be drawn between the team who came so close to qualifying for EURO 2008 and this current side, who are so far removed from any possibility of qualification for the World Cup in 2014 that you're inclined to doubt whether they'd be able to locate Brazil on a map. (I actually found myself laughing during Friday night's game, thinking how ludicrous it was—with the snow coming down and with the appalling football play on the park—that this was still a qualifying game for a summer World Cup in Brazil. It could hardly have been further removed, in every sense.)
Look at the two teams: the one that defeated France in October 2006 and the side which was beaten by Wales on Friday night. And look how many players are playing in the SPL in either case. In the France game, five out of the starting XI (Craig Gordon, Steven Pressley, Barry Ferguson, Gary Caldwell and Paul Hartley) were playing in the SPL, compared with just one (Celtic's Charlie Mulgrew) on Friday night. Quite a difference.
While misguided football talk seems always to arrive at the conclusion that Scotland needs players playing for clubs in the English Premier League in order to succeed, the evidence we have, at least in recent times, suggests otherwise.
During the tenures of Smith and McLeish, both Celtic and Rangers had sides comprised largely of Scottish players, and Hearts, too, had a solid backbone of homegrown players to their team, which split the Old Firm to finish second and won the Scottish Cup in 2006. Yes, these players were "only" playing in the SPL, but they were often performing under enormous pressure and high levels of scrutiny, and not only that, they were succeeding. They were winners.
Playing for Celtic and Rangers in the SPL has often been dismissed as a cakewalk, but the reality is that doing so requires a mental toughness and the capacity to deal with high expectations, where only a win is good enough and anything less causes instant discontent. Playing for Scotland, the situation was naturally different, as they entered the majority of games as underdogs, but they were able to carry over this determination and this willingness to shoulder responsibility that had served them so well at club level.
Now we find ourselves in a situation that is almost the opposite. We have players playing in the so-called top leagues—six of Friday night's starting XI (Gary Caldwell, Graham Dorrans, James McArthur, Robert Snodgrass, Shaun Maloney and Steven Fletcher) play in the English Premier League, while Alan Hutton plays in La Liga with Mallorca—and yet the overall standard has seen a massive deterioration.
We turn to these players hoping that, by virtue of the fact that they play in what is reportedly the best league in the universe/in recorded history, they'll do the business on the park. But this hope demonstrates a certain naiveté, not to mention a mistrust of our own capacity to judge players.
Sure, these players play in the English top flight, but we're talking bottom-half and relegation places, not title contenders and Champions League hopefuls. They're playing at a high level, but there is a wide range of talent on show in the EPL—just being an EPL player doesn't mean you're Robin van Persie or Luis Suarez.
What Scotland needs are winners, players who have the resolve and the edge to go out and get results and who are happy to take responsibility and be leaders on the park. This is something of which there is a worrying lack at present, either in the SPL or the EPL, and particularly with the absence of Scott Brown and Darren Fletcher.
It might sound trite and cliché, and obviously there are other problems beside a lack of leadership that we need to address, but having strong leaders has always been an integral part of any success Scotland have had. If Gordon Strachan can't find leaders on the park, then he'll need to fulfil that role himself, but it remains to be seen whether he's capable.
In closing, I should point out that while there was only one SPL player in the Scotland side, the league was also represented by Celtic's Joe Ledley in the red of Wales. Ledley is a good player, effective and committed if not blessed with extraordinary talent, but I can't have been the only one impressed with his composure and his leadership in central midfield for his team, always available for a pass and comfortable in possession. How Scotland would have killed to have a player like that to steady things—and to dictate the play—or even to play a simple pass.
In any case, it was clear that playing in the SPL had done nothing to negatively affect Ledley, and in fact, he looked like he was used to performing under the weight of expectations, something which couldn't have been said about any Scotland player.
Scotland's problems as a footballing nation are many, and solutions are hard to come by. But what seems evident is that the national team needs good Scottish players playing in the SPL.
Let's just hope we don't have to wait too long for that to be the case.
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