Pouring New Wine Into Young Wineskins, Or Something Like That

By on Oct 13, 2011 in International Football, Latest | 0 comments

The call for youth to reinvigorate a national squad every two and four years must be included in the standard guidebooks for both managers and football association officials on what to say in response to failed attempts at qualification for a big tournament. Just the previous summer after Green’s Gaffe and Germany’s show of youth in revolt, England supporters received an earful from Fabio Capello–through his suddenly atrocious grasp of the language–and delivered an annoyingly vuvuleza-like din themselves about how the only way forward for the Three Lions was in bringing more youth into the senior side. Over a year later, though, the squad run out against Montenegro to play England’s final Euro 2012 group stage qualifying match included sprinklings of youth but was still anchored by the likes of John Terry, Ashley Cole, Gareth Barry, Frank Lampard, and a Scott Parker either returned to the squad because he had been spotted drinking with Juan Ponce de León or because Steven Gerrard was still injured and unavailable for selection. Change out a centre half and a fullback, bring back a forward that might have deserved to go to South Africa in the first place along with starting the GK sub left on the bench in World Cup 2010, and it’s roughly the same squad that was a failure in 2010 now a winner in 2011.

Enough on England though, for Capello’s now more youthful squad responded and will be heading to the continent for the 2012 European Championships, after having failed to do so in 2008–who was that old guy in goal against Croatia again?–but instead it is Caledonia where the demand for manager Craig Levein to blood more youth is loudest following Scotland’s night in Alicante. Although Brighton & Hove Albion striker Craig Mackail-Smith gave the Scots a glimmer of hope in reaching the playoffs after scoring the winner against Liechtenstein previously, he was unable to replicate the feat nor was Scotland able to withstand the inevitability of Spain finishing off its qualification with a perfect record nor Lithuania’s capitulation at the hands of the Czech Republic to put the Czechs through in their stead.

While some supporters and media might have begun hinting that Levein should step away now Scotland has been unable to qualify for another international tournament, Scottish FA chief Stewart Regan immediately quashed such speculation, remarking that under Levein the national program has seen “a lot of talented young players come into the squad,” that the SFA performance strategies which emphasise youth development were created in part by Levein, and he should be allowed to see them come to fruition. In particular, Regan cited the inclusion of young players like Mackail-Smith and Barry Bannan into the squad as promising for Scotland’s future. Rather than being a hindrance to the desire for youth to be served as Scotland look ahead to qualifying for World Cup 2014, Regan made clear the Scottish FA deem Levein’s direction as an integral component in giving the younger lads a chance to play and win for the Tartan Army.

Perhaps Regan sneaked too quick a glance at that guidebook prior to his interview, however, for while Bannan is a young talent, at 27 yrs old Mackail-Smith might no longer be considered a young player by footballing standards.

The catchphrase that could have been used, then, was “new” rather than young, as Mackail-Smith will have as many candles on his next birthday cake as captain Darren Fletcher or Steven Whittaker, and more than Steven Naismith or Scott Brown. In short, what Levein decided midway through a somewhat faltering qualification campaign was to look south as a means to boost his squad’s chances rather than necessarily at Scotland’s youth, and chances are the cadre of players he “blooded” in the final Euro 2012 matches will still be in the reckoning during qualification for Brazil given they should still be at a prime playing age through 2014.

As European Championship qualification restarted with the September home match against the Czechs, Levein’s squad lists became populated more with players based in the English leagues, as Charlie Adam, Robert Snodgrass, Christophe Berra, Don Cowie, and the aforementioned Mackail-Smith were provided more than just token minutes in a friendly affair while younger players like Bannan and Celtic’s James Forrest were made mostly to continue watching from the bench. Motherwell’s Jamie Murphy remained overlooked and the 22 yr old’s prospects for a national team call in the future appear even dimmer than before given Levein’s compass adjustment.

After all, Regan even noted that the Scotland manager is “looking right across the game and at what we need to do as a country to be successful in the future.”

Might this mean, then, that what Scotland needs in order to end its extended absences from international tournaments, and what Levein will look to instead, are Scots playing regularly against the better competition that can be found in the English Premiership or Championship? Perhaps this is an unfair comparison, but in Scotland’s opening Euro 2012 match, there were four players in the starting XI plying their trade in England–including two that traveled with Gordon Strachan to Middlesbrough to recreate Celtic South–whereas in the final match versus Spain there were nine English league players that took to the pitch to begin. In complete contrast to how he began his tenure  by ignoring players if they did not play in the Scottish Premier League, Levein seems to seeking a move forward with these English-based players, regardless of their relative youth (or lack thereof) in his new view across the game. Further, this would appear at odds with part of the Performance Strategy the SFA derived from the McLeish Report, with the executive summary here making quite a few references to developing Scotland’s footballing future through nationally-based programs done by Scottish coaches through Scottish clubs. The gist of the Performance Strategy is for these youth to be coached up and integrated into Scottish Football League and SPL sides, and for their positive development not only to raise the quality of play in those leagues but also provide the national team with a deeper pool of players ready to be drawn for international matches.

Granted, time will tell if Levein does truly enact a more robust youth movement within the national squad and whether the Performance Strategy of which he is considered to be essential pays off for Scotland as it undertakes World Cup qualification. The current outlook under Levein, though, appears to be about finding new players, not necessarily young players, and particularly those participating in leagues about England rather than Scotland. One wonders if lads like Murphy, Gregg Wylde of Rangers, or Dundee United’s Scott Allan should demand moves to Premiership or Championship clubs in order to get a sniff at making the senior squad in this new future for the Scots. United’s manager and Scotland assistant coach Peter Houston would likely recommend it, as he did this summer when Goodwillie went to Blackburn rather than Rangers. While these youngsters would be pleased with such moves for the additional money they would receive, the Scottish FA and the national manager might would also crack a guilty grin should such a continued drain on the young talent in the domestic league inadvertently aid the overall Scottish cause.

That way, they would be new and young so that neither Levein nor Regan would have to edit their guidebooks  too sharply should World Cup qualification end as it did for the 2012 European Championships.

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