Scotland awoke from its hangovers yesterday morning a little unsure how to react to Tuesday’s 97th heroics (if that’s the right word). On the one hand there’s nothing like a last-kick-of-the-game winner to send you home happy, and every successful team can point to such bits of good fortune in games where it was barely warranted. On the other hand we know that we came within seconds of perhaps the most humiliating result in our history, and Stephen McManus’s late headed winner does not, in some eyes, mitigate such an awful display.
Firstly, the game itself: just how bad were we? I find it quite difficult to say. Clearly, it was a poor performance, no one is going to argue otherwise – the ball was given away too easily and too often, we lacked the craft and guile to break down a packed Liechtenstein defence, and created remarkably little in the way of clear-cut chances given the territorial possession we had. On the other hand, apart from James McFadden who looked all out os sorts before being subbed at half-time, I don’t know that I could point to any player and say he didn’t do his bit. No one was outstanding, no one produced anything particularly special, and we didn’t get the breaks until right at the death.
Hard to say if Levein could have done anything more either. There were other options he could have used – any of Paul Hartley, Graeme Dorrans or Charlie Adam might have played rather than Scott Brown, say – but that would just have been a shuffling of essentially the same pack. Other things might have worked better on the day (or worse) but for all the wiseguys on Radio Scotland saying he should have done this or that, there aren’t any tactical masterstrokes available to him that could have been relied on to do the job any better than the players selected on Tuesday.
Ultimately, Scotland just aren’t good enough to be able to roll over the minnows consistently and reliably without having the occasional scare along the way. And, contrary, to popular opinion, we never were. We’ve been having the odd hiccup against these little sides for as long as they’ve been involved in the competition – The Faeroes Islands, back in Berti Vogts day, but going further back there was a goalless draw against Luxembourg in the 80s, when we had a pretty tidy-looking side with Johnston, Nevin, McStay, Aitken, Miller, McLeish, Malpas. And we needed a similarly last-gasp goal against Cyprus a couple of years later, when Cyprus were rather less than good than they are now, and in a group from which we nonetheless qualified (for Italy 1990).
While you should never write off a substandard performance as “just a blip” without looking very closely at it, the simple fact of having only just scraped the win does not in itself herald any sort of decline, terminal or otherwise, or suggest that heads must roll or drastic changes are necessary. These are the best they’ve got, they’re capable of messing up against anyone just in the same way they’re capable of getting something from Spain (well, maybe). That’s the beauty of football – being “better” than someone (insofar as there’s such a thing) is just a fuzzy probability function of how likely you are to beat them on a given day, not an indication that you actually should do so or that you deserve to be booed off the park if you don’t. There are too many imponderables or variables outwith your control for that. And in international football, where you only play half a dozen games a year and maybe only a couple of them will turn out to be the particularly critical ones, you’re of course far more reliant on getting some breaks than you are over a 38 game league season.
So I’m in the camp that doesn’t much care how we got the three points, let’s just welcome the bit of luck and get on with the campaign. There are some quibbles and minor adjustments that might be made, but there aren’t any significantly better players or managers available to us. Lithuania’s win in Prague leaves us quite handily placed. I had previously thought we’d need four points from the Czechs to finish second behind Spain – three might now be enough. That requires us to win against Lithuania at home and Liechtenstein away. the events of the last few days have shown, if we didn’t already know, that neither of those things are stick-ons – but there’s every reason for cautious optimism.
The most embarrassing aspect of Tuesday night was not the performance on the pitch, but the booing from the stands at the opposing national anthem. For that, many people are indeed due criticism. But as far as the team goes, let them get on with it.