Wednesday 26 July 2017

Near-death experience shows there is life after Liechtenstein

Dion Fanning

A s he stood on the sideline stoically last Tuesday night, Craig Levein looked like Scottish football's leading intellectual. Maybe its only intellectual. Whatever he was, he was lonely.

Levein came to the Scottish job promising to bring the passion back and on Tuesday night he succeeded. Anger is always passionate and when Liechtenstein took the lead, the Scottish crowd howled, without the nod to the show of defiance that is customary in these shocking situations

Fittingly, Levein's glasses fell off as he celebrated Scotland's winner in the seventh minute of injury-time. As he searched for his spectacles and smiled with delight, his cerebral air had vanished. He was just another Scottish manager fumbling in the half-light.

By the time he came to the post-match interview (the most important 60 seconds of a manager's week, a smart man has probably told him), Levein was back on track. Soon they would ask if, far from being the smartest man in the country, he was simply crazy when he said he was "thrilled" by their victory against Liechtenstein.

"Do you feel lucky tonight?" Levein was asked later with the interviewer at least having the politeness not to add 'punk' to the end of the question.

As an intellectual, Levein laughs at notions of luck but as an intellectual coach he has used his vast intellect to decide that Scotland needs less attacking football. Like many coaches, Levein looked at the game and concluded that the best way of eliminating the risk of losing was to take fewer risks. Conveniently this was something he had been preaching earlier in the week after Scotland's scoreless draw in Lithuania.

This would turn out to be a very good result and if they could have controlled Liechtenstein's attacking movement with more aplomb, it would have been a very good week.

Instead Scotland struggled, allowing Levein to state there are no easy games in international football anymore, a statement with which some of Scotland's recent opponents would disagree.

In fact, it could be time to add another layer to the international football debate. Are there really meaningless matches as some of us have argued, taking the lead from Arsene Wenger? Or, in fact, are there too many games that have the capacity to make men deeply, deeply angry? A lot of the time these are men who are angry anyway but you don't want to be doing things to provoke them, like drawing against a tax haven until the 97th minute.

"It would have been very easy for them to turn on us," Levein said, ignoring the central fact that the crowd had indeed turned on them.

"Was that a near-death experience?" Alan McManus was asked by an interviewer who, like all Scotsmen, couldn't be said not to have grasped the enormity of it all

"It's something you dream always about as a kid, scoring the winner for your country," McManus, who had just done that, said afterwards. It is safe to say the men who made Scottish football great dreamed about it against teams other than Liechtenstein.

If Jim Baxter fantasised about scoring the winner against Liechtenstein, it was only after a bad pint or when he was at the stage of the night when every pint was a bad pint.

* * * * *

At Soccer City on a cold night in July, one man went on to the field to congratulate Spain on their victory and, perhaps, tell them that he had predicted that victory. That man, of course, was Gerard Houllier, undoubtedly the smartest man in football.

He recently co-authored the FIFA technical report which took time out from praising Wayne Rooney's contribution to the tournament to compliment the work of 'Joseph S Blatter' in ensuring that developing nations are no longer developing nations, something that probably isn't welcomed in Scotland right now.

Houllier was part of the 16-man committee that issued that report and concluded of Frank Lampard's shot against Germany that crossed the line: "They thought they had equalised but the goal was not given". Indeed.

Houllier's first press conference as Aston Villa manager on Friday was a masterclass, albeit a class following a curriculum set by Houllier.

He was talking to at least three audiences: the press men -- "I have worked with many of you before" -- the supporters -- he offered some elementary facts about the club -- and those men on the UEFA circuit who will soon be presented with the bullet points from his performance.

He leaves France in upbeat mood after the senior side's victory in Bosnia, although some will note that only the certain knowledge that Houllier was leaving inspired this side of ne'er-do-wells to try a leg.

He name-checked everyone who mattered, as well as the odd mention of his own achievements. "I had offers from other countries and, well, you can imagine," he said when revealing that it was only a club like Aston Villa that could tempt him away from his safe job with the FFF (why was it safe?).

Houllier will meet Villa's players today and if they win at Stoke tomorrow, surely it will be revealed that he told them at this meeting that they would do it.

Unfortunately, he can't be there tomorrow evening -- or for many evenings to come -- as he has some business to attend to in France in his role as technical director. Perhaps France's technical director should have been attending to business over the past three years but he can't change this date now.

On Friday, he explained that he had to attend a meeting of the French league managers, captains and referees on Monday night. It was, he explained to those of us who thought it might sound like a cocktail party, a "unique" event in world football.

I'm sure they'll have a good night discussing the trends in the game. It will be one last schmooze. He saved the last schmooze for them.

There is undoubtedly some mad Houllier dogma -- "the manager must always win his first match" -- that makes a trip to Stoke look tricky but if Villa do win, he will have foreseen it. If Villa lose, he will be about to make things better. With Houllier, things are always about to get better, even as they get a whole lot worse.

dfanning@independent.ie

Sunday Independent

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