Memories of the days when Scotland were regulars at major tournaments are fading fast. Craig Levein knows that only too well, having been a member of the Scots’ squad at Italy 1990, the last in a run of five successive FIFA World Cup™ appearances.
France 1998 brought a brief return to game’s greatest stage, but standards were already slipping and 13 subsequent years have provided only a steady supply of disappointments and heroic failures. Those years provided the grim backdrop against which Levein was given the task of stopping the rot in December 2009, with his appointment coming in the wake of a disastrous and disunited South Africa 2010 qualifying campaign.
To date, the progress during the 46-year-old’s reign has been steady rather than spectacular, but with selection options bolstered by a growing band of star Scots in the English Premier League, Levein assured FIFA.com that there is genuine cause for optimism.
FIFA.com: You’ve been Scotland manager for just over a year now. Has the job been what you expected?
Craig Levein: Not in all respects. From the outside, you have certain perceptions of what it entails, but I must be honest and say that I didn’t grasp the intensity that’s involved when the games come around. The extent of the media interest has been a particular surprise. But you learn with every squad gathering and every press conference, and I feel a lot more comfortable in that respect now than I did this time last year.
You took over following a difficult period for Scotland on and off the park. Do you feel the sense of togetherness that was lost, and which was so important previously, is now returning?
I hope so. But it’s important to remember that the positivity and unity that was there previously (under Walter Smith and Alex McLeish) was down to results and the way the team was playing. We have had some good performances recently, particularly against Spain here at Hampden (Scotland recovered a two-goal deficit to hold the world champions, until Fernando Llorente sealed a 3-2 victory with 11 minutes remaining), and I am hopeful results will follow. I’m especially hopeful because I see a better quality of Scottish player coming through at the moment – and in much greater quantity than over recent years. That gives me more encouragement than anything. I’ve got a really good feeling about the group we have coming together, and the better quality of player we have, the better chance we have of making the fans happy and proud.
That quality you mention was evident in the recent 3-0 win over Faroe Islands, when you fielded what was effectively a B team - but a side still packed with English Premier League regulars.
Absolutely. Scotland traditionally had a strong presence at the top level in England, but four or five years ago we only had two guys playing regularly in the Premiership: Darren Fletcher and to a lesser extent James McFadden. Now we have 15 Scots playing week in, week out in what is probably the best league in the world. That signifies a huge step forward for us because, if you’re good enough to play every week in the Premiership, you can play international football. There’s no gap in standard between the two, so the likes of [Charlie] Adam and [Graham] Dorrans have proved that they can be big assets to us. We also have some good younger players coming through at some of the top clubs both here and down south, so logically you’d have to say the future’s looking bright. I’m certainly hugely encouraged by what I’m seeing right now.
Is the upcoming Nations Cup against Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland and Wales, which begins a week tomorrow, likely to be a useful exercise in terms of moulding these players into a unit?
I’m sure it will be because it’s going to be a step up from your average friendlies. The fact there’s a cup at stake gives it a competitive edge and there’s obviously a pride element there too because almost all of our players will have team-mates from Wales, Northern Ireland or the Republic at their clubs.
Is it the kind of competition you would have looked forward to as a player?
I’d have loved it. Unfortunately my international career started just after the old home internationals finished, but I have very fond memories of watching those games – particularly the England matches – as a supporter.
It seems that England will be rejoining the tournament in 2013 to mark the FA’s 150th anniversary. That must be a tantalising prospect for you?
Of course. To be Scotland manager for a game like that, carrying on the oldest rivalry in football, would be fantastic. That would be a match we’d all look forward to.
Turning to UEFA EURO 2012, your next three qualifiers are against Czech Republic, Lithuania and Liechtenstein. Are you targeting maximum points from those games before the trip to face Spain in October?
Yes. Once the games were decided, we always knew that these three coming up would be absolutely vital. I’d prefer to have one more point at this stage, but we’re still in a position where we can qualify for the play-offs and we want maximum points from these games coming up to help us achieve that.
It’s now almost 13 years since Scotland last made it to a major tournament. Is ending that wait your ultimate aim?
It has to be. Scottish people are desperate to be involved again, and I think that a lot of other people from around the world would like to see it happen, especially given what our fans bring to these tournaments. Personally, I can only say that stepping out against Sweden at the 1990 World Cup was one of the proudest moments of my life. It was an amazing feeling, and the challenge for me is to get Scotland back there as a manager. The difficulty is that we have slipped down the rankings over recent years, and that obviously moves you down the pots for qualifying competitions. But as I say, I feel very encouraged by the quality of player we have coming through, so hopefully it won’t be too much longer before we’re back at a major tournament. Historically, we probably 'overperformed' in the respect that we're a small country with a small population. We might be in a more realistic position at the moment in those terms, but I definitely want to get us punching above our weight again.