Desmond Kane

Levein misses the point amid mist of machismo

Desmond Kane

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The life choices we make continue to affect those around us. Atonement stood and walked tall in the Scotland goal at Hampden Park last night before obduracy could be discovered in the bowels of an otherwise enlivened national stadium.

Whatever else can be gleaned from losing in front of your home crowd, Scotland's manager Craig Levein can perhaps learn a lesson or two from his maturing goalkeeper Allan McGregor on the correct time to maintain proper decorum amid life's peculiar outbreak of untimely happenings, however unjust they may seem.

Scotland almost salvaged an unlikely point against those pesky but pristine Spaniards in a contest that veered and swerved particularly violently in a rollicking good second half, even if it only reached such a juncture because of the specialist attention of McGregor.

The Rangers player produced a blue-chip performance with some stubborn resistance after choosing not to do a 'Duncan Ferguson' by walking out before facing the world champions. His commitment cannot be faulted after receiving ladles of provocation to distance himself from this series of games.

McGregor opted to play in narrow defeats to the Czech Republic and Spain despite toiling with a thigh injury and receiving a retroactive one-match ban from the barmy Scottish Football Association for apparently kicking Chris Maguire in a Scottish Premier League match in Aberdeen last month.

Sometimes video evidence is better binned for the sake of a greater good, at least until a later, more suitable date than the eve of an international week. The SFA have never been masterful in dealing with such matters with any notion of common sense, but McGregor displayed maturity in rising above such bewildering timing, whatever is made of the rights or wrongs of the decision.

McGregor is suspended for Rangers against Motherwell this weekend. Scotland should be thankful he chose his country rather than indulge in petty grievances with the misfiring governing body.

With Craig Gordon recovering from injury, McGregor ensured two ghastly beatings were avoided over what has been another truly astonishing week, even by Scotland's innate ability to sidle up to the sublime after the ridiculous.

McGregor's silly antics in 'Boozegate' and the two-fingered salute should be well and truly consigned to the past. For a Scotland fan, his performances have been something to cherish unlike his manager, who has a tendency to act churlishly at inopportune moments.

Levein, perhaps invoking the spirit of Alex Ferguson, childishly walked out of a live television interview late in the evening with his glasses seemingly steaming up, because he refused to answer questions about the 4-6-0 'no striker policy' in Prague that will live in infamy long after he has gone.

Unlike the maturing McGregor, there was no valid reason for such a fit of pique after Gerard Pique's own goal had given credence to Levein's belief that Scotland were good enough to score two times against a side as qualified as any to assume the mantle of world champions.

Levein was castigated for his errors in losing 1-0 in Prague. He is clearly a figure who does not take kindly to  confessing he got it wrong.

Levein looked a little pale when he was wired up for Sky TV cameras after watching his side deprived of a point by the enormous Fernando Llorente, a forward who seemed to be aware of the riskiness of the situation as he mockingly wiped his brow after netting the game's conclusive fifth goal, even if it was to signify scoring with his feet rather than his head. 

Little did Sky's ongoing David Tanner realise the riskiness of his situation when he confronted Levein for what one expected to be a typical aftermatch interview consisting of a chummy few words trotted about between manager and microphone.

Tanner seems like a jovial enough character and does the haggard beat of the SPL, but was probably not expecting such a rare bit of live nonsense.

Tanner's tete-ta-tete with Levein was hardly Jeremy Paxman confronting Michael Howard, but was telling in its own right.

The interview began in the usual manner with Levein stating how "proud" he was before intrepid interrogator Tanner, quite rightly it must be said, cut to the chase with a question that 52,000 Scottish fans around Hampden, and several million more watching wanted answering. 

Tanner to Levein: "You received more than your fair share of criticism for not having a target man, a striker on the pitch in the Czech Republic..."

Levein: "Listen, we're not here to talk about something that happened four days ago...you want to go back and talk about things in the past, I want to talk about tonight's game. That's all."

Tanner (regaining momentum): "What I'm saying is, do you feel that Scotland looked more balanced tonight...."

Levein (interrupts): "What I'm saying to you, is I don't want to talk about Friday night, I want to talk about tonight's match."

Tanner (contending with an uncomfortable silence): "How did you feel the team played with having the striker restored, then?"

Levein (clearly unhappy with the line of questioning): "Is that the end of the interview then?"

Tanner (silence): "Erm....."

Levein then trotted off with Tanner perhaps lucky he never went the same way as Levein's old Hearts companion Graeme Hogg, who was floored then carted off with a broken nose after an argument at Raith Rovers in 1994.

In appreciating his frustration after such an exacting loss, Levein has to do better as the national coach, because he brought such a line of questioning upon himself with such staid tactics against the Czechs.

Why were Scotland so negative in Prague and so positive against Spain? It made no sense. To this onlooker, it continues to make no sense.

One is not a psychologist, but Levein's body language said enough without the need to answer any questions. It irks because it hurts. If Scotland fail to quality for the Euro 2012 finals, the Czech Republic in Prague and not Spain in Glasgow will haunt him.

Scotland's quality in the second period against the Spanish, as aired by the veteran visiting coach Vicente del Bosque, suggests Levein committed a grave error in underestimating the squad available to him to face the Czechs.

A chance was lost in the Czech Republic. He probably knows it. Scotland illustrated against Spain that while they are not among the best 10 teams in the world, they are certainly too vibrant a side to be content to visit a city like Prague and play with no strikers.

When one considers Scotland's several thousand followers outnumbered the disenchanted home support, Prague should have felt like a home away home.

With Kenny Miller reintroduced, Scotland were reborn, reinvigorated and relocated in Glasgow. Miller was perfectly placed for Scotland to build their attacks. If only Levein had such faith in the Rangers forward on Friday, it could all have been so different. Four points could have been seven by the time Spain flew out of Scotland.

Levein's future as manager should be judged at the end of the qualifiers, but he is under some duress to deliver in three of the final four games of the group with wins essential against the Czechs, Lithuania and Liechtenstein in a year's time.

If he takes Scotland into the play-offs, it will be satisfactory. If he fails, there will be time to repent at leisure.

Scotland can at least rejoice in boasting two of the finest goalkeepers in the world in McGregor and Gordon. Scotland have not enjoyed such rich days since Jim Leighton and Andy Goram were around at the time of Euro 96.

Levein should be lauded for galvanising Scotland to trouble Spain, even if the Scots have suffered an unfortunate double whammy over another fruitless few days of coming up short.

Scotland's unique experience of the butterfly effect these past few days provides an inescapable conclusion.

What went on in Prague last Friday has set Levein and Scotland on a collision course with fate that they can no longer get out of.

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