HENRY McLeish resists the suggestion that Scottish football requires another of his reviews in the wake of Sunday evening’s setback in Slovenia. It probably doesn’t need re-run of its precursor either, the oft derided ‘Think Tank’ originally dreamed up by Ernie Walker and Rinus Michels in what were, with the benefit of hindsight, Scottish football’s halcyon days. But that doesn’t mean the former first minister and East Fife player doesn’t have a point or two to make about where our national game goes from here.
It may be more fashionable to call for the heads of manager Gordon Strachan or SFA chief executive Stewart Regan on a silver platter this morning, but some seven years after he first patiently outlined his recommendations to the media, having taken in the match on the FOX Sports channel from Oklahoma, McLeish feels that what the game in this country really needs is a radical re-balancing of the power relations between the SFA and the SPFL, one which recognises the needs of the national team are more important than that of even our biggest clubs like Celtic and Rangers. The SFA, he feels, must re-establish dominance when it comes to the fate of our national sport. And if the SPFL don’t like it, then tough.
“I don’t feel let down,” McLeish told Herald Sport. “But what I do feel is that we haven’t made enough of the changes we suggested, the ideas we talked about. I think we are all culpable in this sense.
“There is no excuse left for Scotland to deploy after we see the likes Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Denmark, Croatia and Switzerland all going through with comparable populations,” he added. “And much of what I talked about in 2010, has actually been implemented by Iceland a national far smaller than Scotland in size. We have to face up to the fact that at international level, we are just not good enough. Rather than talk about DNA or genetics, those in charge of the game we collectively have to take responsibility.
“There are no quick fixes. It isn’t just change the manager or the tactics, there is something fundamentally wrong with the game in Scotland.
“The first issue for me is the governance of the game. Within Hampden, we need a re-balancing of power and that means that the conflict between club and country has to end. The SFA has to take the pre-eminent role, responsible for the national game. The SPFL will have to contribute to this, but they will no longer have the power that they currently have.
“The problem at Hampden is that the SPFL and the SFA are so intertwined that responsibilities are being lost. Pressures are all one-way from the SPFL. Yet if you look the small countries who are doing well they generally have no club competitions to talk about.
“We in Scotland uniquely want to have a good national side and a good national league set up. But for that to work, you can’t have the two blurring each other. That is why I say the SFA now has to become the pre-eminent governing body in Scottish football. Don’t get me wrong, the club game is the bread and butter. Every week, fans love it. Scotland prides itself on that. But you can’t have a good national side unless you rethink the power priorities at Hampden and give the SFA total power, total authority, total responsibility to identify what the priorities are.”
Celtic can cogently argue that they provided at least half a dozen of our best players to this Scotland effort, but there are other strands to this McLeish manifesto too. How about a sense of openness, with more independent figures free of club influence, in the corridors of Hampden. Project Brave is all very well, but only as long as these elite academies are at the apex of the pyramid, there is a recognition that clubs big and small have a role to play in developing talent, as does a renewal of focus on school football.
“Every club supporter in Scotland wants their club to do well but they also watch the national team,” says McLeish, who is chairman of the merged Fife Elite Football Academy shared by Raith Rovers, Dunfermline and East Fife. “And the only way out of 20 years of abject failure has to be that if Scotland can ask for just one thing, it wouldn’t be the success of the club game, the success of the national team?
“We have got to realise that we can’t leave this to the big clubs. They have their own requirements but in my view there are still far too many foreign players playing in Scotland of mediocre quality.
“We don’t need another dramatic review, we don’t need to bring somebody in to say this, that or the other, but we need an open, far less acrimonious debate about what is right for Scotland.
“We see it in politics and the world, scapegoating is in fashion. We have the manager, the chief executive of the SFA, the chief executive of the SPFL, we could have a night of the long knives but to me that achieves nothing. We are always looking for someone or something to blame. Stewart has been there for a period now and he needs that support. He is under a lot of pressure from the club set up which is very powerful. I won’t dwell on personalities. But we really need to wak up and smell the coffee.”