Despite the failure to reach Euro 2012 there were enough positive signs in the defeat to Spain for Scotland to stick with their manager
A bleary-eyed Scotland squad touched down in Glasgow at 4.30am upon return from a 3-1 defeat in Alicante. A combination of pouring rain and weariness may have delayed the realisation that yet another major tournament is about to take place without Scottish involvement. That absence will stretch, as a minimum, to 16 years. It is a time frame that is starting to span generations.
The blunt reality is that the incumbent in the international manager's post, Craig Levein, is one of many within Scottish football who is suffering because of negligence and complacency when the nation's appearances in finals were taken for granted.
Despite this latest failure – that is not a harsh description of third place in a relatively modest European Championship qualifying group – Levein is adamant progress is evident. This is a fair argument: few who have watched Scotland over the past 12 months could argue there has not been improvement. The frustration attached to it surrounds merely another inability to seal qualification. Supporters are fed up hearing about promise, they want results. When Levein speaks confidently about the talent at his disposal, as of course he has to, people reckon Scotland should perform accordingly.
Levein has his detractors. The same ones, it can be safely assumed, who didn't fancy him much for the Scotland job in the first place.
What the Scots were guilty of in their Euro 2012 qualifying campaign was a slow start; Levein's assertion that he was not yet confident with a set team or system is valid. It was akin to a club manager fumbling around in the dark during a brief set of pre-season fixtures. When the real stuff started, Scotland can regret a 0-0 draw in Lithuania that at the time was hailed in some quarters as a fine result. Criticism of a timid opening to Group I, and an ultimately costly one, belie the basic circumstances in which a manager routinely accepts a new position. That is, when someone else has been sacked for poor performance. The difference between the Scotland team that crumbled to defeat in Cardiff to mark the end of the dismal George Burley era and the one that troubled Spain for spells on Tuesday night is obvious. That is also apparent off the field, in the attitude and togetherness of a consistent squad.
The now infamous deployment of a 4-6-0 formation one night in Prague will, however, be the more common stick used to whack Levein. Notwithstanding the views of amateur tacticians – who place far too much importance on systems, without fully understanding them – that was a bemusing sight.
Scotland's midfielders against the Czech Republic looked forward to find nobody to pass to. Their goalkeeper punted the ball high and through the middle, only to discover no takers. Yes, Levein had a point that his team were not in a strong enough place to play on the front foot but the respect shown to the Czech Republic – themselves, far from the force they once were – was greater than it need have been.
When the Czechs visited Glasgow, the notorious act was a dive from Jan Rezek that won a key and late penalty. Scotland were rightfully aggrieved by that, even if the recounting of hard-luck tales became irrelevant to the wider world some years ago.
Levein is the best man for the Scotland post, as was the case when he accepted it. Those who may call for a management change have an exaggerated view of the quality of Scottish players or its game in general; neither is anywhere near the level that sackings should be demanded if the international side fails to reach a tournament.
Moreover, there remains no queue of top-class coaches wanting to take charge of Scotland. In Levein, the country has a manager who knows the domestic game – including its countless failings – inside out. He is not only willing to embrace desperately needed change in Scottish football, he is keen to drive it.
Levein, in short, should be allowed to build on the small steps already made by attempting to take Scotland to the 2014 World Cup. That will involve a hazardous qualifying section including Croatia, Serbia, Belgium, Wales and Macedonia. For a start, Levein's team will have to improve on unimpressive form away from home.
There is no suggestion that the Scottish FA itself could take matters out of the manager's hands by seeking a change. The biggest threat to the Levein regime is if the man himself is tempted back to club football, irked by the long waits between competitive matches. But, being brutally honest, what opportunities are likely to arise in the next year? Alex McLeish presided over a Scotland win over France in Paris and ended up at Birmingham City.
It goes without saying that Levein himself must improve along with his team. The ongoing situation surrounding Steven Fletcher, for example, is unacceptable given Scotland's lack of top-class forwards.
Whether down to the manager or the player, this stand-off, dating back to the start of the year, and Fletcher's reported unwillingness to form part of the Scotland squad for a friendly against Northern Ireland has to be resolved. Levein was keen to have the previously exiled Barry Ferguson and Allan McGregor back among his party as soon as he took office; he should make similar moves to restore Fletcher's availability. If Fletcher has no intention of playing for his country, it is not Levein who will look poor when attempting reconciliation.
In Craig Mackail-Smith, Levein has found an apparently excellent long-term replacement for Kenny Miller. Mackail-Smith and Fletcher would seem to represent a formidable double act. If there was one basic failing of the Scottish campaign that came to an end in Spain, it was an inability to covert key chances, particularly away from Hampden.
There will now be a long wait before Scotland's ruthlessness is tested again. It should be done with Levein at the helm.