OF all the players, coaches and backroom staff holed up at Scotland’s Renfrewshire hotel this week, manager Craig Levein is the only one with World Cup finals experience. So long is the national team’s absence that all remnants of France 1998 have long since dispersed from the international scene. That merely intensifies the craving to reach Brazil 2014.
Levein would have made good use of his time if he spent evenings throughout the week imparting that experience to his squad, who face Serbia today and Macedonia on Tuesday hoping to start their World Cup qualifying campaign with purpose.
On June 16, 1990, in Genoa’s Stadio Luigi Ferraris, Levein pulled on the dark blue No.15 shirt and played in a memorable 2-1 victory over Sweden. It remains Scotland’s last win at a World Cup finals – a night never to be forgotten by those involved.
Hearing Levein recall the tale is inspiring in itself, a worthwhile address to deliver to a group of modern-day Scottish players aspiring to make history.
“If these guys, players like Gary Caldwell, don’t play in a World Cup, it would be a travesty,” admitted Levein.
“I played at a time when we had regular qualification. We had really strong teams. Back then, I think we all thought we might miss one tournament but simply qualify the next time. It hasn’t worked out that way. I want this as much for these guys as I do for myself and the supporters. I think we’re all hungry for this opportunity.
“Just to pull on the Scotland jersey at a World Cup in front of your supporters was fantastic. It seemed like that stadium in Genoa that night was full with Scotsmen.
“It’s the pinnacle to go to a World Cup with your country. I’d love to go to a World Cup or a European Championship, but for me the World Cup is a little bit sexier. Particularly this time because it’s in Brazil. There is a romanticism about it.”
Levein is not without his critics as Scotland manager and is not naive enough to walk around in blissful ignorance. He knows the stakes are high in this campaign and there is pressure, which he welcomes, in attempting to guide the national team to a major tournament at the eighth attempt.
Although he exudes a calm demeanour, there is a fire within his belly due to the patriotism which has always been part of his life.
“Nobody wants to qualify more than me,” he stressed. “I think sometimes people wonder. I’m desperate to qualify. I’ve looked at the players and their strengths and I’ve decided the best way for us to qualify. Serbia are strong defensively and one of their best attacking players is their left-back. Does that mean they will sit in? I don’t think so.
“Last time, when we were drawn with Spain, everybody gave us little chance. This year we don’t have that, so anything can happen.
“I believe 100 per cent in the group of players we have. We do have some really tough matches. When we’re away to Belgium or Croatia, we’ll be the underdogs. Absolutely. But I believe it’s possible for us to win every game in this section.
“The thing about this job is you don’t get an apprenticeship. You’re just right in and you have to learn as you go. I desperately want to go to Brazil. I’ve learned so much in the last two years in this job – about my players and other international teams. I’m a much better international manager today than I was two years ago. I know that.
“I get judged as soon as I sit in the chair. I don’t disagree with that at all. From day one I was judged by everybody and I’m still being judged by everybody. That’s the job. I’ll get judged on what the results are.”
Tomorrow brings a 50th international cap for Gary Caldwell, who will also have the honour of captaining the team for the afternoon.
He is likely to start in a defensive midfield role, offering protection to centre-backs Andy Webster and Christophe Berra.
“It doesn’t get much better than this in football,” said Caldwell. “It’s going to be a big day for me personally but for the team and the country it’s a new campaign.
“You always start with real optimism. I think the players have a big responsibility to deliver.”
Caldwell is mindful enough to remember that he has achieved notoriety in football after overcoming some difficult periods earlier in his career, notably as he struggled to establish himself at Newcastle United.
He was dispatched to Darlington on loan at one stage and only began to prosper when he joined Hibs.
“It is a long way from Darlington,” he said. “You have to work hard to get to the top in football and I had some times when I had to go down divisions and take knockbacks.
“But I think if you work hard you’ll always get your rewards.”
He also endured a tough initiation at international level, his first cap in 2002 coming in a 5-0 drubbing by France in Paris.
“We lost 5-0 in my first cap so I had to help myself to a certain extent,” he said. “We had the likes of Paul Lambert and Davie Weir who encouraged you. That day I was thrown in and it was an eye-opener. You have to just stand up and be counted or you fall by the wayside.
“We played the best team in the world, probably one of the best there’s every been, and it made me want more of international football. When you play against Zinedine Zidane and players like that, you want more. Although after that night I couldn’t have envisaged getting two caps, never mind 50.”