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Nov 7, 2012

Levein on a jet plane

This week's North of the Border examines the national team's decision to sack Craig Levein and Leigh Griffiths' good form.

THE LONG GOODBYE

The removal of Craig Levein from his post as Scotland manager came as expected, but only after a lengthy period of deliberation by his employers at the SFA. This led to renewed criticism of the governing body by supporters and some in the media, while Charlie Adam, the Stoke City and Scotland midfielder, blamed the press for orchestrating the downfall of the national coach.

The press, in response, pointed out that the players were largely responsible for the results that got their manager the sack. Adam's own errors, which paved the way for Gareth Bale's winning goal in the defeat to Wales last month, made him more culpable than most. Amid all of this mud-slinging, Levein almost slipped away into the shadows.

This effect was heightened by the fact that there had long seemed only one move for the SFA. Scotland are bottom of their World Cup qualifying group and even the SFA's statement admitted the new man would be building for the next campaign, France 2016. Levein's competitive record stinks: in 12 matches he won three games, one over Lithuania, two of them against Liechtenstein and one of those the result of a goal deep into stoppage time, at Hampden.

There was also the performance in Prague during the campaign for Euro 2012, when Levein played a 4-6-0 formation that led to the most depressing 1-0 defeat in living memory. The sight of defenders winning the ball and looking, forlornly, for a target that did not exist is a hard one for Scotland supporters to shake off. Levein was defiant when criticised.

A stand-off with Steven Fletcher may have played as strong leadership in another era, but Scotland need each of their best players regardless of the cost. Levein eventually brokered peace with the forward, but the World Cup campaign was already going down. An opening home double header against Macedonia and Serbia could have reversed Levein's standing but his team did not pursue the victories that would have won Hampden over with any heart and Levein insisted two points from these fixtures was somehow acceptable.

With no qualifier until March, the SFA will take its time in appointing the new coach, perhaps more so as they will continue to pay Levein through the end of the current campaign. Gordon Strachan appears to be a popular choice, tipped even by another contender, Alex McLeish.

The job description will be interesting. Scotland have a gang of players technically superior to their predecessors, but they have lost their connection with the supporters. At the same time, expectation has nosedived and qualification for the World Cup is written off. The new coach should be encouraged to use what is left of this campaign to change the objective.

Hampden has seen one some cautious Scotland teams in recent years and this one failed in fear. With a free swing, the national team has a chance to romance its supporters in the home games at least. It would be enough of a start to see them go down fighting.

LOAN LEIGH AT THE TOP

Two goals from Leigh Griffiths cemented his position at the top of the goalscoring chart in the SPL and put Hibernian top of the table last Saturday night. Just 24 hours later they trailed Celtic only on goal difference, while the champions have a game in hand.

Griffiths has 11 from 11 games in the top division this season and is red hot. In his side's 2-1 win over St Mirren at the weekend, he also hit each post and had an excellent finish ruled out for a marginal offside call. There is no forward in the league more confident or with a greater range of finishes than the 22-year-old.

The bad news for Hibs? His loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers expires in January. Griffiths is a Hibs supporter and clearly loves scoring goals for his team. However, his parent club are in the pack just outside the play-off zone in the Championship and it may be hard to do business with them over an extension. Hibs' hopes of European football next season may depend on it. They are not a one-man team - Paul Cairney and David Wotherspoon have excelled on either wing - but he is first among equals.

The biggest deal of the winter window could be the one that decides what shirt Griffiths wears in 2013.

SHINNIE HAPPY PEOPLE

The top four make Europe this season and the race for those places may be among the most open anywhere. Three points below Celtic and Hibs, three more teams are tied.

One of those is Inverness Caledonian Thistle, 2-1 winners at Kilmarnock at the weekend, three days after they knocked Rangers out of the Scottish Communities League Cup with a 3-0 win at Ibrox.

A couple of months ago, Inverness were at the other end of the table but Terry Butcher deepened his squad at the end of the transfer window and the team has improved greatly since then.

The Rangers game was something of a landmark. The fallen giant of Scottish football had beaten Motherwell, their only SPL opponents since they reformed in the Third Division, in the previous round. Inverness got ahead in an even first half and dominated the second. Two of their goals came from the Shinnie brothers, Andrew and Graeme, who were both released by Rangers before the collapse.

If not for Leigh Griffiths, Andrew Shinnie would be the outstanding player in the division in recent weeks. He is one of a number of outstanding low-budget signings by Butcher, who has a kind of alchemy going on at Inverness, with the team now unbeaten in nine and having won five of their last six matches.

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