Scotland's Far East farce
When Darren Fletcher and Alan Hutton became the latest players to withdraw from Scotland's already depleted squad for this weekend's away tussle with Japan, it was nigh impossible to escape the feeling that, even as George Burley prepared to gloss over a casualty list which resembles a scene from The Charge of the Light Brigade, he and his employers at the Scottish Football Association will soon find themselves in the now-familiar position of answering questions about their credibility.
The accusations focus on three main issues. Firstly, why have the Scots bothered to arrange a fixture in the midst of a crowded season, when they have failed to qualify for next year's World Cup? What possible lessons will Burley learn, in the absence of the majority of his first-choice selections, including Fletcher, Hutton, Scott Brown and Kenny Miller?
But, perhaps more pertinently, considering that the SFA chairman, George Peat, implied last month that the manager's job would depend on him showing that he still enjoyed the backing of his leading personnel, what does the withdrawal of ten players in three days - and this isn't even including individuals such as James McFadden and the disgraced duo, Barry Ferguson and Allan McGregor - tell us about the current state of the sport in Scotland? Well, on all the available evidence, it certainly isn't healthy.
Let's suppose, for a moment, that all those who have pulled out of contention for the Japanese trip are genuinely injured. Yes, let's try to stop being cynical and listen sympathetically to the variety of ailments, niggles and strains which have been cited as reasons for the call-offs and have forced Burley to recruit the likes of Don Cowie and Stephen Hughes, men who would be nowhere near the international team in normal circumstances.
But, of course, these aren't normal circumstances, given that I have yet to meet a single member of the Tartan Army who cares a jot for this particular game. It is a match too far, an expensive irrelevance for fans in the midst of a recession, who have been paying over the odds for tickets during the past couple of months.
In which light, one has to wonder why the SFA bought into the idea in the first place. Yes, we are meant to care about our national side and, with the rest of Europe involved in meaningful competition this weekend, it might have looked a bit odd if the Scots had simply decided to have a holiday. Indeed, from the tabloids' perspective, the governing body are damned if they do and damned if they don't, with Burley's fate having quickly become a renewed source of speculation.
Yet, whilst bemoaning the lack of a patriotism of a Kris Boyd - who stomped off in a huff last year, vowing never to play for Scotland again while Burley remained in charge - I can understand why Darren Fletcher, for instance, might look upon this Japan assignment and start feeling a bit off-colour.
After all, Fletcher, a young man with a burning desire to command a starting place every week at Manchester United, has not exactly been slacking since the Old Trafford club began the defence of their Premier League title. In the past few weeks, he and his team mates have been involved in extraordinary tussles with Arsenal and Manchester City, have been seriously tested by Wolfsburg in the Champions League and were fortunate to escape with a draw against Sunderland at the weekend.
Nobody doubts his commitment to Scotland, but the bottom line is that there is absolutely nothing to be gained from travelling to the Far East and a lot to lose, both for Fletcher himself and his employers. If the Scots win, the general response will be: "So what, it was only Japan!" If they are beaten, they will be vilified as a national disgrace on myriad internet sites, gleefully depicted as donkeys in the press, and anybody who agrees to post-match scrutiny will find themselves talking about Burley's job prospects, whether they like it or not.
In short, it is a poisoned chalice and although one would never usually condone staff pulling a sickie, this is one occasion when it is hard to be overly critical. Indeed, there is likely to be a repetition of these scenes next month when the Scots tackle Wales in another contest which just screams out to be ignored.
Of course, a man in Burley's shoes has to justify his salary and he has to test out new players when he has the opportunity. But arranging these affairs, less than a week after a visceral Old Firm encounter, with Rangers and Celtic still involved in gruelling European campaigns, is plain daft.
Ultimately, the conspiracy theorists in our midst will declare that the SFA have pressed ahead with this peculiar fixture in order to allow Peat and his associates another excuse to sack Burley. Whatever transpires now, Saturday's action will be no more than a footnote in the chronicles, yet it might also hasten calls for a re-structuring of Scotland's national game, in order to avoid these foul-ups in the future. But don't hold your breath!