Friday, 25 January 2008

Scotland Appoint George Burley As National Boss

Football article for

The Scottish FA announced yesterday that George Burley would take over as national team manager. The move comes two months after the departure of Alex McLeish, who left to join Premiership club Birmingham City. Burley was chosen from a shortlist of five drawn up by the SFA, which also included former Derby boss Billy Davies, Motherwell's Mark McGhee, Celtic coach Tommy Burns, and Graeme Souness, whose biggest managerial success was with Rangers in the late 80s/early 90s.

Burley joins from English Championship (formerly First Division) club Southampton, with whom he'd been struggling to progress. As a player (mostly for Ipswich Town), he earned 11 Scotland caps before moving into management with Ayr United in 1991. By 1994 he had returned to the club where he had played for most of his career, eventually taking Ipswich to three promotion play-offs and the holy land of the Premiership in 2000. His first season in the top tier was an incredible success, as he took the small Suffolk club to fifth in the league and earned the Manager of the Year Award. However, they weren't able to sustain the success and were relegated the following season. In 2003 Burley took over at First Division Derby County and managed to save them from impending relegation. They struggled the following season, but a marked improvement in 04/05 saw them finish fourth in the table, just missing out on promotion through the play-offs. But behind-the-scenes issues made Burley's job untenable and he quit in June 2005, before taking over at Hearts.

Recent history was to repeat itself as Burley lasted just four months at Hearts before quitting due to interference from club owner Vladimir Romanov. His departure was galling for Hearts fans - and for neutral Scottish football fans - who had watched Burley compile a team that looked well capable of breaking the Old Firm's dominance by winning the Scottish Premier League. Hearts fans have struggled to forgive Romanov for forcing Burley out ever since.

Burley took over at Southampton shortly afterwards, and consolidated their position in the Championship despite substantial unrest at the club. In 2006/07, Burley led his side to the play-off places again, without success. Recently, Southampton have had to sell many of their key players, including Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale, and Chris Baird. Burley hasn't been able to adequately replace them, meaning the club has been struggling to put together consistent form and are hovering in the middle of the table.

Most Scotland fans I have spoken to are fairly happy with the news. Despite what some newspaper columnists are saying, the fans didn't want Souness or Burns to take over. Souness' entire reputation is built on his success at Rangers, but he had millions of pounds to spend to take a big team to success in a small league, and since then has failed with bigger challenges. Newcastle fans in particular are incapable of speaking of Souness without exploding into an abusive rage, such was his reputation at that club. Tommy Burns did reasonably well for Celtic in the mid-90s, but his rep is tarred by association as he was the Assistant Manager during Bertie Vogts' disastrous reign. In his one and only game as Scotland boss - following Vogts' dismissal - he presided over an inept performance and a 4-1 home defeat to Sweden.

Billy Davies ruled himself out early in the process, as he wants his next job to be in club football. The other serious candidate, who appeared to be the slight favourite with most fans, was Motherwell manager Mark McGhee. In England he had won two titles and two further promotions in the lower leagues, though had also suffered relegation as Brighton manager. But his supporters were mostly impressed by the turnaround he has inspired in Motherwell this season: a team that was flirting with relegation last season is playing attacking, expressive football this season, and are sure to finish in the top 6. The shock death of team captain Phil O'Donnell one month ago made his situation at Motherwell difficult: he has since developed such a connection with the club that he insisted he wouldn't leave before the end of the season, even if Scotland did come calling. Perhaps it was this admirable resolve which swung the balance in Burley's favour in the end.

Although Scotland have no competitive games until the autumn, they are due to play a home friendly against Croatia in March.

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