Scottish Football: It's Decline and Hopes for the Future


Writen by Frank, Admin for Maley’s Bhoys

England 2 Scotland 3, 15th April 1967, London. Scotland defeat last year’s World Cup winners in their own back yard, to become ‘unofficial champions of the world’.
Celtic 2 Internazionale 1, 25th May 1967, Lisbon. Celtic become the first British club to win the European Cup, with a team made up exclusively of men born within 30 miles of Celtic Park.
Rangers 3 Dynamo Moscow 2, 24th May 1972, Barcelona. Rangers win the European Cup Winner’s Cup with, again, an entirely home grown squad (with German substitute goalkeeper Gerry Neef the exception).
These are, quite possibly, the greatest results in the history of Scottish football’s three biggest teams, Celtic, Rangers, and the national side. Now allow me to bring you out of our nostalgic past and into the present day.
FC Sion 3 Celtic 1 (3-1 on aggregate), 25th August 2011, Sion. Scottish Cup winners Celtic crash out of the Europa League qualification stages to Swiss Cup winners FC Sion.
Rangers 1 Maribor 1 (2-3 on aggregate), 25th August 2011, Glasgow. Scottish champions Rangers lose their second qualification tie this year, this time against Slovenian champions, Maribor.
For the first time ever, to my knowledge at least, not a single Scottish club now remains in European competition, and it’s not even September (granted Celtic may be reinstated pending appeal). I think we would all agree, regardless of who we support, that is an embarrassing reflection on the state of Scottish Football.
Scotland currently sit 55th on FIFA’s international ranking table, behind the footballing powerhouses (no disrespect intended) of Iran, Algeria, and Burkina Faso. Granted, the FIFA ranking system is a little strange. For example, The Netherlands are top, with Spain second, despite the fact Spain have recently proven themselves to be the best team in the world by winning the World Cup, ironically defeating The Netherlands in the final, but nevertheless.
Scottish Football is in rapid decline. In the last decade, both Celtic and Rangers have reached the final of the UEFA Cup, although neither managed to lift the trophy. The fact that now, only a few years later, there is not a single Scottish club left in Europe before the end of August shows how rapid the decline has been.
Statistics like, “Celtic have won only one of their last twenty-three matches on the road in Europe” and “Rangers have won only one of their last twenty-five matches in European competition”, must seem laughable to onlookers from other countries in the foot balling world. I can’t stress this enough; not only are these sorts of statistics unacceptable, they are embarrassing. Once we all accept that, we can move on to identifying the problems with the Scottish game, both domestically, and in relation to the wider foot balling community, before beginning to address how we can solve them.
As I write this, I’ll be honest, I’m not really sure which issue to start with, as so many problems spring to mind so quickly.
“Money makes the world go round…”, or at least it does in the foot balling world. Increasingly, I feel the financial backing provided by television companies to teams from certain countries is dividing the leagues of the world into the rich, ‘premium’ leagues, and the much poorer, bog standard ‘economy’ leagues. This division between the richer and poorer leagues remains gradual in most countries, with the exception of countries where it is accelerated by one, or several factors. England is, of course, the prime example of a country whose rise in financial power has been staggering. Mediocre squad players are now regularly being traded for prices in the region of £10 million or more. Sadly however, I feel Scotland is a prime example of a country whose decline is being accelerated. *Look at thisssss*
This country has a population of around five million people. Of course, not all of these people will be interested in football, but I would hazard a guess that the majority of them have, at least, a passing interest. In Scotland, there are four professional leagues, which are made up of forty one professional sides, and the traditionally amateur Queen’s Park. There is also an extensive system of leagues below this level, although since promotion into, and relegation from, the third division has ceased, sides can no longer break into, or drop out of, these four professional divisions.
Anyway, while there are forty two teams to support, there are only really two ‘big’ clubs in Scotland. Last season, by average attendances at least, Celtic were the 12th best supported side in Europe, and Rangers, 22nd. However, if we look at the club with the next highest average attendance, Hearts, and compare them to English sides, we must look to the team who came 9th in the English Championship last year, Millwall, to find the highest placed side down south with a lower average attendance than that of Scotland’s third biggest team.
We must accept in Scotland that, for a variety of reasons, the vast majority of people support Celtic or Rangers. The high attendances both clubs attract (even though they have dwindled somewhat during the recession) are equal to those of top European sides, despite the fact the teams themselves are, currently, far from being amongst Europe’s elite. I have previously criticised the small attendances a lot of Scottish clubs attract, but I am aware of the fact that (thanks largely to Celtic and Rangers), Scotland has one of the best ‘total football attendees to total population’ ratios in Europe.
I do, however, vehemently believe one of the ways Scottish Football clubs must change in order to improve the state of the national game is to decrease their ticket prices. £28 to see Celtic take on St Mirren is ridiculous, as is £22 to watch a team like Motherwell take on another SPL side.
Clubs outside of Celtic and Rangers must do all they can to attract the supporters of these two clubs, when their club is away from home, or playing another day. Fundamentally, Scots love football, especially live football. I would happily go and watch a local team like Motherwell, or Hamilton, or Queen’s Park on a Saturday if Celtic were away, if they priced their single tickets at an attractive rate. However, due to the small numbers attending matches, these teams are forced to charge frankly exorbitant prices.
Our small population is one of the factors conspiring to hurt our national game, but that is a circumstance we must embrace, as we cannot really change it. Many of us pay for subscriptions to Sky and/or ESPN to watch Celtic, Rangers, and other Scottish games. It is worth noting that English Premiership, Bundesliga, and La Liga fixtures are also included in the TV packages though. Otherwise, I doubt that so many people would purchase them.
However, with the exception of some subscriptions in Ireland, very few people outside of Scotland are willing to pay for television coverage of Scottish football. If we consider countries in similar circumstances, with comparable populations, we can clearly see something is wrong in Scotland.
The Netherlands are ranked by FIFA as the number one foot balling nation in the world (oddly I accept but nevertheless) and have a population of just over six million. We can look at the likes of Ajax and Feyenoord, two great teams who were once giants of the foot balling world, and immediately some similarities with Scotland are clear. After all, Celtic fans will know about Feyenoord, the team who beat us in the 1970 European Cup Final, but were then kind enough to sell us Henrik Larsson for buttons 37 years later. Sadly though, even in the Netherlands, times have changed, as the quality of their club football has declined somewhat, albeit slowly and nowhere near as badly as it has in Scotland. The Eredivise is, of course, still far above the standard of the SPL.
It is here the similarities end. While some of their home grown talent is being pulled away to bigger and better leagues, it doesn’t alter the fact that the talent is exactly that, home grown. Although the likes of Wesley Sneijder and Rafael Van der Vaart do not play for a Dutch club, they have are still integral parts of an important national set up, which has seen a revival in success over recent years. After all, when was the last time you saw Scotland reach a World Cup, let alone a World Cup Final?
Both Celtic and Rangers have invested heavily in developing admirable youth systems, with the construction of Lennoxtown and Murray Park, and while both clubs have shown some progress, they haven’t managed to produce many, if any, players of any real note on the world stage for a long time. Aiden McGeady has impressed in Russia, and Charlie Adam has become a pivotal figure in the Premiership, but these ‘results’ still pale in comparison to the accomplishments of, for example, ‘Jong Ajax’, the Ajax youth set up, who have produced the likes of; Dennis Bergkamp, the de Boer brothers, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert, Rafael Van der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder, Nigel de Jong, John Heitinga and Maarten Steklenburg. Even prominent figures in Glasgow like Wim Jansen and Giovani van Bronckhorst came through a Dutch team’s youth system, as youngsters at Feyenoord.
Once again this brings me onto what the problems are in Scotland, a football mad country of comparable size and population with The Netherlands. Two things strike me from my own (incredibly low level) experiences of playing football (not even at school level). Now, I was, and still am, not a gifted footballer by any stretch of anyone’s imagination. I played against other boys at school as a centre half, and my job was essentially to stop attackers, and hoof the ball away…and in that last sentence lies one of the problems.
We are well known in Scotland for having a physical, combative approach to football. This isn’t something to discourage either, as I feel it instils a fight and desire deep within a lot of homegrown players which is the envy of other some other nations around the world. However, the manner in which football is played in this country (largely) is one of the things which I feel lets it down. From an early age, children are divided into their positions and taught about tactics, instead of being allowed to just play football. In Spain and other European countries, children are encouraged to play with expression, regardless of what position they play in. They spend hours and hours of their young lives kicking a ball around developing the ball control which now means even defenders like Gerard Pique can occasionally amaze us with a back heel or a mazy run through the centre. In Scotland, too many defenders grow up with this, ‘win the ball and hoof it away’ mentality, rather than being encouraged to hone their close ball skills and instead play the ball out of defence, retaining possession in the process, even if it does take five or six passes.
This problem also affects our attacking players. Instead of being allowed to express themselves and show what they can do with the ball at their feet in front of goal, they spend even their earliest years watching out for defenders kicking them up in the air and chasing long punts up field from defenders, rather than learning to pass and move with the fluidity they’re undoubtedly capable of. We should be encouraging young boys and girls to enjoy their football first, and learn about tactics and approaches second, at least in their early formative years.
Fundamentally, we should encourage children to play enjoyable, attacking football. The SPL itself would be a great example to children if it’s teams went out and attacked most weeks, rather than playing dull, dreary football. For example, the night Scotland went out to play with a 4-6-0 formation, was a disgrace, regardless of injuries and suspensions. What sort of example does that set? Maybe I’m an idealist, but as far as I’m concerned every team should go out to play like Barcelona. No teams will quite live up to their level of play, but to strive to play like that makes the game precisely what it should be, entertaining. I’m not saying the Faroe Islands should line up with a 4-2-4 against Brazil, but when playing teams of your own level, it should be the preferred choice.
The other problem I have witnessed firsthand, also directly relates to my experience at school. I was in the same year at school as a young midfielder who currently plays for Rangers. Undoubtedly he was, and still is a talented footballer. However, in my school year alone, I can think of one or two people, at least, who were as good, if not significantly better than he was. There were a couple of boys who I had played with so many times, for so many years, that I felt I knew them inside out, and I knew what they were going to do as they ran towards me with the ball at their feet, but I still couldn’t stop them. Where are they now you ask? Here lies another problem, they are studying or pursuing careers. I feel bad describing that as a problem, as in terms of society it is not, but looking specifically at football it is.
In years gone by, a Scottish boy who happened to be an incredibly gifted footballer, would have seriously attempted to make a career out of football because it was his only choice, other than to work for the rest of his days. Nowadays though, I feel many parents (and some boys themselves), see football as too risky a career to chase, and instead opt to gain qualifications and make something of themselves that way. This shouldn’t be discouraged, as they are doing something good for themselves, but it is the responsibility of the country’s football clubs and associations to allow these boys to have the chance that their talent warrants.
It is easy for me and many fans around the country though, to sit and criticise the state Scottish Football is currently in. Instead, we should all be suggesting and discussing ideas aimed at improving our national game.
Firstly, I would say the introduction of ‘B’ teams in the lower leagues of the SFL would help to allow young talent to develop and progress in Scotland, especially since the discontinuation of the Scottish Premier Reserve League a couple of seasons ago. I believe that not only would it allow players to gain more experience and develop as footballers, but that it would also provide an increased source of income for teams in the lower divisions. As a Celtic fan myself, I would happily pay to go and watch ‘Celtic B’ play a lower league game on a Saturday if, for example, Celtic themselves didn’t play till Sunday.
I also believe the introduction and development of a University League would be a massive step forward for Scottish Football. It would allow talented youngsters to follow both the academic and sporting path, similar to the opportunities sporting scholarships provide in the United States, rather than putting the latter to one side. With the backing of the universities I have no doubt these games would draw more spectators than several lower league games manage at present. Although it would never reach that size of the College Football League in America, I have no doubt that members of, for example, the University of Strathclyde would turn in large numbers to support their side if they were taking on the University of Glasgow. In fact, I think the idea of standing in the Glasweigian rain, having a few beers with everyone from a university united behind one team for a change is a rather romantic notion.
For the record, I am aware that some universities currently have amateur teams at present, but I feel they could become so much more if they formed their own league (that could include colleges if numbers dictated it).
Imagine if talented boys who came out of school with several highers had the option to study engineering or science on a football scholarship, where they could follow both their dreams, and if particularly gifted, could even go on to play football professionally before returning not only to finish their degrees at the end of their career, but to help the next set of boys coming into the university team. Surely allowing and encouraging foot balling talent to flourish in an academic environment could only be beneficial to the game and to Scotland as a whole?
In summary, I feel Scotland should strive to combine our natural combative style of play with the attacking approaches taken by the likes of the Spanish and the Dutch. Our children must be taught first to enjoy football, and people fortunate enough to be talented must have a proper infrastructure put in place to exploit their talents. The opportunity for these people to combine their footballing progress with academic study at school, college or university is paramount. The introduction of ‘B’ teams would build interest in lower league football, and would give yongsters the chance to perfect their abilities whilst competing in professional leagues. I also feel that prominent figures from Scottish football’s past must be allowed to have a greater say in the manner in which football in Scotland is governed, as their experience is something money cannot buy.
All in all, I feel Scottish football can recover somewhat. The problems we face now are not all of our own making, but the continued failure to acknowledge them over many, many years is beginning to seriously affect our national game, and it cannot be allowed to continue unaddressed. It will take time, cooperation, and hard work, but it can be achieved. I just hope this season’s terrible European performances can finally be the wakeup call Scottish Football has needed…
Maley’s Bhoys


2 thoughts on “Scottish Football: It's Decline and Hopes for the Future

  1. I think I agree with just about all of this. University leagues might be hard to set up due to the financial hardships faced by universities and colleges alike but I would definitely pay to watch UWS play Abertay. I’d also love to watch a Celtic B team play alloa etc, this would definitely peak my interest in lower league teams. But will we do anything abut it? We strive to be innovative in engineering, medicine and science etc but football seems to have been left in the dark to wilt. Maybe its time we opened the curtains with a good old fashioned rally?

  2. The population of the Netherlands is 16,698,900… not 6 million!
    Scotland’s is just over 5 million – big difference!
    Scottish football needs much better leadership and brave, innovative thinkers… sadly most of these people leave Scotland at the earliest possible opportunity!
    Some kind of revenue sharing strategy should be implemented in the SPL to bring some financial parity to the league. But that would require the approval of the Old Firm clubs, who would stand to lose the most from any such plan.
    I’m a Celtic fan, but i’d welcome this kind of idea – even if it would mean my club having less money in the short-term… because it would ultimately create a stronger and more competitive league.
    (Lets face facts, we can’t compete in europe now anyway… so will it really hurt us to give some of our revenue to the smaller teams?)
    That’s the only solution I could see working in the long term…

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