Anniversaries Galore: Are the best days of Scottish football long behind it?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, April 26th 2017

The only excitement this year in senior Scottish domestic football has been whether Celtic will go through the season undefeated in league, Scottish Cup and League Cup, and whether a historic treble is possible.

Along with that there are a whole host of memorable anniversaries. The 50th anniversary is coming up – on 25 May – of Celtic becoming the first British team to win the European Cup; while the 50th anniversary just passed on 15 April of Scotland’s legendary 3-2 victory over then world champions, England, at Wembley. On 4 June is the 40th anniversary of Scotland’s 2-1 defeat of England that involved the infamous invasion and digging up of parts of the pitch. And it has also been the 30th of Dundee United’s march to the UEFA Cup final defeating Barcelona and Borussia Mönchengladbach on the way.

The subtext behind the marking of all of these anniversaries is that Scottish football’s best days are behind it. Therefore we should mark all of these glories and triumphs while we can because we will not see their like again, and we had better get used to the diminished status of our domestic game. The world is different now, and we just have to adjust and stop dreaming.

Celtic’s domestic run – undefeated in the league with five games remaining, in the Scottish Cup Final, and already having bagged the League Cup – is unprecedented. Twice before teams (Celtic and Rangers) have gone through the league season undefeated, but that was when it involved eighteen games, and they both lost in the Cup. The great Celtic team of 1967 won the league, Scottish Cup and League Cup, but lost two league games – both to Dundee United, home and away.

The excitement and variety of the Scottish game this season is reduced in the top league to who finishes second: Aberdeen or Rangers, and who gets relegated and takes the play-off place.

By comparison 1967 was a high watermark in the game. On 25 April Celtic drew nil-nil in the away second leg against Dukla Prague in the European Cup semi-final, winning 3-1 on aggregate, booking their place as the first British team to reach the final. Rangers were in the semi-finals of the European Cup Winners Cup and would go on to the final in Nuremberg where they lost 1-0 to Bayern Munich.

Such glories weren’t restricted to the Old Firm. In May, Kilmarnock were in the semi-finals of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup against Leeds United, going out 4-2 on aggregate. Dundee United earlier in the season defeated Barcelona home and away. All of this caused the Berlin newspaper Neues Deutschland to declare 1967 ‘Das Schottische Jahr’ (The Scottish Year).

On the same evening in which Celtic booked their place in Europe’s premier football tournament final, a rather different football story was unfolding on Glasgow’s southside. The great Third Lanark, once the powerful third force of the city, played their last ever home league game: a 3-3 draw with Queen of the South. Three days later, on 28 April, the club played its last ever professional match at Boghead Park against Dumbarton, losing 5-1.

As recently as 1961 Thirds, who were known as ‘the Hi Hi’, had scored over one hundred goals in the senior league, and finished in third place behind Rangers and Kilmarnock. Yet, when Thirds went out of business at the end of the 1966-67 season, driven into financial debts by owner William Hiddleston, no one really shed a tear or seemed to notice that much. Everyone involved in Scottish football had bigger dreams and ambitions. Football commentator Archie Macpherson reflected years later: ‘Hardly, anybody cared in 1967 … Thirds went with barely a whimper, owing £60,000 to debtors.’

Today Thirds live on in legend and memories. An amateur club have kept the name in existence in recent times, and there is yet another move to relaunch them as a viable operation. Cathkin Park, once the home of Thirds, still stands much as it did when it was packed and could hold 40,000. The grandstand has gone, but the terraces and pitch remain, and it feels like a place of history.

Walking around the ground it is possible to sense the past memories, hopes and frustrations which have happened there.

The evocative pull of Thirds to this day, in contrast to their passing out of business in 1967, is a symptom of the state of our game in the present. We hanker after the past in relation to the diminution of the times we live in.

Scottish football in the here and now no longer shines in Europe. The best the game can hope for is Celtic qualifying for the Champions League group stage and occasionally the last sixteen of the tournament. Teams such as Aberdeen, Motherwell and St. Johnstone are now regularly embarrassed by teams we see as ‘minnows’ with miniscule budgets compared to our own.

It is now thirty-two years since a team other than Celtic or Rangers won the main league. That was season 1984-85 when Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen won its third title in six years. Since the advent of the European Champions League twenty-five years ago, Scottish football’s top league has earned the unwanted honour of becoming the joint most uncompetitive league in Europe, along with the Ukraine: both leagues being won over the period by only two clubs.

Scottish senior football fails at the basic first hurdle of offering competition, choice and the prospect of fans other than Celtic and Rangers having any realistic hope of winning or challenging for the top title over the last thirty-two years. 1985-86 represents a different world which has now passed into history: Margaret Thatcher was in the sixth year of being Prime Minister, and Arthur Scargill and the NUM had just been defeated in the miner’s strike.

This represents the longest dominance by the Old Firm in the history of the game, and in any other sport or entertainment, this sheer lack of diversity and variety, would be seen as a problem and something would be done to change it. This being Scottish football, for all the plethora of reviews and task forces, not one such initiative has been set up to aid the senior game becoming more competitive, something which would strengthen the health of the entire game, and ultimately, the Old Firm as well.

Sadly, the Scottish football authorities had a window of opportunity to enact change with the absence of Rangers from the top league for four years. In this period, while Celtic effortlessly won all four league titles, the experience of the Scottish Cup and League Cup was rather different. The eight cups over the period saw Celtic win one Scottish Cup and one League Cup, and on six occasions non-Old Firm teams win trophies. Hibs, Inverness Caley and St. Johnstone won the Scottish Cup; Aberdeen, Ross County and St. Mirren won the League Cup.

The powers that be, TV authorities and print media intensely disliked the uncertainty and instability which ensued from Rangers implosion, and the club having to start life again in the fourth tier of senior football. For them, there seems to be no higher ambition, than the predictable merry-go-round of the Celtic-Rangers circus and dominance, no matter the damage it does defining and distorting the domestic game.

Another perspective is possible. Football like life thrives on variety and the unpredictable. And at the least in the realm of Scotland’s two cups it has thrived and prospered. Of the six teams winning trophies above: three: Inverness Caley, Ross County and St. Johnstone, had never before won a major trophy. Such are the dreams which intoxicate supporters and ignite young fans to become passionate and committed to follow the game.

Scottish football authorities have for most of their history taken the game, its fans and its place in society for granted. Even at its height, in appeal and success, in the summer of 1967, there was an ill-concealed conceit amongst the authorities towards supporters, their views and interests. It is still there today. The only difference is that football supporters will not continually put up with being treated as second-class citizens where the game is effectively a closed shop.

Scottish football should enjoy its anniversaries and rich past. But it has to change. It failed to do so when it was at the top. It has failed to do so as the main league has become nothing but a farce. And it failed to grasp the opportunity of Rangers being out of the top league for four years.

What then will force Scottish football to change if anything? Or does a world of decreasing importance and relevance seem inevitable? Surely the game should at least try to change and adapt before it is too late? Otherwise all we will have to look forward to in the future is the diminishing returns of celebrating the Lisbon Lions and Wembley wizards of 1967.