How can we change the declining fortunes of Scottish football?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, April 10th 2019

Scottish football last week witnessed the regular circus of an Old Firm match. It was the usual pantomime of bad feeling and nastiness, with two Rangers players sent off and Celtic captain Scott Brown assaulted. Both clubs, Rangers manager Steven Gerrard and Brown were charged by the football authorities, while three football supporters were stabbed with one seriously injured – which was downplayed by most fans and media.

This unedifying drama and reflection of the worst of Scotland regularly comes around: with the two clubs sometimes meeting up to six times a season, all adding to the mutual hatred, obsession and co-dependency (which gives sustenance to the term Old Firm). Unacceptable behaviour doesn’t stop there with the recent Hearts v Hibs Edinburgh derby marred by flares thrown on to the pitch and racist abuse.

The Old Firm match came for those charged with running the game as a welcome distraction from its lamentable state, and the humiliation of the Scottish men’s international team who had crashed 3-0 to Kazakhstan, and then struggled to beat San Marino, rated the worst team in the world, 2-0.

These games are part of the European Championship 2020 qualifiers, and after two games our campaign is in trouble. Questions have been asked about the uninspiring record of manager Alex McLeish, but the malaise goes much deeper into how the game is run, its lack of competition, and the dearth of ambition at the top.

Scotland’s men’s national team have failed to reach any international finals since 1998. We have missed ten finals in a row. Our domestic team game is in no better shape. Celtic and Rangers have won the league title ever year since 1986. Celtic fans have their eyes on the bragging rights of ‘ten in a row’ league titles – as they close in on winning their eighth this season – to surpass the records of Celtic and Rangers who have each won nine in a row. Aside from the oasis of the success of the women’s international team and their qualification for the forthcoming 2019 World Cup in France (and who this week beat Brazil; something the men’s team has never managed), the men’s game is not exactly in a healthy condition.

Consider this. In 1985 the Scottish Premier was the most competitive league in Europe. It had four teams with a realistic chance of winning the title: Aberdeen, Celtic, Dundee United and yes, St. Mirren. The rest had the prospect of European football, or fighting off relegation. Now we are the joint most uncompetitive league in Europe, alongside Ukraine. That is quite a mighty decline.

Speaking to a serious rugby fan the other week he could not believe that the main Scottish football league had last been won by someone other than Celtic or Rangers in 1985 – when Aberdeen won. Scottish football and indeed Scotland was a different place 34 years ago. Alex Ferguson won that last Aberdeen title. The miners’ strike had just ended; Margaret Thatcher had just passed the mid-point of her Premiership; Nicola Sturgeon was still at secondary school while Ruth Davidson was in the first years of primary school, and the poll tax was just an idea on the pages of right-wing think-tankery.

Before this current Old Firm stranglehold our football had more fertile periods of intense competition with different clubs competing for success. First, there was at the onset of the game the amateur era of Queen’s Park who won the Scottish Cup ten times and got to two English FA Cup finals. Second, there was the post-war era of twenty years where Hearts and Hibs were potent forces and won several league titles, while Celtic slumbered pre-Jock Stein. And third and most recently, there was the near-decade of Aberdeen and Dundee United each winning the title and getting to European finals, while Rangers struggled to compete.

Football has to have an element of competition, and ‘ten in a row’ – and the prospect of equaling and surpassing the world record (which currently stands at fifteen held by Tafea FC in the small Pacific Ocean island of Vanuatu) – shouldn’t fill anyone with satisfaction.

Our game needs radical action. And radical action is what we have rarely, if ever, done. The game is run by the mediocre, uninspiring, self-selecting closed shop that is the SFA. There has never been a golden era or age of enlightenment in governance or results in relation to the SFA.

Instead, the football authorities have fed off the long term importance and place of the game in society, while getting away with presiding over regular disasters and embarrassments. In 1950 Scotland qualified for the World Cup in Brazil but declined to participate as we had finished runners-up in our qualifying group. The 1954 World Cup in Switzerland saw our first ever appearance at the finals, but it didn’t go well. The SFA only budgeted for thirteen players in the squad (when you were allowed 22), but took a full contingent of SFA officials and their wives. Little surprise that Scotland lost 7-0 at the hands of World champions Uruguay. Over a decade later there was little change when, in 1966, the SFA advertised for a part-time manager which ‘might suit a man with other business interests’. Why the Argentina debacle of 1978 surprised anyone is another story.

SFA culture to this day is a world of mediocrity covered in managerialist gooble-gook and self-protection. There is a whole industry dedicated to keeping the SFA show on the road – of mini-certificates, compliance and officialdom that would please the caricature of Scottish petty mindedness and keeping people in their place. We have it seems certificates in next to everything which almost amount to its own caste system.

But while Scotland football managers come and go many of the people presiding over this state of affairs stay in post for years with no punishment for repeated failure. Stewart Regan and Neil Doncaster, two MBA cliché merchants without an original thought between them could hardly believe their luck to find a football backwater prepared to pay them bulging salaries they couldn’t achieve elsewhere. Regan has now left for less sunny climes in remuneration, but our game still has two governing bodies: the SFA and the SPFL for the leagues. Accountability there is none, as football commentator Steven Thompson said recently of the clamour to get rid of McLeish and the role of the SFA: ‘Where is their accountability? They’ve no short-term contracts where we can look at them and bin them if they’ve not done well enough.’

Scottish football changed dramatically when Rangers went into administration and then liquidation in 2012. The initial reaction of Regan and Doncaster was to pretend as if nothing had shifted, and to keep the show on the road, with a ‘new’ Rangers remaining in the top league. That is what would have happened in days gone by, but fans refused to put up with this, and across all non-Old Firm teams they organised and said if their clubs put up with such a shoddy deal they would boycott their own teams.

That summer of 2012 was a wonderful and rare moment in the game. The football authorities had to retreat and a ‘new’ Rangers started again from the fourth tier of league football. Football fans had shown they had organising skills, power and voice. They had done this in a culture with no real tradition of supporter power. Yet, such a revolution was embarrassing to the football authorities and one they wanted to get past to get the game back to ‘normal’, with Rangers back in the main league with the cashcows of the Old Firm games, which is where we began.

The Old Firm game has become an unattractive, unappetising throwback. If you think that is an overstatement after last weekend’s Old Firm match there was small comment on the three victims compared to the on the field incidents involving Scott Brown and others. There was little sense of proportion or what really matters. But that is part of a pattern. Six years ago academic research by St. Andrew’s University made the direct link between Old Firm matches and spikes of domestic violence by men in Glasgow. On the day it was published both Celtic and Rangers officially questioned the research, and I discussed the findings with two liberal and well-known Celtic fans who responded by laughing and dismissing the facts. That blatant denialism is all over our game including in people who think they are ‘good’ Celtic and Rangers fans.

Where does this go beyond the true believers who believe what matters is winning or stopping ‘ten in a row’? It has to involve changing the game and its place in society and how men follow football. We have to have structural change which aids competition. We could either ask Celtic and Rangers to commit to aiding competition over say a ten year period which would ultimately strengthen them; that is unlikely to happen. If that is the case the other solution is to encourage and aid them to leave for pastures new. They have outgrown Scotland on the football field, but have also become minnows in Europe held back by their dominance of the domestic game. And in truth, lots of the rest of us have outgrown the Old Firm, either bored stiff or repulsed by them.

It also needs cultural change, with the voice of fans being given status in the football authorities and senior teams – and the work of the independent Scottish Football Supporters Association has been a real advance in this area. We need accountability, change such as strict liability of clubs so they are held responsible for misbehaviour by fans, and wider professionalism, for example, in refereeing and officialdom.

A final observation is that football is meant to above all be a sport and something which brings enjoyment and pleasure to people who play and watch it. In our country it has for too long carried too much investment, baggage and simmering resentments from the past to be healthy. Thus, we need radical change to our game: structurally, culturally, and of course, in how we play, train and resource players and particularly, young boys and girls. We cannot continue to allow the farce of the main league to continue as some dysfunctional cartel of crony carve-up between Scotland’s biggest two clubs (with us not even having the benefits of a duopoly at the moment as Celtic dominate the league).

But maybe we have to question why this game matters so much: a game we have contributed so much to historically but which we now struggle to compete at with others. Perhaps in an age of the £198 million pound player (Neymar) we could chart a different course: of the local, the small and even our rich mosaic of junior teams. But that only comes with leadership, ambition and accountability running through the game from top to bottom, and in that we are sadly lacking while those at the top get away with presiding over this sad state of affairs.

We should at least try not to quietly go along with things as they currently are, for all they promise are more embarrassments, more Kazakhstans and further decline. Do we really want to just accept that? And maybe the men’s game could learn something from the success of the women. Think of that Tam Cowan and other sexist male football fans: you are part of the problem.