It’s More than a Ball Game: Scottish Football and Culture

Gerry Hassan

February 14th 2010

The state and importance of Scottish football both fascinates and repels large parts of Scotland – but there can be little doubt that the condition of the game and how we see it throws light on Scottish culture and society.

In the last week, I have watched Motherwell v Rangers and Aberdeen v Celtic live on TV, and went to the St. Johnstone v Dundee United cup tie. Taking all three of these together gives a number of pointers about the health of the game.

First, the quality of football in the first two matches was of a high standard. Motherwell and Aberdeen played intricate, intense, intelligent football which reflected well on the state of the SPL. These two teams are middle ranking in the league, Aberdeen in particular, struggling to find any consistency, and yet they both showed ability and finesse.

These two games were filled with incident, action and drama, as well as in the Aberdeen v Celtic 4-4 draw, lots of goals, or in the Motherwell v Rangers 1-1 game, lots of chances. Both non-Old Firm teams clearly could have won either game, and I am going to pass on the qualities of the two ‘big’ teams, suffice to say, Rangers snatched a draw from the prospect of defeat, while Celtic threw away the chance of victory. I am much more interested here in the wider state of the game.

Second, in all three games, even allowing for it being February, the pitches were in a terrible conditions which makes the above even more praiseworthy. Special mention should be made of the Motherwell pitch, which looked like a First World War battlefield, and has got the club in trouble before.

Third, at all three matches, there was a great atmosphere created by the crowds in stadiums filled with raucous, passionate fans, alongside lots of empty seats. At the St. Johnstone game, a Scottish Cup tie, the just under 6,000 crowd was made up of 3,500-4,000 United fans. Where were the Saints fans for a match which didn’t count as part of their season ticket?

The Motherwell and Aberdeen games were both better attended, but as live ESPN games, row upon row of empty seats could be seen, and large parts of both Fir Park and Pittodrie were near to completely empty. This has to be viewed as worrying for the future and how our football is represented on TV.

What I draw from this is two fold, first, that the Scottish game at a footballing level is in ruder health than all the ‘whither Scotland’ rhetoric that people lapse into every couple of years. And that as a people’s sport in terms of attendances something needs to be done urgently.

In the mid-1970s Scots football authorities noted that attendance figures were dramatically slumping due to Celtic’s nine in a row and acted, creating the ten team Premier League which led to the rise of Aberdeen and Dundee United as a temporary challenge to the Old Firm.

We need similar radical action now. We have just been through a bitter recession, and the cold winds of that will bite even deeper, with public sector cuts after the election, whoever wins, disproportionately hitting Scotland. This will make money tight all round, and considering football is relatively expensive to attend, will inevitably suffer attendance wise and from a base where things are already shaky and insecure.

That action has to be wider than the awaited McLeish review and its technical, narrow recommendations. Instead, we need to acknowledge and protect the role of football in wider society. This would involve a national programme of free attendance for school kids along with encouragement for them to take up the game through better facilities (although that would have to be longer term given the financial climate). We would have a 16 or 18 team top league to give teams a chance to grow and to allow those like Dundee and Dunfermline who have been diminished by league reconstruction the chance again of some stability, combined with a feeder system for the lower leagues.

On the issue of football’s importance in Scotland, recently I wrote about the lack of defining books about modern Scotland post-devolution. I know that some of my non-football loving friends are not going to thank me for this train of thought, but it seems the nearest we have come – more than in any other area – is in the serious football book.

In particular, Archie Macpherson’s ‘Flower of Scotland? A Scottish Football Odyssey’ and his ‘Jock Stein’ biography are magnum opuses about the journey of modern Scotland. They are not just football books, about what happened in this or that game. Instead, they tell passionately the accounts of men involved in football, the players, managers, owners and coaches, as well as the fans, the dreams of the often grim, working class communities the Jock Steins, Alex Fergusons and Jim McLeans came from, and how football was both a kind of glue and form of escapism.

Macpherson’s two books are beautifully written and, for anyone with a passing interest in Scottish society, paint a vivid picture of the heroes, villains and flawed figures who made up the game. People like Willie Waddell, the Rangers manager who endured the tragedy of the Ibrox disaster in 1971 when 66 people died, keeping his composure, as all around lost theirs. He won the European Cup Winners Cup for the ‘Gers the next year, but was a man ultimately destroyed by his alcoholism.

There have been other wonderful books on our game. I think of Bob Crampsey’s ‘The Scottish Football League: The First 100 Years’ which after the decade of Aberdeen and Dundee United, took an up-beat view of the game. Then there is his biography of ‘Mr Stein’, another carefully crafted, considered work which is a fitting tribute to both author and subject.

Hugh McIlvanney’s ‘McIlvanney on Football’, isn’t exclusively on Scottish football, but has a whole host of penetrating essays on some of the pivotal moments of the game. His essays on Argentina, and in particular, ‘A Case of Kamikaze in Cordoba’ on the aftermath of the Peru and Iran disasters, have a timeless quality about the Scottish character, and show that in my mind, Hugh is a much better writer than his better-known brother William.

Even a book such as ‘Scottish Football Quotations’, put together by Kenny MacDonald gives a flavour of the sport: the humour, the passion and the idiotic Colemanballs said from time to time. And Kevin McCarra’s ‘Scottish Football: A Pictorial History: From 1867 to the Present Day’, a product of a travelling cultural exhibition, is a gorgeous book, filled with carefully chosen photos. Of particular pride to myself is that all five goals of Dundee United’s annihilation of Borussia Moenchengladbach are shown over two and a half pages!

That brings us to the world of the football club history. There is a significant public market and appetite for these books. Peter Rundo and Mike Watson’s, ‘Dundee United: The Official Centenary History’ is the sort of quality book we don’t get about history or politics, impeccably researched and put together, with a welter of facts, figures and photos. At the other end of the spectrum, ‘Pointless’ by Jeff Connor told another story. A year in the life of East Stirling, as they struggled at the bottom of the Third Division, a side of the game we don’t hear enough about in Scotland: the local volunteers and heroes who week in week out keep these teams going!

Strangest books? Well, David Bennie’s eccentric rambling account of his love for Celtic, ‘Not Playing For Celtic: Another Paradise Lost’ and ‘A Season in Hell’, a tour round every ground in the country, take some beating. These are in the author’s own words, ‘soccerati’ accounts – a word made out of combining soccer and cognoscenti – implying a wide ranging and critical knowledge of the game.

The worst? Well, there are many candidates. Particularly pointless was Harry Reid, ex-editor of ‘The Herald’, whose ‘The Final Whistle? Scottish Football: The Best and Worst of Times’, seemed to be a collection of observations on the game, which weren’t considered or interesting. Ian Black, he of the awful Edinburgers vs. Wegies books, managed in ‘Tales of the Tartan Army’ to make the whole crazy experience seem somehow boring and diminished. Surely an achievement!

Then there are the disappointments. Scottish football still lacks some very good reference books. Alex Graham’s ‘Football in Scotland: A Statistical Record 1873-2005’ is nearly what it says, but it is laid out in a manner which looks straight from the computer spreadsheet. While having every league result and Scottish Cup semis and finals, he omits the League Cup. ‘An Encyclopaedia of Scottish Football’ by David Potter and Phil H. Jones, could have been that book. Clearly a labour of love, its A-Z style about everything, clubs, players, events, reduces the entries on the clubs, and so means it isn’t as comprehensive as it should be.

It is salutary to end with the story of East Stirling. They had been written off so many times, patronised and laughed at, and yet, happy days have come again to this most unlikely quarter!

Good times can come again to the wider game, if we manage to escape the bone-headed grasp of some of our football administrators (and even commentators). Scottish football still has a heartbeat, and something to offer as a game of skill and intrigue. And there is even a currency and constituency out there for football, but urgent reform and overhaul is needed if football’s future place and health is to be secure.