The People’s Game Still? Punters, Pundits and Change

Part Three

Gerry Hassan

April 13th 2012

Celtic and Rangers never used to dominate Scottish football to the degree they do now. In this concluding piece, I am going to measure the degree to which the Old Firm’s near stranglehold on the game is increasingly driving fans away, then address the role of the media, and end with some observations about how we can change the game.

The scale of Celtic and Rangers attendances and the size of their support has long been one of the defining accounts of the Scottish game, like their love of silverware, dating back to the game turning professional in Victorian Scotland. Yet like the silverware story it isn’t really completely true and warrants further investigation.

If we look at the three periods of Scottish post-war football I previously identified a very clear pattern. In 1947-65, Rangers were the most popular side with an average home league attendance of 34,432, Celtic were on 23,834; Hearts were in third place with 21,720 and Hibs fourth with 20,641; these last two are respectively 63% and 60% of Rangers average attendances. Across the nineteen seasons Rangers were the most popular every season, but Hearts were second on six occasions and Hibs on four with Celtic second nine times (and on three occasions finishing fourth). The season 1960-61 when Hearts finished second was the last time the Old Firm were split in terms of attendances: fifty one years ago.

The period 1966-86 saw Celtic the most popularly supported club with 28,139 average per home league game, Rangers with 25,747 and Aberdeen in a period where Alex Ferguson brought them huge success muster 13,011: 46% of the most popular Old Firm team.

However that pales compared to the 1987-2011 period which saw Rangers average 45,001, Celtic 44, 157 and Hearts 13,696, 30% of the most popular Old Firm support.

These figures show that Celtic and Rangers are crowding out other football clubs in terms of supporters in Scotland. The transformation of Parkhead saw Celtic for the first time in their history top one million supporters for their league programme and do it for eleven consecutive years (1999-2009). While what passed for ‘third force Scotland’ is slowly wilting: Hearts managing 63% of Rangers support across two decades from 1947-65 and now reduced to 30% of Rangers support over 1987-2011.

It is true that recent years have seen Celtic and Rangers attendances dip, but they have not done so enough to rectify the unbalanced nature of the game and non-Old Firm fans becoming weary of being walk on parts in the Old Firm drama.  The home attendances of Hearts in 2011-12 pre-split at 13,605 was 27% of Celtic’s support and showing every indication of continuing to decline disproportionately.

 

The Decline of ‘Third Force Scotland’

Club Average home      League support % support compared to most popular Old Firm
1947 – 1965 Hearts 21,720 63%
1966 –1986 Aberdeen 13,011 46%
1987 – 2011 Hearts 13,696 30%

 

Source: David Ross, The Roar of the Crowd: Following Scottish Football Down the Years, Argyll Press 2005, which has average annual figures per club until 2004; and from 2005 from www.worldfootball.net

If we look at the overall picture of the Scottish game over post-war times once Celtic and Rangers fans were one in six of all Scottish club fans in the period of the 1940s and 1950s. That then narrowed in the 1960s to one in four and then one in three in the 1980s. It has now reduced to a ratio of one to two. And indeed the picture is actually much worse according to Henry McLeish, former First Minister and former footballer, because that one in two ratio disguises that a significant part of the non-Old Firm average attendances is made up of Old Firm travelling fans.

The dynamics of the Scottish game point to the near arrival of a one to one ratio: a Scottish game just made up at senior level by Old Firm fans, and Tynecastle, Tannadice, Pittodrie, Easter Road and elsewhere reduced to tumbleweed blowing through them. Again that will never completely happen just as the Old Firm winning 100% of trophies over an era will not, but it is the clear direction of travel.

How do we portray the People’s Game?

The mainstream media has to look at how it covers the Scottish game and take part of the responsibility for colluding in the current state in which we find ourselves.

There are three areas: how the contemporary game is covered, the Rangers saga, and the longer-term picture. Look at BBC ‘Sportscene’. It is frankly and sadly an awful product, about which not one football supporter I know has a good word to say. Even allowing for the restrictions on what BBC Scotland can show in a TV football highlights package, the programme shows no care, love and passion for Scottish football.

‘Sportscene’ shows highlights of the six SPL games, most without any proper introduction or going through the team line-ups. It has, alongside the main anchor Rob Maclean who tries his gameful best, an ever-changing roster of inarticulate, clueless second and third-rate football pundits rather than any penetrating, illuminating insights (Pat Nevin exempted). This is purely about lack of imagination and aspiration rather than resources; SPL games and ‘Sportscene’ are clearly not worthy of learned analysis!

‘Match of the Day’ on the other hand, with much bigger budgets, has a superb set of opening credits which locates the programme in a rich tradition and shared history. ‘Sportscene’ has cheap, tacky opening credits, despite Scotland having a history and set of traditions to die for which contain some of the most powerful images anyone could dream of connected to football.

This plays into the Rangers saga. The Scottish media may be obsessed with football but they serve up in a rather unappealing, predictable pattern: concentrating on a narrow range of mostly Old Firm stories. Graham Spiers has shown his disdain at ‘succulent lamb journalism’ (1), while Rangerstaxcase.com, arguably the most authoritative site on the Rangers crisis in the last year, has written that, ‘Scotland’s media, sports and business desks alike, are complicit in the disaster that has befallen Rangers’ (2). Alex Thomson of ‘Channel 4 News’ has with a few weeks of investigative journalism, dug deep into the recesses of Rangers and their shadowy Employment Benefit Trusts (EBTs) (3).

The Self-Preservation League and the Future of the Game

Events of the last few months have shown how the Scottish game is crippled by an endemic lack of ambition. We have seen several football clubs, seven according to a ‘Daily Record’ survey saying that a successful SPL needs Rangers (4). To some such as St Johnstone this is irrespective of what happens: liquidation, the forming of a newco and thus if Rangers were to remain in the SPL the tearing up of its rules.

The latest developments this week have seen the SPL twisting and turning its rules to enable a Rangers newco to remain in the top league; this is a travesty of how professional sport and business is meant to be conducted. This potentially is not the lowest point in the SPL as the Self-Preservation League; instead that honour would go to any vote to allow a Rangers newco to remain in the league, and the lack of principle it will show in the so-called ‘Gang of 10’ (5).

It is understandable that people who have grown so used to living in the shadow of the two giants have become co-dependent. What would make Scottish football successful, attractive and appealing is a product which was shaped by competition and diversity. That’s a proven football recipe for working down through the ages! Not hankering after the crutch of Old Firm dominance and hand downs.

Scottish football has to change if it is it prosper. The status quo is no longer an option as the consultant jargon goes. The Scottish Premier League is the joint most uncompetitive league in Europe. And given our performances in Europe our teams are facing more and more challenges and obstacles as our co-efficient falls each year.

The only solution is a radical overhaul of the game, even more far-reaching than the creation of the Scottish Premier Division in 1975-76, itself a product of the 1970s crisis of dwindling attendances, or the Scottish Premier League of 1998-99. The Henry McLeish review of the game made some welcome recommendations, including the idea of regional feeder leagues and ending the Scottish Football League virtual membership for life (6). This will require tackling the ridiculously cluttered cumbersome governance arrangements of Scottish football with three separate bodies, the SFA, SPL and Scottish Football League; we need one governing body. Scottish football’s current Balkanised state is reminiscent of a gang of feuding warlords in a crisis-ridden country such as Yugoslavia during its painful civil war!

Here are four possible routes to change, some more serious than the others:

  • The Old Firm play each other in a league of not 10, 12, 16 or 18, but their ideal perfect number, namely two. They play each other 38 times, perhaps even taking their games around the world to various Scots and Irish diasporas. Such a league would for the first time accurately reflect the inner world and allegiances of many Old Firm fans.

 

  • The Old Firm decant to England to if not the Premiership, then the Championship. This according to its advocates is something that already happens, cross-border traffic in national leagues, but it doesn’t happen on the scale of Celtic and Rangers. And no two teams of any size have got up and moved their business like some petulant multinationals. It just isn’t going to happen.

 

  • Then there is the Old Firm joining some kind of Atlantic or Northern League. The logic of this is usually some sort of European Champions League wannabee teams who has suffered from the Euro elite, the two Glasgow teams, Dutch teams and some others. This isn’t on the cards for the foreseeable future either.

 

  • This leads us to the final and most fundamental solution. Namely that Celtic and Rangers commit to remaining in the Scottish game. But at the same time stop dreaming of escape and make a long-term commitment, say for a minimum of ten years, and that their prospects are inextricably linked to that of Hearts, Hibs, Dundee United and everyone else. This would entail redistribution of TV monies, voting rights and gate receipts, along with commitments to player development and not poaching young players from the non-Old Firm teams. If American baseball can practise a ‘socialism of sport’ why cannot the SPL?

All of the above assumptions are based on what happens to the Old Firm, yet Scottish football isn’t just about the Old Firm. Our game would survive the Old Firm leaving and might on many scenarios prosper, with a bit less TV money, but more competition and possibly bigger crowds for those left. An examination of the Scottish Premier Division and League these last 26 years of Old Firm predictability would produce without them a league of unrivalled choice. Seven teams would have won the title instead: Hearts with nine titles, Aberdeen seven, Dundee United three, Motherwell three (assuming they remain in third this year), Hibs two, St. Johnstone one and Livingston one.

Our game has given the world so much: the first international match of 1872, the first ever organised women’s match in 1888 (in Inverness), alongside the first ever full scale football disaster in 1902. We have many poignant and moving Scots football stories that we don’t even know ourselves or proclaim to the world.

Where is the TV or radio programme on the long lost Scottish football hero, Danny McLennan, who established a world record, managing over three decades the stunning total of ten international teams across Africa, the Middle East and Asia (7)? And what about some recognition for the glorious failures of the Highland League, Fort William, who week in week out put themselves up for humiliation? Are they not worthy of some celebration for their endurance.

But our game needs change. Radical change at the top and at every level. The question will be as it languishes in what can only be called the football equivalent of oligopoly capitalism whether it has the energy and drive left amongst its leading vested interests to realise how far and urgently it needs to change.

Notes

1. Alex Thomson, ‘When Succulent Lamb is on the Menu: Serious Questions are Off’, Channel 4 News, March 19th 2012, http://blogs.channel4.com/alex-thomsons-view/succulent-lamb-menu-questions/1010

2. Rangerstaxcase, ‘My blog shows how Scotland’s media were complicit in Rangers’ fall ’, The Guardian, February 17th 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/blog/2012/feb/17/scotland-media-rangers

3. Channel 4 News, March 30th 2012.

4. Scott McDermott and Gavin Berry, ‘Seven top flight clubs don’t think SPL could cope without Rangers’, Daily Record, February 17th 2012, http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/football/spl/2012/02/17/seven-top-flight-clubs-don-t-think-spl-could-cope-without-rangers-86908-23754158/

5. Wings over Scotland, ‘The Game with no Balls’, April 12th 2012, http://wingsland.podgamer.com/the-game-with-no-balls/

6. Review of Scottish Football, Scottish Football Association 2010.

7. Michael Grant and Rob Robertson, The Management: Scotland’s Great Football Bosses, Birlinn 2010.