The Power, Psychology and Problems of Scottish Football
January 17th 2010
Scottish football holds a place in the centrestage of Scotland, and even more it has a mythical power and importance over much of our culture: an importance which I believe has increased in the last thirty years as other vessels and phenomena we invested our hopes in: political and social bit the dust.
One of the paradoxes of this age has been this move towards a coercive sense of ‘collective joy’ about football as it has become more corporatised and in Scotland in a number of respects, a flawed, failing entity. Another is while football has taken on this greater sense of importance, the parameters of discussion, debate and understanding of our football have become even narrower, more ahistoric and part of an unreflective public debate.
I have written before that in the formative years of Scottish broadcasting we had Archie MacPherson, Bob Crampsey and Arthur Montford. These men were significant national figures, educated, cultured and thoughtful, and in Crampsey’s case, a wonderful polymath. Today the only person who could even be spoken of in remotely the same company is the impressive Graham Spiers of ‘The Times’. Instead the main discourse of Scottish football is of a dumbed down plastic proletarianism and vulgarity: from ‘Off the Ball’ to Jim Traynor, the ‘Daily Record’ and ‘Sun’.
It comes as a real pleasure to find James Hamilton’s essay on the state of the Scottish game, ‘Scotland’s National Team: Eleven Impossible Jobs, Plus Substitutes’ on the fascinating ‘More than Mind Games’ website (1). Hamilton who writes and covers football has produced an impressive contribution on the game, at once passionate, informative, reflective and challenging, written with a grace and nuanced understanding of football history, while bringing in psychology and culture.
Hamilton’s thesis is a complex one and he starts by addressing the transformation of the English national team under Capello. He states that Capello recognised at the outset ‘when an Englishman pulled on his international shirt, he lost all the confidence he felt at his club: he played in fear’. Hamilton believes tackling such a situation with the Scottish national team at the moment is beyond one manager or the players, and is about the psychology of football and our country.
Yes there is the problem of ‘Flower of Scotland’ and the small-mindedness it represents to anyone who thinks about it; but Hamilton rightly argues that this is only representative of a wider malaise, namely ‘the fan delusion’ which hitches onto a host of myths and delusions. Reflecting on the build up to the Scotland v. Italy qualifier in 2007 he comments:
I felt it coming before the game. Scottish commentator after Scottish commentator came forth to claim that Scottish passion! And Scottish weather! And the Hampden crowd! Would make life hard for Italy and sweep the Scots home. It betrayed football, that attitude: it betrayed Scottish footballers. It said, you aren’t good enough.
This is absolutely spot on and indeed Hamilton’s thesis could be taken further: the over-inflating (and desperate) over-emphasis on the Scottish game has led to a whole pile of problem attitudes about the game and society which point to an essentialising of the Scottish character: the pithy wee nation, the outsider with everything stacked against it using the elements, the rain etc, to get our just deserts.
One of the worrying trends is that you can see such a phenomenon across society: in the support for anyone playing the English at football, in the slow rise of a bigoted anti-Englishness, and related to it a kind of romantic, sentimental national feeling (I wouldn’t credit it with the intelligence of a nationalism) which mixes ‘Braveheart’ with ‘Whiskey Galore’.
He then develops a compelling argument, beautifully illustrated at every point, based around three obstacles. The first of these is the Scottish team’s two contradictory roles.
Scotland see themselves as underdogs argues Hamilton and herein lies part of the problem, for we are not real underdogs like say Iceland or Estonia, but underdogs who want to have our cake and eat it:
Scotland aren’t comfortable with the underdog idea, and end up wanting underdog-style victories at regular enough intervals to achieve non-underdog footballing goals.
His second obstacle is the Scottish false football history, a kind of false memory syndrome. Hamilton addresses an alternative interpretation of the national team, its near-misses of qualifying in 1966 and 1970, and its near-successes in the World Cups of 1974, 1978 and 1982. He says of the 1970s World Cup experience: ‘No one outside Scotland thought them humiliated’ and then goes on: ‘The self-flagellatingly harsh assessment of Scotland’s World Cup performances has had two powerful effects on subsequent events’.
The first of these was that ‘the weight of perceived failure has led to defeats in important games that would otherwise have been won’ and the second is the ‘impact on Scottish players now’, asking: ‘How does it feel to fill the shoes of men you are constantly told were legends’ who you are ‘inferior soul(s)’ in comparison with?
The third obstacle is what Hamilton calls dances of death, by which he means ‘dances between the Scottish national team and Scottish national puissance and the Scottish national team and Scottish Premier League’. There is ‘nothing wrong … with a country choosing to use football to express itself on the international stage’ as for example Brazil did from the 1920s on. And yet, anyone with any intelligence as a footie fan in Scotland knows there is something seriously wrong doing so here:
But for now, it would be better if Scottish puissance were not seen as quite the function of Scottish footballing performance it is now. It’s too much for men to carry, not without the infrastructure, training and attitude necessary to bring it off. And when so few Scots actually play the game, it’s unfair on those who do. Choose literature; choose wave power; choose Edinburgh’s superb pubs. Choose something else until football can manage it.
In his concluding thoughts Hamilton moves on to how Scots don’t see how others see their culture. The constant going on about the frailty of everything Scottish, and how Scots culture, institutions and values are under threat, completely misses the point. What is the defining feature of Scotland is the strength (and over-obsession) with Scottish identity:
I’ve learned that not many Scots in Scotland realize just how secure as a country and as a nation they really are. It’s a shame: they can afford to relax into themselves much more than they do where England is concerned.
The search for the perfect Scots identity is not only an illusionary one; it is a harmful, painful and counter-productive one. We would really be better investing our time in something more tangible and productive such as our appalling child poverty or health or alcohol levels, the list is sadly nearly endless.
Football matters. It matters as a sport and activity, but in a place like Scotland it tells us a lot about us a society, nation, culture and how we see our history and future. We are one of the most football obsessed places on the earth – and that is statistically true not an urban myth.
The Scots ‘official story’ of their football history has become a lamentable one, both narrow and self-destructive. It seems to rest on positively only a few isolated incidents, the Jim Baxter keepie-up at Wembley 67, the Wembley invasion of 77 and Archie Gemmell’s famous goal. The rest is all about celebrating defeat, disgrace, humiliation and celebrating a sense of victimhood.
Hamilton is absolutely right that it doesn’t have to be this way. We could begin to tell another story. Scotland has actually for a small nation a proud and rich history football wise: eight World Cups, defeating Czechoslovakia twice to quality in the 1970s, once when they were reigning Euro Champions. And our domestic teams despite recent ignominies have a fabulous record in Europe: three trophies, while on nine occasions we have reached European finals, more I think than most nations, and well above for example the French.
The answer here is three fold. First, to put football in its proper context in an age which we are constantly told by IT gurus and new economy geeks is constantly filled with choice and diversity, and yet which in many respects has become narrower and more conformist. Is football used by (mostly) men as an anchor point in a culture of chaos and confusion, and why do we not want to talk about that?
Secondly, the Scots need to address some serious issues about their culture and society. Knowing a bit more history: both real and on the football field would be a good start.
Finally, it would be great to do something about our football, the sad awfulness that is the Scottish Premier League and the nature of ‘the Old Firm’. Maybe getting them to commit to the Scots domestic game for the next ten years and engage in a root and branch transformation, which would involve Celtic and Rangers seeing their successes as interlinked with the success of Hearts, Hibs, Aberdeen and Dundee United.
Or am I dreaming there and guilty of the very problem James Hamilton so thoughtfully mapped out?