How Scottish football could benefit from independence

Sweet FA

Sweet FA

by Stephen O’Donnell

A quick glance through the Scottish Government’s white paper on Independence will reveal that virtually no mention is made of Scottish sport in the 600+ page document. This is perhaps understandable, given that any claim by the SNP that a Yes vote in September’s poll would result in the transformation of Scotland into a nation of sporting superstars would quite rightly be met with a degree of scepticism at best, and outright ridicule at worst. On the other hand the SNP might be seen to have missed a trick in failing to map out a vision for Scotland’s sporting future, especially given the emotional ties to nationhood, identity and belonging that sport, and especially football in Scotland, can tap into. And didn’t FA Chairman Greg Dyke recently claim that, given the implementation of the correct development strategy, England would win the World Cup in 2022? Scepticism and ridicule indeed.

It can be very easy to equate the fluctuating fortunes of a particular country’s football team with some sort of national narrative, when in fact, all too often, the difference between sporting success and failure can hang agonisingly on nothing so arbitrary and unpredictable as the choices and errant decisions of match officials. Scotland’s last two qualifying campaigns were adversely affected at particularly inopportune moments by baffling decisions from referees (against Wales in Cardiff during the last World Cup campaign and against the Czechs at Hampden during the previous Euro qualifiers). Nevertheless football does not operate in a cultural vacuum and it must surely be possible to trace and ascribe root causes of consistent periods of sporting success or failure to a wider societal explanation. To be sure, the glory that was Lisbon or Gothenburg is well and truly of another day, but then so is manufacturing and heavy industry and ideas such as full employment. Coincidence? It seems that every man and his dog in recent years has had a shot at explaining the alarmingly obvious and apparently intractable decline of Scottish football since the heyday of McNeill, Miller, McLeish and their like, so in this article I’ll be offering my tuppenceworth as well. At least, unlike the McLeish report, my thoughts on the subject won’t run into several hundred pages and be conducted at considerable expense to the taxpayer.

First up, I give you, Stewart Regan and Neil Doncaster; the game up here is effectively run by two English businessmen. Whoa, hold your horses, I hear you cry, so what if they’re English? We’ll not have any small minded xenophobia here. Relax, it’s not their Englishness per se that I have an issue with, but rather the fact that the problems of Scottish football, by common consent as I have already stipulated, are numerous and intractable. As a nation we have to use our collective sporting intelligence to think our way out of the situation in which we find ourselves; Gordon Strachan seems to be doing precisely this in his role as manager of the national team, but I’m not sure that the aforementioned administrators are as au fait with the decline of Scottish football as WGS. Indeed any fan who has followed our game in recent decades intelligently and observantly (Superscoreboard listeners do not necessarily fall into this category) could reasonably claim to have a clearer idea of the issues and problems facing Scottish football than Regan and Doncaster. Neil Doncaster is a bottom line moneyman at the end of the day (in a piece such as this I’m sure the reader will indulge me at least one football cliché). Whether he’s any good at his job or not is beyond the scope of this article, but I’m more interested in why he, given his background and experience in business, was appointed to the role in the first place. His job can be summed up quite simply – he is required to bring as much money into the game as he can, and his remuneration will be structured according to his success in this limited capacity. Is this really the role that Michel Platini plays at UEFA? Or even Greg Dyke down at the FA? Richard Scudamore, chief executive of the Premier League, plays precisely this role, but then English football is all about money and it has been for some twenty years or so now.

The introduction of the Premier League breakaway in England was sold to the English public as being good for the national team. Oh dear. The judgment of the last twenty years or so has been less than forgiving with regard to this claim; given their size and resources, England are still the most consistently underachieving team in world football. And yet in 1990 they reached the semi-final of the World Cup in Italy and could have been on the verge of greatness with a team comprised of players who had started their careers for the most part at local and/or lower or non-league clubs (Platt – Crewe, Lineker – Leicester, Pearce – Wealdstone, Butcher – Ipswich, etc. etc.). As a self-confessed lover of English club football, I despair at the finance that has infected and infested their league, although it pains me to admit that occasionally, not often or consistently but just from time to time, it has allowed a select group of English clubs to buy their way to success and win the coveted Champions League crown, formerly the European Cup. With owners who are among the wealthiest men on the planet, and with eye-watering sums being paid in media rights, English football has made finance and the power of money the cornerstone of their admittedly limited success. And who can blame them, let’s face it, because they’re swimming in loot? Unfortunately though, in Scotland money is the one thing which we conspicuously lack. Down South they’ve made their game all about their greatest strength; by contrast we’ve made ours all about our most glaring weakness. With only limited or qualified success in England, the strategy in Scotland has been an abject and excruciating failure.

We have to find something else to replace money as the focus of our game. Let me say that I am not naively suggesting that Scottish professional footballers should renounce the wages that are on offer in the Premier League in order to plough on with their careers at Falkirk or Queen of the South in the vain hope that one day their sacrifice will help Scottish football in the long run. Scottish players have been moving South in search of greater remuneration since the Victorian age and there’s no reason at all why that trend should not continue. It’s not money itself which is the problem in Scotland, it’s the culture of money, the idea that important choices that affect the running of the game should be made with financial considerations uppermost in the minds of the decision takers. What then should replace finance as the dominant ethos affecting our game? I don’t believe the solutions are as elusive as we may have been led to believe; they’re all there in our history, at certain stages in the not too distant past Scottish league football, using the modern UEFA co-efficient ranking system, would have been rated as the third strongest in Europe. We simply have to replicate the successes of these times in a modern context. Easier said than done of course, it may be tricky to revive and reproduce the social conditions and optimism of the late 60s, for example, but on the other hand there may be some features of previous eras that can be restored more immediately. We’ve lost our defiance, that characteristic that seemingly allowed Scotland to raise their game against theoretically stronger opponents, but which invariably led us to come a cropper against the smaller nations, because how do you play with defiance against Iran or Costa Rica? The answer of course is that you do a professional job on them, serve them up your A game and see how they handle it, but defiance is emasculated in a culture dominated by money because the weaker (poorer) team envies and wants to emulate their stronger (richer) opponent. Instead of wanting to show our Southern neighbours who’s best, we’re now in awe of them. Our game has been reduced by finance to nothing more than a mini-me version of theirs. How did things ever come to this?

The answer in a word can only be Sky. When Sky purchase the exclusive rights to broadcast a sport, in this case football, they’re not just paying to take it off free to air television; they’re claiming ownership of the heart and soul of the game itself, which of course, in less sophisticated times, used to belong to the fans. The corporate media then sell back to these ‘customers’ what they themselves once owned at vastly inflated prices. Sky’s expressed strategy is to use their new ownership of the sport as a vehicle to batter their way into people’s living-rooms and foist their agendas on the watching public. This is why the coverage of every sport on television these days looks the same. Cricket and football for example both have long and distinct cultures and traditions, but you wouldn’t know it from watching Sky’s coverage; they’re both given the broadcaster’s distinctive makeover and are presented with a homogenised message. What Sky fear most is football (or cricket for that matter) rediscovering its working-class (middle-class) roots, precisely because they have paid so much money to take the game away from its traditions. Scottish football has been burned by its proximity to the ethos that has dominated English football for two decades now.  Something very similar happened to Welsh rugby and West Indies cricket; you went from a situation where the game was all about the game itself to a new environment where it was all about money. And then when they had to compete with larger, wealthier nations the bottom just fell out the sport. What is required in Scottish football is a degree of separation, enough room and cultural headspace for us to find the solutions to the issues ourselves. Would we still have to suffer the likes of Davie Provan and Andy Walker in an independent Scotland? Probably, but I find it inconceivable, with Scottish football at last managing to think its way out of the problems that have dogged it so persistently in recent times, that we would tolerate the agenda driven nonsense of Sky, particularly considering how the broadcaster picked up the rights to Scottish football for such a song. The glaring comparison with the investment they have made in English football is there for all to see. In a post-independence landscape, uncluttered by the right-wing, celebrity obsessed culture of foreign broadcasters, the game in Scotland would surely rediscover its defiance, its self-belief and maybe even its working-class roots. Whether that would happen in time for the 2022 World Cup or not, only time will tell.

Stephen O’Donnell is an author of contemporary Scottish fiction, his novel Paradise Road is reviewed by Bella here.

 



Categories: Commentary

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18 replies

  1. The issues that create the deficiencies in the Scottish game are much more internal and much closer to home – the Old Firm, it’s dominance (a long history) has sucked the life out of the game at club level. Regardless of the mismanagement at the top, financial power of other league, the free flow of European labour (a good thing), this needs to be addressed more directly. It’s the disparity in wealth and fan base that these clubs have over the rest is phenomenal!

  2. I know little or nothing about football except that is generally played by overpaid individuals. Having said that I did notice just how well some small countries have done, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium etc. On the rugby front look at just how well Ireland’s rugby performs in International competitions and they have a smaller pool to choose from given competition from Hurling, Gaelic football and soccer. It always seems to me that when they pull on their traditional GREEN jersey (unlike some of the recent Scotland strips) they gain in pride and stature. Another point that I’ve heard is that certain African Nations are again raising the old issue of the UK having 4 or 5 if you include the Republic and they are asking FIFA to make it team GB for 2018 or 2022 World Cups. ROI would still of course have its own entry.

    Auld Rock

    • Have a feeling that if Scotland were subsumed into a team GB, in principle the same effect as voting no, we might truly have pressed the indie button; assuming the bane of passivity and indifference has not yet reached those parts.

  3. Reblogged this on Are We Really Better Together? and commented:
    I’ve a confession to make: I’ve never really been that into football.

    My one and only memory of the TV being on in our house was one sunny afternoon when my dad was sitting inside watching a game and allowed me to sit with him ‘if I wanted to’. I think I lasted five minutes before getting bored and going outside to play in the garden. My dad enjoyed football and had played for Celtic juniors in his youth (or so the story goes) and my granda had died of a heart attack on the stands at Parkheid (and was given the Last Rites on the basis that he was probably a Catholic – he wasn’t, he was an atheist) so I feel I ought to have football in my blood. I certainly tried to play the game often enough but I have two left feet and am right footed, so my ability lags somewhere behind my enthusiasm, which is not very high to begin with. But I enjoy the odd kick about now and then and have surprised myself by watching most games in this World Cup.

    Part of my disengagement with football was also due to growing up in New Zealand where soccer was the also-ran and rugby was the game everyone talked about. I am no better at rugby than I am at football as it happens (hockey is the team sport where I have any modicum of ability), but let me tell you, as a Scot and New Zealander, how wonderful it is to have a winning side to support in the All Blacks! Though I had a horrible day a few years back when England were playing Australia and I couldn’t bring myself to support anyone…

    I am on my way to becoming a sport and exercise scientist and it has made me re-evaluate the place of sport in a society (my interest is far more on the general health and well-being of the population than it is on the performance at the elite end of sport) and has made me realise how important the national game can be to a country. Football has many downsides in Scotland (links to sectarianism being the most obvious but the lack of proper attention given to women’s place in the game is the main one that needs tackling, in my view) but it can bring huge benefits too. Yesterday I read – in passing – some comments in Twitter that suggested that should Scotland vote No in September that the Scotland football team (along with the Welsh and Northern Irish teams) should be disbanded and for ever more Team Great Britain should represent all the Home Nations. I doubt that idea would gain much traction but the implications that a Yes or No vote could have on Scottish football and, by extension, Scottish society, are significant so this article from Bella Caledonia is interesting reading.

    I would like to add another point to it though; if a country with as small a population as New Zealand’s (four million or so now but three million when I lived there in the 1980s) can produce top class rugby, decade after decade, with a fraction of the money that gets spent on football in Scotland, never mind the UK as a whole, there is something seriously wrong about our focus within Scottish football and sport in general.

    • The stats show that people in New Zealand are more physically active than Scots are here – 34% swimming compared to 15%, 26% doing keep fit to 6%, 23% cycling to 10% etc. Though strangely New Zealanders are slightly more likely to be obese than Scots…(27.8% to 27.7% – US is at 34%, Australia at 24.6% Norway at 10%).

      Henry McLeish’s report concluded we could fix Scottish football but that it would cost £500 million. A lot of that cost was things like opening up existing facilities in schools after school hours. Perhaps NZ does that better?

      http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/scotland/8638920.stm

  4. Then of course there was the call yesterday from a tory MP to create a team GB in the wake of Englands collapse at the World Cup.

    I got the impression that he felt,if England can’t create a football team capable of winning then they should just use the talent available to win no matter the cost to the other countries.

    Another example of Broons “pooling and sharing”?

    • I think his main concern is that increasing numbers of English people feel more English than British, or simply English instead of British. He is almost certainly aware of the link between national sports teams (especially footie in most parts of the Divided Kingdom) and wider national identity. I know, like any sensible person, that sport is pretty unimportant in the big scheme of things, but I also recognise that these things won’t change soon. I don’t know how much the political and media classes pushed Team GB up in Scotland just before and during the 2012 Olympics, but here in England it was relentless.

      He also shows his lack of knowledge of current football. How a team that played poorly and got just one point in Brazil would be improved by players from teams that didn’t get to Brazil and all have mediocre or poor FIFA rankings is beyond me. This hypothetical (and I hope it remains hypothetical for all time) ‘U’K team would not have been any more of a champion team than England, but that wouldn’t worry the British ruling classes, as long as we English forget our true nationality. As Craig Brown [former Scotland football team manager, for those who don’t follow the game] once said, it’s better to lose under your own flag than to win under somebody else’s.

      • His thinking would leave them able to claim that if it wasn’t for the other countries then England could be world beaters instead of carrying “losers”.A certain recipe for stirring English national pride.

        And yes,they did try to push team GB but it was a halfhearted attempt,by the beeb,which was reflected in the poor crowds and viewing figures here.They knew there was no appetite for it.

  5. The answer is money. Where there is such a wild imbalance in finances as was the case in Scottish football (Rangers and Celtic took pretty much all of what money there was) then competition will be weak, most games will be meaningless and fans will be turned off.

    There has to be a radical rethink. Money must be channeled to the smaller clubs and away from the larger. One of the killers was when the Old Firm engineered the move to allow clubs to keep their home gate. When there was a 50/50 split, a visit to Ibrox or Parkhead, or to a lesser extent Tynecastle, could make a huge difference to the finances of a club like Dunfermline or Falkirk. Now they have to exist off the crumbs and as most of the TV money was going to the big Glasgow clubs there weren’t many of them.

    How this re engineering is financed is for another day, but happen it must.

  6. I think one of the prpblems for “sport” in Scotland (and this article falls into that elephant trap) is that sport = football.

    I’m reminded of a Herald advert for the post of Chief Sports Reporter whose primary qualification was knowledge of Scottish football. There was no secondary qualification, so you wonder why they needed the plural.

    The most popular sports in Scotland are actually: swimming (15%), cycling (10%), football (10%), golf (8%) and keep-fit/aerobics (6%). So footabll is only one of a clutch of sporting activities we undertake, not the premier one.

    If what is meant by “sport” is watching other people do something active, then I’d guess ballroom dancing probably scores higher in number of views.

  7. On the basis of my 40-plus years of sports writing, in which I have covered some 50-plus different sports, my view of Stephen’s piece is – you ask a fiction writer to write something, you get fiction.

    Messrs Regan and Doncaster might not be perfect, but – while they are convenient scape goats when tjhings go wrong, they are not the problem.

    The main problems with Scottish football are, 1, the administrators and 2, the inherent thrawness of the Scots. Sure, Regan and Doncaster can influence matters, they have a say, but, the decisions are mainly taken by the club chairmen and directors who go on to the executive floor at Hampden.

    These guys think they matterl quite a few of them are business men who, if they ran their businesses as they run football, would have been skint lang syne. They are the problem.

    I always liked the story of the SFA “blazer” – one of the better ones as it transpires – who was elected to the International committee as it then was. Scotland won their very next international in some style, which prompted his wife to remark to their club manager, later to manage Scotland: “Look at the change my John’s made to the Scotland team”.

    These guys, and their wives, think they matter.

    O don’t know what the answer is, other than, it isn’t the SFA as currently operating, or the SPFL.

    And, don’t get me started on the SRU.

  8. I’m ‘astonished’ at how many people who comment on this article who claim no interest in ‘fitba’ but then go on to offer their opinions on it.

    No problem with that, but a couple of crucial things highlighted in the article itself that are important:(1) two English carpetbaggers with no interest or association with our game are parachuted in by a bunch of third rate Scottish chairmen to somehow rejuvenate our game.(2) Sky and its pernicious influence on Football’s finances.

    The first point is: why do we go outside Scotland to bring in second raters who are heavily influenced by a fundamentally flawed English league set-up?
    Why has Scottish football failed to find an internal vision of its own, or at least go to those who are proven world leaders….such as Germany, Holland etc.?
    The second point is: Sky have totally undermined English football. The vast amounts (10% paid for by Scottish subscribers) of cash to the Premier League has gone straight into the pockets of the players. The result: the League is dominated by foreign superstars to such an extent that the English gene pool of footballers is so small now that they took one quarter of all available Englishmen in the Premier to the World Cup.

    But this affects us even more: Sky paid less than two million to Rangers and Celtic, while handing out Fifty million quid to provincial English teams like Hull. But this tiny amount dwarfs what the other 40 teams in Scotland get.
    The BBC and STV have totally abandoned any commitment to our Football. Remember ‘Our’ BBC provides full coverage of every League game in England, 46 games every weekend during the season, with hours dominated by pundits like the retiring Alan Hansen on wages not far from a Premier League Manager’s.
    Sky and Council Telly are ripping off Scottish Football teams and their supporters at the expense and ruination of English football…sound familiar?

    McLeish was right. We need investment in sport, not just football, but all sports. Community clubs like Scandinavia producing fit and active people. It may also help to break the sectarianism of the Old Firm..but I feel that the continuing political crackdown on sectarianism (Blue Bears, Green Brigade etc.) must be increased to reduce their attraction to bigots.

  9. Its no secret that the Labour/Tory/LibDems are all “one-nation” Westminster political parties and don’t give a fig for Scotland’s cultural identity.

    A NO vote will entrench that belief at Westminster.

    If Scotland votes NO Westminster will re-double its drive to ensure that there won’t be any separate sports teams from Scotland.

    A NO vote means you can kiss goodbye to the SFA and a Scottish International Football team, as well as Scottish Teams at future Commonwealth games, etc.

  10. ‘In a post independence landscape, uncluttered by right wing celebrity obsessed broadcasters, the game in Scotland would surely rediscover its defiance, its self belief and maybe even its working class roots.’

    Stephen O’Donnell fails to understand the attraction of Sky’s football coverage. What is shown – from La Liga, the English Premier League and Champions’ League – is of a far higher quality than is available watching Scottish league football.
    There is almost no reason to believe that Scotland will re-establish itself as a provider of top class footballers.
    A generation ago, the solution was deemed to be investing in facilities (like Murray Park and its equivalents).
    This has proved to be an expensive failure.
    Scots will remain (perhaps unhealthily) interested in football. However, when the best footballers and football teams come together, Scotland’s absence will be the norm.

    • Yes, the idea that watching television = sport is part of the problem.

      People have remote controls, and if the entertainment isn’t entertaining, they switch. So football companies will buy in the best players they can, not neccesarily Scottish, to provide that entertainment. With consequences when it comes to international matches.

      And if football companies can’t attract the viewers, the sponsors like Sky won’t pay. If Scottish football was watched around the world, then as a branch of the entertainment industry they would attract more sponsorship.

  11. The great irony here is that Scottish football already has independence.

    The SFA and associates have always been free from London governance and have always had “control of the economic levers”. It has access and memberships to the international associations and competitions. It has full member status in these and it negotiates its own financial deals..Indeed it has, in microcosm, all the attributes of an iScotland.

    And hasn’t it done well!

  12. Ultimately, sport needs Government funding. And we can only get proper Government funding with independence; the UK Government is happy to spend billions of pounds on the London Olympics, classifies it as a UK event, and avoids Barnett consequentials to Scotland. Only independence gives Scotland complete control of the pursestrings.

    Scotland needs to represent itself – in every sport – on the world stage. New Zealand with a similar population to us take around 300+ athletes to the Olympics; Scotland takes a few dozen. Many of our athletes never get the chance to represent the UK in the Olympics; never take the step up and ultimately leave their sport. With independence these same athletes will compete on the world stage, be given more opportunity, and then see the next levels of development and can work towards their next goals and become better athletes. Better athletes means better funding at grassroots and a better next generation of athletes. It won’t happen overnight but in a few generations we could be sending 300+ athletes to the Olympics too.

    So why doesn’t that work in football and rugby where we already represent ourselves? Although our footballers and rugby players compete – and move to bigger clubs usually outwith Scotland to become better – the funds that their transfers bring are not usually put in to grassroots development and the cycle breaks. In comparison with Ireland, rugby suffers in Scotland by having only 2 professional teams – Ireland has 4 – and it therefore limits the opportunity of young players making the professional grade. That brings it back to grassroots funding again and we can only get proper Government funding with independence.

  13. The answer to scottish football is so easy and obvious!!! £10 a ticket £5 a child, terracing sections and serving alcohol at games!!! So simple make it worth going the fans will flood back

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