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.