Archive | Scotland

Tags: , , ,

Low Expectations in the International Arena

Posted on 25 July 2010 by JamesHamilton

Craig Levein

Interesting words from Craig Levein in the Scotsman:

He says he watched his first match at the helm like a scientist analysing matter through a microscope and he was baffled by what he saw. The lack of self-belief in the players was “strange”. He had expected players who are big performers at club level to walk out at Hampden, in front of their own fans, their heads held high, their chests puffed out. Instead, they seemed timid, shrinking within themselves and the shirts which had appeared to fit perfectly in the dressing room minutes earlier.

This echoes what Fabio Capello said in similar circumstances when taking England over two years ago. “Fatigue” seems to have overtaken “confidence” as the “expert” diagnosis on England, for the time being: it’ll be interesting to see how the Scottish dialogue shapes up as Levein gets through his first round of games.

In Levein’s mind things are that positive. The cynicism which seems to grow in the Scottish psyche as prevalently as the heather on the hills is kept at bay. He feels there is a change in the national mood. Instead of just moaning about what is wrong, he thinks there are a growing number of people keen to get together and actually do something constructive.

There has been a change in that direction, and it’s been good to see. And Scotland only thinks that it’s more cynical and defeatist than other countries.

Only in the job seven months and with a solitary game under his belt, he has not had enough time to gauge which players amongst the current first-team contenders get the biggest buzz from representing their country but he will. And if there are two people vying for the same position, then he would be inclined to give the nod to the one who values the cap the most.

“But the fact is, there shouldn’t be a situation like that. It should be the case that every player wants to play for Scotland and, you know, I think of people like Davie Narey, who probably went along to 80 Scotland gatherings and hardly played any games but he saw it as representing his country and he knew it was an honour and he would never have dreamed of saying ‘sod that’. And he was a top, top player.

Given that the pay gap between footballers in Scotland and Scots on average earnings is less than that between Premier League players and the English general public, Levein is saying something here that’s more interesting than a repeat of that old English control-freak canard about overpaid primadonnas. This is about low expectations.

At club level, it’s far more easy for a player to conceptualize some kind of success and to believe in it. That’s partly from necessity. The club pays the wages. But it’s also from experience: only clubs that are really trapped in a relegation spiral won’t win or draw some games along the line.

At international level, with so many fewer games, so much less continuity, and a different kind of “home advantage”, history, you might think, hangs much heavier on the players. Scotland go into qualifying tournaments leaden with previous all-so-nears. And a great deal else besides. England arrive at tournaments with an “experienced” team whose experience consists of fickle support, evisceration by the media at the first hint of failure, long years of their privacy being constantly and hideously violated, and the knowledge that anything short of a semi-final will leave them regarded as traitors to the nation.

Scottish fans – insofar as I’ve seen – don’t share the English view that high wages “should and therefore do” discount all questions of pressure, confidence, mental energy, tiredness and what happens to you after you’ve been subjected to the Premiership circus for ten or more of your more emotionally-vulnerable years. Only the Rangers-Celtic divide generates anything like the acutely personal and constant hatred that is directed at a large chunk of the England squad for a great deal of the time.

But at least England do have some unquestionably fine performances to draw upon – it’s been some time since Scotland enjoyed a comfortable victory over opponents at their own level to compare with England’s home and away wins against Croatia. Fighting rearguard wins over France, as experience has shown, are hugely cheering, good to look back on, and useless as measures of progress or builders of momentum.

Scotland have to find that momentum: no one wants to wait twenty years for the McLeish report to work whatever magic it has to offer. The mix of profound realism in Scotland about the quality of the players available, combined with Levein’s morale-boosting energy and excitement, makes this a good moment to start.

Long-term, though, it will take more than Levein to cure the ills. He talks openly about the amatuerishness of certain aspects of the SFA and having come from a club background he claims there are faults there as well. But he believes there is now a willingness to look into the mirror held up to them all by the Henry McLeish report and work together to improve the game.

And why not Scotland, after all? There’s nothing inevitable about decline and poor performance. But shifting low expectations is hard, harder even than an experienced, successful manager like Fabio Capello once thought. But Capello’s travails are an opportunity for Levein. Capello solved England’s self-inflicted qualification woes: now he is determined to repeat the trick and do the same at tournament level. If Levein can do likewise – that will be the standard he’ll have matched. It’s a target worth the shooting.

Comments (5)

Tags: ,

Putting a Curse Upon Uruguay

Posted on 10 July 2010 by JamesHamilton

Given that I’ll be shouting for the Germans in tonight’s 3rd place playoff, I thought it appropriate to show this clip of the Uruguayans – when the South American team were still World Champions – coming a horrible cropper against Scotland:

Comments (6)

Tags:

Scottish Football: Introducing The Bloggers’ Manifesto

Posted on 07 April 2010 by JamesHamilton

It’s hard for an incomer to get used to, but Scotland is just the most extraordinary and spectacular country.  One of my favourite drives is the drop down off the M9 into Perth. If you’re passing through the city, you’ll negotiate a series of roundabouts on the city’s edge, and you’ll see signposts pointing, temptingly, to something called “The Stadium.” They make it sound like the Nou Camp, but the signs actually refer to the home of St Johnstone F.C. , McDiarmid Park, and they commemorate a superb gesture by a local farmer, Bruce McDiarmid. Bruce gave St Johnstone £400,000 worth of his land for a new ground “as a gift to the city” when Asda bought up the old ground. He’s not one for the spotlight, and had to be strong-armed into accepting any kind of recognition for his generosity.

The story of McDiarmid and St Johnstone is just one reason why any manifesto for the future of Scottish football must tread carefully. McDiarmid Park is not the only patch of football soil here hallowed by love, locality and belonging. Forget local franchising or careless tinkering with clubs. The people in the stands and behind the scenes aren’t there for the glory but for other, deeper things.

More Than Mind Games is getting together with Left Back In The Changing Room and The Scottish Football Blog and others to produce our own McLeish Report – in the continuing absence of the real thing – and we think there are ways to move forward without committing ambitious, short-term vandalism.

But there has been ambitious, short-term vandalism. The worst of it happened a long time ago. Key weaknesses in Scottish football have their roots in the determination of the Home Nations to each have their own football association. Nineteenth century decisions have left the UK with one proper association and three corner shops. But merger is about as off the table as an idea can get. In this instance, we have to use what we have. Fletcher, Gordon and Bellamy will never see a World Cup, just as Giggs and Hughes didn’t, all so something something something could be preserved and protected, the same nameless and unidentified piece of memorabilia that was deployed to keep Scottish players out of a UK Olympic team.

So we have to achieve what we want to achieve with what we have. That calls for clean lines and specific goals. These can be hard to come by in a game as ruled by fluke and slapstick as is football..

So what are the goals? Many Scots would settle for a return to the late ’60s and early ’70s, where a sustained period of extraordinary club success led, eventually, to the unbeaten Scotland team of World Cup ’74 and a competitive draw with champions Brazil.

But that was then, and Scotland has a population of 5 million, the same as New Zealand. Too many other, newer footballing countries have organized themselves at a time when Scottish kids have, bit by bit, chosen against football for other things. We can’t have it all anymore: we have to choose.

The current blip aside, Scotland’s clubs have a good recent record in Europe – two Old Firm UEFA finals – and European club competition success might be the goal to go for. It would be important that this not be an Old Firm goal alone – and of course, the Old Firm already do prize European success. But excluding half of the country’s biggest city, to say nothing of Old Firm supporters elsewhere, from a share in success, is not acceptable.

If European club success is the goal we choose, then the steps we take are clear. Improve the skill level of young Scottish players – of which much more anon: this is always key, whichever goal you choose. Plug Scottish clubs into the European club culture via a cup competition or a merger of leagues – ideally the leagues of e.g. Holland and Belgium. Build the domestic league and cup programme around European nights to give teams time to prepare.

Then again, the Scottish national side have been closer to qualification for World Cups and European Championships than the national humiliation myth is prepared to accept. If it hadn’t been for the Flower of Scotland bullshit at Hampden against Italy, if there had been just one more goal against Norway – this says, to me, that the gap is narrow and can be crossed if the decision is clearly taken to do so. And by “making the decision” I mean, for instance, providing international contracts of the cricketing kind for non-Premiership Scottish internationals, I mean a sustained effort to persuade Scottish-qualified players to pull on the blue jersey, I mean giving Craig Levein a decade should he want it and I mean setting time goals: a play-off in 2 years, qualification in 4 years, a tournament second round in 6.

Any plan, of course, depends on Scotland producing a glut of good young players. This, ultimately, is the most important goal – the others can’t go on without it. Fortunately, although Scotland’s supply line has suffered recently, there are cheap ways in which it can be quickly revived. Revive Trevor Brooking’s late 1970s Daily Mail “learn skills in your back yard” comic strip, which needed only a wall and a tennis ball and time. Get futsal in every school in Scotland, give it a Scottish name and get a major, national, televised competition going, on STV or BBC Scotland, with winners commemorated at Hampden and given praise and coverage. Get Simon Clifford on board and give him a free hand in training players up to the age of 18.  Set up a major, national, televised skills competition and have skills as a non-contact sport for boys and girls who might not ordinarily enjoy competitive sport. What about Rob Marrs’ suggestion of a Scottish Football Centre of Excellence?

But what about the thousands of volunteers who have for years given up weekends and evenings unpaid to keep Scotland’s youth football going? Won’t they feel devalued, or sidelined?

The volunteers have been neglected for years. It’s getting better, and the SFA deserve praise for that. Nevertheless, many volunteers would join in a change of direction with pleasure were they given the proper facilities to do the job properly.

So I would call for the mass production of all-weather facilities to help those volunteers. Glasgow has shown the way forward here, with Toryglen in particular. Team up with other sports, and aim to have, within ten years, more all-weather facilities for football per under-18 head than any other country in the world. Put them where people are, in densely populated areas, and where this is not possible, close streets to traffic and actively encourage children to play there (windows don’t break like they used to..) with proper surfaces, ground markings and maintenance.

Lastly, if we can’t go European, there are changes we can make to the Scottish league structure that will help. It is mad, really, that Celtic and Rangers haven’t left for the Premiership – mad that they weren’t invited in at the inception. But the examples of Portugal and Holland show that having two effectively Barclays Premiership clubs playing alongside a set of Blue Square Premiership clubs doesn’t have to result in bad football overall. In recent memory, Hibs, Hearts, Aberdeen and Dundee United have all made the same point in their different ways too. Is it time to recognise the various “little leagues” that exist in the Scottish Premier below Rangers and Celtic? Why not institute a trophy for 3rd, and another for, say, 6th? Rob Marrs has wondered about merging the English and Scottish league cups, or about cutting down the number of league matches played to help smaller clubs sustain a title chase.

What do you think? We’re keen to get as many interested writers and bloggers on board as we can – with the goal in the near future of coming up with a joint document which will be splashed in the hope of influencing the course of events in a real way.

Please add your thoughts, suggestions, criticisms, ideas etc. in comments and I’ll promote them in subsequent posts. We have a real chance of being heard here, so let’s use it and help start Scotland on the road to being the best football power of its size in the world and on the road to giving its young people all the fun, enjoyment and benefits of taking part in the world’s game.


Comments (9)

Tags: , , , , ,

Anyone But England’s 1966!

Posted on 28 February 2010 by JamesHamilton

English football doesn’t obsess about 1966 as much as Scottish fans might like to think.

My first post on this is here; Alex Massie here and Rob Marrs here have taken the subject further.

Rob, being English, won’t shut up about 1966:

Scots talk about the English bringing up 1966 far more than English folk ever bring it up. I would note to Celtic fans reading if you tire of people talking of 1966 you might wish to put 1967 in a box. This very day, I sat in Kay’s Bar in Edinburgh and heard four Scots moan endlessly that the English talked about 1966. I was drinking with another English chap and neither of us had brought it up, the TV presenters hadn’t brought it up… the four Scots had brought it up.

I can still remember how surprised – shocked, even – I was on the rainy day in 1979/80 when I discovered that England had once won the World Cup. I was 11 or 12: My Manchester United-supporting stepfather had lived with us for seven years. I’d played at right-back for my football playing schools and sat through Argentina ’78 without once hearing anyone mention it.

So the news had to find its own way to me. Rummaging through a pile of old books in a junkshop in some left-over of a Bedfordshire village, in the last days of Callaghan’s Britain, I came across a battered Pan paperback about great postwar sporting moments. The usual list, but I was getting it for the first time: Maureen Connolly, Tommy Simpson, Gary Player, Cassius Clay, Celtic 1967. Oh, and England.

Well, the first thing I read about sex was a “found” copy of “Letters to the Happy Hooker” by Xaviera Hollander. She invites an American footballer over and, you’re joking..

In the late 1970s, England were a team of tired cloggers, playing heavy football in a wet, bored country without wine. Surely they’d never…and I wanted to run into the street to collar passers-by for confirmation: is this real? yet part of me thought I could believe it.. because I have early memories of a very different world and of a sunlight streaming into my pram, sunlight rich with colour and promise. 1960s sunlight, always dappling through leaves or through the long hair of the mini-skirted blonde who has bent down to pet me. A modern, confident light, shining on Alan Whicker and the Banana Splits and me, last seen at the 1970 World Cup and never again. In that light, anything can happen. Moonshots. Bob Beamon’s jump. An English World Cup win.

I had eleven months in which to enjoy the sixties, and, for want of better information, I trust I made the most of them. And I’d have eleven years in which I didn’t know about 1966: I hope I made the most of that, too. Because to listen to anyone who thinks the English don’t shut up about all that, you’d believe that we’re boasting about it: that England thinks itself, as of right, World Cup Winners, in the sunshine, top of the tree. Nothing could be further from the truth.

1966 is spoken about more than it was. Three contrasting things brought that about.

One is the 1990 World Cup, when England stumbled through the nettles to a semi-final that no one saw coming.  Before the semi against West Germany, English mood was split. The casual fan, who hadn’t seen the horrible earlier games, was excited. Those of us who had watched them, through our fingers, felt only dread. The West Germans forecast they’d win 4-0. Most English opinion worth having agreed. The English opinion that wasn’t worth having, however, had had old memories stirred.

In the event, England played quite well. The luck tank was dry, but the performance inspired hope for the future. The very quality of that gallant defeat, and it was real enough, did something quite peculiar and contradictory to the English footballing mind. Without any change in the fundamental belief that England just weren’t on a level with Italy, Holland, Brazil and the West Germans, an expectation formed. From here, England could kick on… 16 years later, Charlton fans would have the same thought, as they bid farewell to underperforming Alan Curbishley. Over all who would kick on, a great dark bird silently circles..

And of course, (don’t blame Nick Hornby for this) in the wake of 1990, literary types took an interest. I’d like to, but can’t, pass over the nausea, the disgust-inducing nature of some of the TLS-style stuff that’s been poured over English football since 1990. Think yourselves lucky, Scotland, that you had Irvine Welsh. Because England got David Winner…

So here the TLSers come, like missionaries and anthropologists, and all of the fan violence and the decaying stadia and the obvious clicheed football things have to acquire context and meaning and they become a subculture and it all gets plugged into history, and what’s in history? 1966 is in history, and, lovers of clumsy lecture-room humour as the TLSers are, look! it’s just like “1066 and All That”. Which is  really awfully amusing! And on the TLSers went, in Granta and the London Review of Books, taking from football  such insights into post-industrial alienation and radical politics and the working class..

Thirdly, and most regrettably, in February 1993, Bobby Moore died.

Bobby Moore’s death was, and felt, premature. It hurt in the gut: shouldn’t people survive cancer, these days? There was a general sense that, although he’d not followed up on his football career, he still had time. And, if there was still time for him, there was still time for his playing colleagues to do whatever it was that you might call writing another chapter. Jack Charlton and Alan Ball were both still managers, weren’t they? Contemporary figures, men busy in the active present, not ready, yet, to be rounded up with Ramsey and the rest and frozen in carbonite..

More time for Moore would have been more time for us. When he died, death lurched a lot closer. It felt a lot later in the day, all of a sudden: no more pretending that the the 1960s have only just finished. No more pretending that all that brilliant sunshine is just waiting its opportunity to return.

With Moore dead, it became important to remember, and to gather the memories of those who had taken part in it all, whilst they were still around and able to reflect.

Idiots got their piece of the late captain too. Moore’s death amplified a thought that had always been there and thereabouts in the minds of control freaks and anal salt-of-the-earth types. England’s 1966 side, according to this thought, were the last of a better breed. What that breed was, no one could decide, but no matter. The last street footballers. The last real grafting working-class team who rode the bus to matches with the fans (no one ever refers to players riding the bus home with the fans afterwards, do they?)  The last to cut their hair short/drink mild/use dubbin/pinch matron/shovel coal/wear slippers/wear lipstick.

The purpose of this particular, and very footballing, narrative is clear: it’s to rough up the moderns. To lay a punch on those long-haired types with their skinhead cuts, who’ve been made soft by the abolition of national service, white collar jobs, comprehensive school, Eagle Magazine, foreign cars, pretty girlfriends, Central London, not drinking with journalists, Southport, Dubai, Ipod Twitbook, corporal punishment, sex with nuns and the horrors of NuLab Thatcherism.

What it isn’t about, most emphatically, is English arrogance. If only it were so.

Because if you’ve read all of this up until now, you’ll know that although I’ve tried to tell it from the English point of view, I’ve missed out on the Scottish. Because I’ve been trying to say to the Kay’s Bar guys that it ain’t so. I’ve been trying to give them reasons to think more kindly, with more gentleness than they do, about England. But it’s not about that, is it? There are no reasons. What reason do you need to be shown?

The myths that sustain a nation and its sense of self, after all,  can be about other nations. It’s a Scottish myth, that England go on about 1966 all the time. They don’t; it isn’t true. More than they did, but not all the time, and not like that. But the Scottish myth has its place in a much wider conversation. Argue, if you like, that it’s projection: Scottish insecurity, confronted with an English achievement that Scotland has undeniably failed to come close to matching, creates a mitigating counter-factual to reduce the pain of it all. But why bother?

Because they may be bigger than us, for all that we’re bigger than Scotland, more successful than us, they may have more money – but they’re more stupid than we are, they’re loud, arrogant, blundering, badly-dressed, less cultured, less educated and short on common sense. And this is all good news. Because without it, how could we English go on? Go on, being English, in a world we lost to the United States… (This isn’t a narrative I buy into – but you can see the parallels I’m sure).

I didn’t hear about 1966 until I was almost in my teens. This despite growing up playing the game and reading about it and watching it on television at every opportunity. (I discovered 1966 in the same year I found out about Munich, which says something) It wasn’t a topic of constant discussion in England then, and if it is a topic for some discussion now, it’s because the men behind it are dying like  Beatles. And, to tell the truth, because we’re afraid we can never match them. And not just at football.

(And it’s a comparatively gentle myth, isn’t it? Typical of Kay’s Bar, really – the best sporting pub in the UK, a place where I once spilt a stranger’s drink and found him buying us a pair of replacement pints…)

Comments (3)

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Anyone But England: English Football Fans in Scotland

Posted on 25 February 2010 by JamesHamilton

It wasn’t so long ago when the English felt free to mock inhabitants of Her Majesty’s erstwhile and remaining possessions(start at 2m 16 secs)…

..and going further back still, most early histories of the Football Association refer to Scottish professional players in alienating terms: they were foreigners, come from outside to take the shilling and pollute the holy amateur game of England.

Those Edwardians angry at the incomers were administrators and (a few) journalists. There’s no hint that the Preston or Blackburn or Villa fan at the turnstile minded their Scottish players at all. And one hundred years on, I don’t even want to contemplate what the Football League would have lost had it not enjoyed Nevin, Dalglish, Law, Alex James and what must be thousands of others.

Some Scottish fans will know how hard many English find it, to feel how they’d like to feel about the Premier League and the England national team. “Is Wayne Rooney England’s only likeable player?” asks Football 365. “Anyone But England” has never hurt less than it does now. What might have been an insult of real force – when an England team could contain a Charlton brother, a Brooking, a Mick Mills or a Gordon Banks – now sounds, in the era of Cole, Terry, and Ferdinand, no more than a sound but slightly exaggerated opinion that many disillusioned Englanders quietly share.

“Anyone But England” isn’t, of course, anything to do with the rise and fall of the England moral barometer. Neither is it reciprocated. There are a few English fans who become exasperated enough by ABE to stop actively supporting Scotland’s teams in European or international competition, and a small number who go further and cheer on Scotland’s opponents. But we really are talking about very tiny minorities: the English tradition is to support the other British Isles nations and, where available, other Anglophone countries too (USA excepted, if not by me personally).

Not all English traditions are so evenhanded. Especially when it comes to other countries, and that’s why I’d defend Scotland’s silent but mutually-reinforced decision not to adopt this one. Nevertheless, it’s true to say that Scottish fans can go to English pubs to cheer Scotland on and, for the most part, not have to give it a second thought. What happens to England fans, going to Scottish pubs, to cheer on England? I’ve done it, and here’s what I have to say:

The number of Scots who express ABE in anger is vanishingly small, and any discussion of ABE on talkboards will attract comment from Scots who disagree with it and dislike it as a childish hangover and a block on Scottish development.

The golden rule about ABE is that it must be expressed in a humorous tone. Serious use of ABE is considered de trop. But so is energetic argument against it from an Englishman, which is why the wearing of an England shirt in a Scottish pub, whilst unlikely to inspire anything worse than brief comment, is seen as inappropriate, a misjudgement of the situation. That shirt, there, is such an energetic argument.

You are highly unlikely to meet anyone who wants to press the ABE point  even amongst those Scots for whom ABE is an important fact of life. The conversation always moves on. There are other things to talk about, and this is especially so when it comes to football.

Much ABE isn’t about England at all. It’s not about hating the elderly in their freezing deckchairs at Morecambe, for goodness’ sake,  or a playground of children in Gateshead or a Leytonstone mum struggling to stretch her pennies. And there’s always a note of regret behind the humour, a sorrow that Scotland isn’t better than she is, an indefinable if-only..

The expression of a small measure of ABE is expected of you if you are Scottish and part of a group of fans whose teams have made contact with the auld enemy. But you don’t actually have to believe it. And you are, remember, expected to use inverted commas as you say it. Fail that test and it isn’t ABE at all, but something more serious, something nastier that Scottish football is keen to leave in the past.

ABE is not a first-order expression of Scottish nationality. It isn’t the equivalent of wearing a kilt, or a Scotland shirt, or of flying the flag of St Andrew or making a Burns Night toast or climbing your last Munro. Next to these things, ABE is a ginger wig on match day, ABE is an inflatable haggis.

In this sense, then, wearing an England shirt in a Scottish pub is a betrayal of the principles of ABE - it’s missing the joke, missing the point, ignoring house rules. You’re unlikely to get any worse for it than a comment or two, if even that. But you’ll have insulted your hosts. Your England shirt – boorish and aggressive in most places even in England – is a tiresome, humourless and provocative rag up here. It is, above all, boring, dull as a wet day and just as depressing. Don’t forget, either, that there are still amends to be made, all around the world, for what louts in England shirts did in the years between the Heysel ban and the Beatles last LP. This is not just about Scotland.

Comments (7)

Tags: , , , ,

"Anyone But England" Shirts by Slanj Ltd

Posted on 24 February 2010 by JamesHamilton

You may have read a BBC report about the police visiting the premises of Slanj Ltd, a kilt firm who also do a line in amusing t-shirts. In this instance, the police popped round on their own initiative, to warn the company that their “Anyone But England” shirts… well, read it for yourself!

A company selling “Anyone but England” T-shirts for this year’s World Cup has rejected suggestions it is racist after police in Aberdeen visited its store.

Police warned Slanj, which also has stores in Glasgow and Edinburgh, that a window display featuring the shirt could cause offence.

The same article describes staff as “flabbergasted.” So am I. The people to ask about offence here are surely the English living in Scotland – well, that’s me, and I’m not offended. Indeed, I’ve contacted Slanj to ask if they’d consider making another shirt, this one for England fans watching the World Cup in Scotland.

I’ll let you know how they respond, but in the meantime, this kind of nonsense has gone far enough. Show your support for Slanj and common sense by buying a t-shirt.

Comments (6)

Tags: , , ,

The Scottish and Scottish Football

Posted on 24 January 2010 by JamesHamilton

Gerry Hassan has expanded, generously to say the least, on my earlier post about the place of the Scottish national team in the minds of Scots. I’m going to begin my response by considering some of Gerry’s points. But his fasinating post has attracted exactly the kind of in-depth, thoughtful, informed comments that I’ve found more common in discussions of Scottish football by Scots than in equivalent discussions of English football by the English. That isn’t an anti-English comment – both countries suffer by comparison with the Netherlands – but I’m not sure how aware Scotland is of the presence within its borders of various manifestations of quality to do with the national sport and feel this particular manifestation is worth pointing out.

Anti-Englishness

Gerry says of anti-Englishness:

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’.

I’ve not been in Scotland long enough to comment on longer-term trends. But I have had experience of anti-Englishness in Scotland: the experience of not experiencing it. “Hating the English” is one of those things that a small subsection of society get up to, and because (a) they themselves believe it and (b) they think themselves the salt of the earth, they think everyone feels the same way. Everyone who’s really Scottish, of course. Most Scots don’t seem to agree, and regard hatred of the English as (1) insulting to their English friends, girlfriends, wives, relatives (2) racist (3) dim.

It’s weather talk, code, not real. I’ve been warned several times about certain people that they’ll hate me because of my origins (I don’t consider myself English – I’m a Londoner, and other Londoners will catch something of what I mean even if they don’t feel that way themselves). Every time, without exception, the person to whom these dark mutterings referred turned out to be more inclined to open a second or third bottle with me and talk the sun back into the sky. I’ve come to read “I hate the English” as “I love Scotland, and I’m proud of it, for all its faults and shortcomings: I want to be warp and woof of this place of places.” Every time I drive up the A9 into Perthshire and beyond – every time a stranger takes me into conversation on some Glasgow suburban station – every time I smell the breweries on the Edinburgh air – so do I, but then I feel Gloucester Road calling me and pull away from the thought.

Football as an anchor point

Gerry has a three-point strategy intended to place football in a healthier place in Scottish culture:

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?

I can think of one important way in which the age has become narrower and more conformist, namely the prohibition of recreational drugs in the late 1960s. And one unimportant way: the rise of management-speak (although I think all that’s done is replace earlier forms of the same thing). I’m not sure, either, that we’re being told that the age is filled with choice and diversity: some commentators would like more, and others see diversity as a general good that gives breathing space to immigrants, ethnic minorities and social minorities (and that’s my view too). But Gerry’s core point is the use by men of football as an anchor point and maladaptive displacement activity, and here I have to plead guilty.

I don’t agree that we live in a culture of chaos and confusion – compared with the 1870s, or 1919-23, or 1946-50, or 1979-81, the UK is a laughing paradise. And compared with the period of industrialization and urbanization of the nineteenth century, life has been stable and unchanging to an unprecedented degree since World War Two. Compared to the lives my grandparents lived, my 40-odd years have dodged every imaginable bullet. So what about the use of football as an anchor point?

The bullets I didn’t dodge – parental breakups plural, having my skull fractured in a mugging outside my house, unemployment, business failure etc. – have left me at times, yes, taking comfort in something stable and ongoing and distracting. After my mugging, I determined not to let my attackers or the experience beat me, just as I’d refused them my wallet until I realised my injuries were becoming serious. I kept my same haunts, my same walk home. It was about as frightening as I could endure, but for the first week or so I managed. Then I met the same gang again, and they, recognising me, gave chase. I ran into a nearby shop, and, as I was no longer alone, they left me there. The shopkeeper had a television on behind his counter, and there was a match on. Memory says it was Leeds v Rangers in the European Cup. Memory also says that I watched it with the shopkeeper, and found that bit by bit the sheer ordinariness of it all and the shared company helped me pull myself together enough to get home. I moved away shortly afterwards.

Likewise, during the early credit crunch when the business I’d spent a decade building began its rapid break-up, I don’t think I missed a single Match of the Day, and my 3-DVD set of old MOTD editions – an at-hand reminder of earlier, relatively safer days – saw heavy use. “Look at his face!.. Just look at his face!…” that would be Franny Lee’s, and, next morning, my own, longer, dead-eyed one in the shaving mirror.

I’d regard the use of football as a comfort and distraction from problems as an entirely positive thing. The fact is, it only lasts a short while. In hard times, the information comes at night, as Martin Amis says, and I’ve known it turn up during daylight hours too,to check if you’re busy. That’s why I don’t believe that men are using football talk to dodge realities (I’m reading Gerry’s point as meaning “political realities”) and why I don’t believe men are talking about football instead of what they ought to be talking about. I agree that awareness and consciousness trump their opposites, but I don’t get to define those terms for other people, and in troubled times, you are all too aware, aware of things that are all too close, for any sustained conceptual analysis or bigger picture.

As fans of Simon Kuper know, in unfree political societies, football talk elides into political code and political representation naturally and automatically. The flipside is also true: where free political discussion, campaigning and voting are available, politics and football separate off, unless they are kept together by sectarianism on the one hand or by political self-consciousness (nostalgia for crowds of cloth caps being run together with Liverpudlian socialism, for instance, or the Guardian’s ethical World Cup).

Which leads me to want men to keep the football talk: if the UK really does abandon the free political culture of the later twentieth century – and I think the illiberal urge is at its zenith now, about to go out of fashion and into decline – then they’ll need it. It’ll cover a multitude of tiny, hard-won illicit freedoms, as it did in Nazi Austria and the post-War Communist bloc and as it does today in China.

Know Your History

Gerry’s second point:

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.

Yes, absolutely. Scottish history is avowedly not a story of innocent kite-flyers repeatedly, pointlessly, intruded upon by rosbifs; Scotland is not under occupation nor has it been oppressed. I refer the reader to Alex Massie’s recent exchange with his readers over the issue of the Council Tax – it ends with his nationalist opponent resorting to the surreal claim that St Andrews isn’t really part of Scotland. Whether or not you support independence, it’s hard not to admire the efforts of the bulk of the SNP to create a vision of the country’s future that is open, forward-looking – a vision antagonistic to the paranoia and parochialism of the kind of nationalism that shapes  the Glasgow omnibus version of even recent Scottish history.

I agree with Gerry that there are, if you want them, credible ways of addressing Scottish history that nourish rather than tear down, encourage rather than depress, unite rather than divide: the story of the national football team is one of those. (I think I can speak for both Gerry and myself in deploring, ultimately, the idea that the discipline of history has to be “for” anything, let alone this). I’m old enough, for example, to remember the excitement around the 1978 Scotland team of Dalglish and co. – excitement, that is, in the Home Counties of England, and to remember the sheer force and pleasure of the reflected glory felt in England as Scotland beat the team of the tournament with the goal of the tournament. Humiliated? Who was humiliated? England wasn’t even there: they hadn’t come close to qualifying.

What to do about the Old Firm?

Gerry’s third point:

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.

I waver over the “Old Firm.” As a small boy who didn’t know anything about a row between any Catholics and Protestants, I started supporting Celtic because I liked their name, and was delighted, once I could read properly, to find out that they’d once won the European Cup and were actually quite good. Lucky, happy accidents: I picked up my English team by turning on the FA Cup Final by mistake in 1976 and, being a good little Brit, cheering on the losing team..

Holland has the same “problem”, for instance, of domination by a pair of big clubs, yet still produces stunning footballers. My favourite foreign team of recent years is Ajax 1995. And, given enough determination, other Scottish clubs can compete: Hibs are coming up fast on the Old Firm, and not as a one-off one-season blue streak. Hibs have worked hard to build infrastructure, and have a period ahead of them now when Celtic and Rangers will be hobbled financially. There’ll be at least one league title at Easter Road to show for it.

Root-and-branch transformation might well happen, too: the blogs are shouting for it, the former First Minister is putting a plan together for it, the new Scottish manager wants to be involved in it, there are no illusions in the media about skimping on it, and there are men and women – especially in Ayr and in the unsung Highlands – who aren’t waiting for anyone else and are getting on with it themselves. In Edinburgh, there isn’t just the new Hibs training complex: there’s also Spartans, one of the most inspiring non-league clubs in the UK.

I’m pessimistic, for now, about the national side. As I said in my initial post, I think the job is beyond the reach of anyone at the moment. Football, I think, is where the English go to be stupid: where a literate and intelligent country lets its hair down. Sir Trevor Brooking is a lonely figure down there sometimes. The Scottish value intelligence and its expression as a positive thing  – just read the comments on Gary’s post – and are able and willing to put proper minds to work on the national game. That won’t, however, stop the mass media going all Greater Serbia over the national team, but, then, perhaps those reporters don’t, in the end, know anything about the game.

Sportscene is filmed on a depressing, recession-blue set inside what appears to be an abandoned refrigerated warehouse. The presenters wear the expressions of doomed men. To the right of the screen flicker latest scores from little clubs playing in cold places at the end of single-carriageway trunk roads. Two retired players with earthworm complexions discuss Motherwell and Falkirk. What they have to say is articulate, intelligent and interesting. But in context, it feels like something is coming to an end here.

I do think something is coming to an end. It goes for the whole of Britain that, when the last of the comfortable predictions has died out and all is dark and wet and frightened quiet, good things are beginning. So it is, I think, for Scottish football. It’ll take many years for it to reach the national side, for reasons I’ve discussed before. But the worst is over, before we know it or are aware of it. It feels like 1980 in Scottish football: all unemployment queues, dodgy auction surplus shops in the High Street and no one to vote for. There are people in the jungles of Scotland who fight on unaware that that early ’80s recession has been over for thirty years. The football one’s over too, for all that it doesn’t yet show. When it does, it’ll become clear that the Scots pulled themselves out of it, on their own and on their own resources, and it’ll be a point of pride in the end. But even in my own, sunny version of Scottish football history, it’s been a low and bitter period for all kinds of reasons.

Getting back to the good days is like leaving a capital city by train. You do it through tunnels, and each time you think you’re out and free and can stop swallowing to unpop your ears, you’re back in the dark again. By the time you hit the suburbs, you’ve lapsed into a sullen acceptance of bad artificial light and your fatty, middle-aged reflection in the window and the filthy wire-strewn brick beyond it. Forty minutes later, everything’s been fields and sunshine and rich oaks and dude ranches and good times out there for as long as you can remember.

Comments (11)

Tags: , ,

Christmas 2009: Scotland v Brazil 1974

Posted on 21 December 2009 by JamesHamilton

Scotland drew the World Champions – and such World Champions! in their first round at their first World Cup. And played them off the park. Only Rivelino would have deserved a place in Willie Ormond’s side that day.

Scotland could, if they wished, remember 1974 for this. Only the Netherlands, against the same opponents, would put on a better display in the entire tournament. It might be the best Scottish performance of all time, but if you’d rather have Baxter in ’67, a much ropier display all round, then suit yourself.

Comments (5)

Tags: , , , ,

Scotland’s National Team: Eleven Impossible Jobs, Plus Substitutes

Posted on 19 December 2009 by JamesHamilton

The first thing Capello said on becoming England manager was that when an Englishman pulled on his international shirt, he lost all the confidence he felt at his club: he played in fear. The task for Capello was to create the conditions for confidence that already existed at Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool. And in that he succeeded, but could he have done it for Scotland? I argue not. The Scottish job, for the time being, is beyond the power of a single man. If the Scotland team are to experience what England experienced in 2009, change has to come from the Scottish FA, the Scottish press, the Scottish clubs, and, especially, in Scottish fan culture itself.

The problem doesn’t lie with Scottish managers, and it doesn’t lie with Scottish players. Scotland, as any glance at the English Premiership or at post-War European Cup football will show, has a competitive advantage when it comes to the production of fine football managers. Any country in the world, with the possible exceptions of Italy and Holland, would love to possess the Scottish managerial production line for themselves. Nor, as I will argue, are the players deficient. The obstacles are psychological. There are three of them. Sadly, just because it’s “all in the mind” doesn’t mean it’ll be easy to shift.

Obstacle One: The Scottish Team’s 2 Contradictory Roles

Scotland are underdogs, so the song says. I’ll come back to the song in a minute. It’s an easier position for a fan than a player: compare the joyous flagwaving and national pride with the fear and tension visible in that row of dark blue shirts. Beside them, the Italians, who were meant to be intimidated by the weather and the passion, jog easily on the spot and wait their turn.

Football has plenty of real underdogs – Iceland, Slovenia, Faroe Islands – countries with neither population nor history nor experience to help them. For places like these, the status can work for them from time to time, and the sheer lack of expectation can work in their favour.

But Scotland’s footballing pedigree isn’t Iceland’s, or even Norway’s. Think of that managerial competitive advantage. Think of the comparatively huge domestic audience (far more Scots per head actively watch the game than any other country in the British Isles and indeed in Europe). Think of Scotland’s clubs, successful on the European stage.

Scotland’s song is an underdog’s song for a country that is not quite comfortable with playing the underdog. There’s the sneaking suspicion that, had it played its cards more cleverly, Scotland would not now be comparing itself with nations with 5m people – the Irelands – but with nations of recent international pedigree, like France or Holland. And unlike England, Scotland thinks it should play its cards cleverly.

So in trying to play the underdog card against Italy – by throwing rain and cold and bluster and bullshit against one of the most experienced sides in the world – Scotland was both true and untrue to itself. Italy scored almost from the kick-off. It was all the ringmasters at Hampden deserved for ungracious, psychogically ill-advised behaviour. All it achieved was to put the wind up their own men.

The Italian goal cleared the air of all the nonsense, and after that, Scotland put in exactly the sort of fine performance they are entirely capable of. If only they’d been able to approach the game in a more steady, mature and calm manner – which would have been both politer to their Italian guests and less likely to play into their hands – it would, I am sure, have been the means to the qualification that Scotland deserved.

But it’s easy to say, less easy to achieve. Consider this well-known and recent moment in the history of the Scottish national team:

This is the Scottish Underdog Rampant. (I can’t watch it all the way through: it’s all so embarrassing and painful). Note the various assumptions at work: for Scotland to win, one or more players has to put in a lifetime perfomance – beating a team like France is a once-in-a-lifetime miracle and not plannable for – hysteria and invocations of magic are appropriate and acts of patriotism. (I don’t want to take away from the win against France, which was enjoyed right across the British Isles – it’s just a convenient example).

But those ingredients aren’t the only ones around. Had that been Iceland, Icelandic fans would have celebrated the win without ever looking for it to happen again. McFadden’s had to go into subsequent internationals burdened by that goal and the other one – burdened because 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.

Let’s go back to the song, now. For those of you not familiar with it, here are the most important lyrics:

And stood against him
Proud Edward’s army
And sent him homeward
Tae think again

I acknowledge, by the way, that this is Scotland’s choice of unofficial national anthem – their Land of My Fathers, their O Canada. It’s the country’s obvious right to choose their own song. But that passage is in all three verses. I just regret that Scotland chose something so.. Balkan, so Greater Serbia, when they had Scotland the Brave or The Banks of Loch Lomond to choose from.

It’s the England thing, and if we’re already having to cope with a clash between the desire for underdog status and the suspicion that underdog isn’t good enough, then don’t add the England thing on top of it. But Scotland has, does, and probably always will.

It’s a pity. Because I’ve learned two things about the England thing since moving to Scotland.

The first thing is that Scotland is not just different from England. It’s probably more different from England than France, Spain or Italy. The sheer number of basic differences in language, attitude, approach and opinion is so great that there is no danger – of any kind, at any time – of Scotland being remotely impinged upon to any effect by her southern neighbour. 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 second thing that I’ve learned is how few Scots realize that the English have gone away, never to return. The Scottish-English rivalry – it’s one hand clapping. The English just don’t care. The Scots can be as passionate in their distrust as they please. It makes no difference to the Rosbifs.

It irritates, even infuriates, some Scots that English football fans will cheer a Scottish team, club or international, as if it were their own. Not all: I’ve seen Scots hush Scots during an England game when they tried to catcall during the anthems. And England, don’t forget, are still stuck with God Save The Queen, and what that awful dirge has to do with sport or country is anyone’s guess.

I can see the Scottish point of view. I don’t agree with it, but I can see it. It feels patronizing to some, as though the English still regard the Scots as property. They don’t, but that’s a common view here, and because it plays a part it, and those who hold it, need to be understood and taken seriously.

The Scots are now alive to the cost to their politics of the England thing, and there’s what amounts to a consensus that the time has come for Scotland to stand on its own financial feet as much as possible, and that the costs of that are worth the trouble. The England thing has meant a dilution of responsibility – there was always Westminster to blame! but that’s fading fast now as experience of government from Holyrood (a place Westminster could learn from, incidentally) accumulates.

The cost of the England thing in sporting terms is best described as a distortion of ambition. Beating England matters too much. If beating England matters more than e.g. catching Holland or France in the World rankings, then certain things don’t get done. Because England can be beaten in one-off games, like 1967, like 1977, or bested without victory as in 1996 and 2000. But catching Holland requires that Scotland see all that as second class goods – all very well and enjoyable, but not to the point. Letting go to that degree is hard.

We’re not finished with the England thing, but let’s move on to our second obstacle:

Obstacle Two: The Scottish False Football History

It isn’t often said, so should be said more often: the surprising thing about the 1960s is not so much that England won a World Cup, but that Scotland didn’t. England have had periods in their history when they’ve had better players available in greater numbers than 1966. 1946, for instance, or 1957, or 1970. For Scotland, the 1960s were the boom years. I look at the qualification matches for the 1966 World Cup and note that, but for five minutes of madness against Poland at Hampden, Scotland would have matched Italy for points (and beat Italy, too, 1-0 at Hampden. It would have done in 2007..)

In 1970, Scotland had to get past West Germany:

It could have gone either way: had just one of those endless Law headers turned into a goal, Scotland would have gone into their final two games with everything to play for. Up against one of the leading quartet of world sides in 1969, Scotland looked… every bit their equals.

But did they know it? Is that how it felt at the time? Up against a divided country full of American soldiers and shoved up against Russians, unable to stand on its own two feet? Because that’s the thing: you can choose underdog status without realising that you’re doing so, and it leaks all over your talent and ability, corroding what would otherwise shine. It might have occurred to the West Germans that theirs was a client country, with only fifteen years of proper football participation behind them, up against the nation of Stein! and Celtic! a nation whose men sat even until then in tanks in the Rhineland.

I think the first obstacle – the reluctant underdog thing – creates a second: Scotland do not know to this day how good they are at football. On occasion, a sort of pumped-up hysteria is allowed in as a substitute for knowledge, as against Italy in 2007, or in the equally ill-advised Hampden farewell in 1978.

The real story of Scotland’s 1970s World Cups remains to be told. The one that’s out there is inaccurate and unhelpful in the extreme. I refer to what you might call the humiliation scenario, and claims of upset hubris.

The humiliation scenario sets out to portray Scotland’s teams of 1974 and (especially) 1978 as having gone out with big heads and come back with sore ones having embarrassed the nation in the process. That’s one way to describe a winning draw with Brazil and victory over Holland.

I see those two World Cups, and to a lesser extent the (in my view) equally misrepresented 1982 World Cup, as creditable perfomances from a side who had no idea, when all is said and done, of their own powers. A side who went into tournaments full of the knowledge that they’d never proceeded beyond the first round and empty of the knowledge that they wielded a squad containing Law, Dalglish and Bremner..

..and how Capello’s “fear” comes in and works its magic. And how the idea of humiliation and embarrassment leaks in and damages everything in sight.

No one outside Scotland thought them humiliated. Outside Scotland, everyone thought that you’d just about beaten Brazil (and Scotland must have thought themselves up against the 1970 lot to begin with). Outside Scotland, everyone thought you were coping well with Peru by playing your own game, and that it was when you tried to ape the short passes of south americans that things went wrong. And as for the Holland game, no one did better against that great Dutch side, ever: Scotland genuinely beat them, in justice as well as goals, something that neither West Germany (1974) nor Argentina (1978) could claim.

Scotland, in short, took the lessons from their ’70s and ’80s losing World Cups that Argentina could well have taken from their dubious winning ones. And in doing so, Scotland creating a rolling accumulation of pain and disappointment that was both unnecessary then and too much for men to carry now. It’s time for a reassessment.

The self-flagellatingly harsh assessment of Scotland’s World Cup performances has had two powerful effects on subsequent events. First, the weight of perceived failure has led to defeats in important games that would otherwise have been won. In 1996, the unnecessary defeat came against England, who were outplayed on the day, and even a draw would have taken Scotland through to meet France in the second round. How many Scots remember a fighting draw against the Netherlands of Bergkamp, Davids, Seedorf, Reiziger and de Boer? As it was, only a Dutch consolation goal against England kept Scotland out of the next round. Embarrassed? Humiliated?

The other impact is on Scottish players now. How does it feel to fill the shoes of men you are constantly told were legends who.. humiliated Scotland, a humiliation you – you inferior soul you – have to avenge? These players were one scuffed shot against Norway away from a World Cup playoff place this year, but you wouldn’t have known that from the treatment they and the manager received, not just from the press and television, but from their own Scottish Football Association.

Properly organized, the men Scotland has at its disposal are perfectly capable of qualifying for one of the two international tournaments. But not if they are told that they’re a dud generation, lesser men than the heroes who let down their country. That’s too much to carry. It’s the same burden that did for English national teams in the wake of 1966: never as good, never as moral, never as.. English! as the crewcut heroes of yore.

There’s opinion in Scotland that thinks this is a national trait: “we”, meaning the Scots, just kind of.. go in for.. noble inglorious humiliating defeat: it’s part of our identity, part of our history…

..in which case, why do you sing about Bannockburn before matches, and how current would this view be now had e.g. Scotland scored once more against Yugoslavia in 1974, once more against Holland in 1978, and once more against the Soviet Union in 1982?

That’s how close it was, and that’s noble inglorious defeat and national humiliation for you. There’s another way to look at it, one that could help Scotland under a new manager now. But it’s hard to make that kind of change, certainly now when that historical cement has had 30 years in which to set fast.

Even if the trick could be pulled, there’s still another obstacle in the way.

Obstacle 3: Dances of Death

That’s two dances: between the Scottish national team and Scottish national puissance, which we’ve already vaguely touched upon – and between the Scottish national team and the Scottish Premier Division.

There’s nothing wrong, and quite a lot right, with a country choosing to use football to express itself on the international stage. Brazil chose to, quite deliberately, back in the 1920s, before they had any footballing tradition at all. 25 years later, they won their first World Cup, which shows what can be done with determination. Almost a decade after the Brazilian decision, Germany decided that football was a lower class pursuit and that there were better ways to assert one’s nationhood.

Scotland is in the perfect position to choose the Brazilian approach over the German. And it may be about to do so. Henry Mcleish taking on the job of reporting ways of promoting Scottish football is the equivalent of Tony Blair doing the same for England – except that, to match Mcleish, Blair would not have watched Jackie Milburn as a child (which he never claimed to have done, by the way) but have been Jackie Milburn.

There’s only a 5 million population to play with, and not many of that population actually play at present (10% of Dutch turn out in one form or another). But the depth of knowledge and the history is there, and there are good things being done quietly in some of the smaller clubs up and down Scotland that promise much for the future.

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.

As things stand, any Scottish team has to carry not just the hopes, but the perceived reputation of the country on its back. No one outside Scotland thinks that the country is somehow diminished by its footballing performance, and in any case, outside perception of what that performance is is almost certainly higher in Paris or Rome than in Glasgow.

Then there’s the matter of the Scottish Premier Division. Europe’s triumphant overachievers in European and UEFA Cups, over the entire period up to and very much including Celtic’s UEFA Cup Final of a year or two ago: but there’s a perception that when the Premier Division fails, it’s the job of the national team to compensate. Or, when the Premier Division succeeds, it’s the job of the national team to do likewise. With options like those, it would be as well to take “Proud Edward” (by the way – the 1967 songwriters mean Edward II!) out of the tune and replace him with a front two of Scylla and Charybdis.

Conclusion

I don’t think the national side can get away from any of this: it’s the backdrop they’re stuck with. But continue in this vein, and there’s no other future but more of the same: a potentially perfectly competent side carrying too much baggage and fear to play in the way it needs to to achieve what it’s capable of.

There’s no quick or easy way out. But there may be a way out. If the Mcleish report comes up with a sensible development plan that can deliver a steady stream of decent players to back up the ones that are produced more or less by accident as they are now, that, added to the gradual away-from-England, away-from-the-past lensing effect that Holyrood is achieving (albeit by inches) might be enough.

There’s no need for a foreign manager, although I believe a case should be made for the continuing excellent crop of Scottish managers to seek work in mainland Europe more often than they have before now. But Scotland has fine managers. Learn from a Capello, sure: but Scotland’s managers have plenty to teach others. That isn’t the problem.

Flower of Scotland isn’t the problem, although it’s a nonsense and not anywhere near as good as older rivals. Playing the underdog card is the problem. Call it The Fan Delusion if you like: the idea that the emotional experience and attitude of the fan in the stand is the one required by the players on the pitch if they are to succeed. It let Scotland down badly in 2007.

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. Only hysteria and superhuman (“McFadden! James McFadden!”) performances of which you aren’t ordinarily capable will get us there.

It took an Italian goal to clear all that nonsense out of the road. After that, Scotland played an excellent match. Why did they have to give Italy a goal start in order to do that? Because, as things stand, playing for Scotland is eleven impossible jobs. It’s a psychological burden that would bring down an Ali, a Waugh brother, a Michael Johnson. I wish I could see it ever being shifted. In fact, I see it getting worse.

Happy New Year, Craig Levein.

Comments (14)

Advertise Here
Advertise Here