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.