So, we’re only a week into the new season of Scottish football, and already the Old Firm have swept aside their opponents (one of whom, Aberdeen, really should be expected to do better). Meanwhile the national team have lost heavily to Norway, and three teams who started their European campaign were out, mostly to embarrassing opposition, before the SPL had even begun.
Hardly a good state of affairs for the national game to be in. Things really need a radical shape-up and I find my views aligning with much of what Ian Bell has written in today’s Sunday Herald. While the SFA is a sluggish and incompetent organisation, it’s not just a bureaucratic or leadership problem – the demise of Scottish football has its cause in everything from Buckfast to PlayStations, political disinterest to social attitudes, deficient coaching cultures to club mismanagement, greenfield developments to crowded school curriculums.
It’s probably right that there ought to be some sort of national enquiry into how Scottish football could improve and be managed in the future – and that’s not a kneejerk reaction to a string of bad results domestically, in Europe and by the national team, it’s really something that’s festered for so long.
It’s perfectly credible, too, that our clubs and national side could be up there among the best. After all, in the 1970s and 1980s we were among the big boys at both levels, producing a string of great individual players, famous club successes in Europe, and (by today’s standards) respectable performances from the national team. Small countries can be successful – see punches above weight by national sides like Slovenia and Greece in recent years, or Portugal or the Netherlands on a more consistent basis, plus the club performances of at least those last two nations. Consider also our growing successes and reputation (often despite a lack of resources, equipment, media attention or mass participation) in sports like cycling, tennis or snooker.
A national enquiry, commissioned by the Scottish Parliament, wouldn’t just be about naval-gazing either, or even about undue political interference in the national game. If the causes of the problems in Scottish football have roots in everything from community cohesion to our drink problem, then surely to have a long, hard, independent and no-stone-unturned look at the game would be something that is of interest (and potential benefit) to the health, wealth and well-being of the nation as a whole. Findings may even present lessons that are applicable to or have impacts on other nationally-important but struggling sports such as rugby and shinty.
I’m no expert on any of these subjects above, nor a particularly active or partisan football fan. But I do care about the game and its ability to affect the mood of the nation. So here are two admittedly amateurishly-written suggestions that I reckon any national enquiry into football should explore – but which I concede exclude the less tangible changes we need in the attitudes of local authorities, schools, players, families and politicians, which is a massive area I wouldn’t even know where to begin comment:
- Summer football. There were a flurry of reactionary articles in the past few weeks as Scottish teams (club and national) lost to those from countries who play from spring to autumn, and are therefore fully warmed-up when it comes to the start of the European fixtures in July and August. Just because potential Norwegian or Russian opposition do it is no reason in itself for Scotland to do it, but there are plenty more reasons. Our best weather is in the few weeks of the summer in June to August. No matter how well you prepare for conditions, players and pitches are best in good weather, and it’s so much more enjoyable for fans, not to mention safer and less time-consuming to travel in good weather. Football in January or February is – unless we equip all our clubs with decent pitches and potentially indoor facilities like in Norway – a ridiculous concept and it makes no sense that we continue it.
- A football pyramid. With no automatic relegation from the third division to the regional and junior leagues, teams are more likely to go out of business or be punished for maladministration than they are to be removed for football reasons. There’s absolutely nothing to separate the best of the regional and junior clubs with much of the third division, a tier which contains clubs from small population bases and boasting pitiful attendances. I’m not saying those clubs shouldn’t exist, but they should certainly be forced to justify themselves on the pitch as well as off it.
- A merged football authority. It impedes marketing, administration and the overall development of the game from the elite level to the community level that we have several bodies attempting to run the game – the SPL, the SFL, the SFA and no doubt others at the junior and amateur level. Without an integrated body running the show, it’s hard to know who’s actually in charge and who can be held to account for the state of the game.
- Money. Whether from benevolent businessmen, the clubs themselves or the public purse, good sport requires money. Money for teachers and coaches, for decent facilities, for travel and for marketing. Not to say success can be bought, but you certainly can’t have success in your national game with no money at all.
Mind you, it’s not all doom and gloom – I think the ray of light this season is going to come from the first division, which like last year promises to be highly competitive and unpredictable. In last week’s Sunday Herald, all the football pundits’ predictions for the season put Dundee as title winners. I doubt it myself, and reckon it’ll be a close-run fight between them, Dunfermline and Inverness, with Ross County and Partick Thistle not too far behind. It’ll be a cracker in the top half of that division this season, and I really ought to persuade myself to get to a game or two.