Category Archives: Scotland

The Scottish and Scottish Football

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.

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

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.

A Bit More About Shinty

I forgot to include a couple of pieces of local detail yesterday.

  1. STV News on a Saturday evening goes through the Shinty results in detail, but completely ignores anything English lower than the Premiership.
  2. The Camanachd Cup final is being broadcast live on BBC2 Scotland.

The core website for all this – Shinty.com – is extremely well put together. Compare this and this.

Sport in the Highlands

Newtonmore: Scottish Hydro Premier Division Leaders

Newtonmore: Scottish Hydro Premier Division Leaders

I’m just back from a couple of great days in Newtonmore in the Scottish Highlands. It was meant to be a break from from all of this, but no such luck. Our ground floor hotel room looked out onto the pretty main street in Newtonmore, and at about six o’clock on the Saturday evening, we heard shouting and police sirens. They were coming our way, and, sure enough, moments later, a Police land rover, blue lights flashing, pulled up outside. Behind it was a Strathspey and Badenoch co. minibus – for which it was providing an escort. The bus was full of young women in what looked like Scotland tops, all celebrating wildly. From one window, a hand brandished a silver cup. After a minute’s pause, Police and Cupwinners roared off, no doubt to do the same thing in Kingussie.

Shinty on Saturday: and sure enough, there was.

Shinty on Saturday: and indeed there was.

That’s Newtonmore’s shinty ground. There can’t be a more beautifully situated sports club anywhere in the United Kingdom, what with the Spey running down one side and Cairngorms where lesser sports put stands. We weren’t there to see them maintain their lead at the top of the Scottish Hydro Premier Division – we were good for nothing after an early morning and 10K across the hills – but they beat Oban Camanachd 4-0.

It might give you some idea of how Newtonmore’s season is progressing to reflect that local rivals and second-placed side Kingussie won 13-0 against Glenorchy but still have an inferior goal difference..

Oh, and the Camanachd Cup final is being played in Oban this coming Saturday. It’s between Fort William and Kyles Athletic. You might want to compare Shinty attendances with the lower Scottish football divisions whose results are broadcast right across the UK, because 5,000 people are expected to turn up. That’s the average gate enjoyed by six of the twelve clubs in football’s Scottish Premier Division.

Here are Newtonmore in action:

More on the Decline of Scottish Football

Here are a couple of charts I’ve run up after a few uncomfortable hours hunched over Lamming’s “Scottish Internationalists Who’s Who” (Hutton 1987).

Approximately 107 men played for Scotland across the World Cup years – I’ve gone for 1974-1986 for the sake of simplicity. I acknowledge the 1990 and 1998 World Cups, of course, but I was also looking for reliable place-of-birth information, and on that afternoon I could get that only up to 1987.

The first chart shows the months in which those 107ish players were born:

image (1)

Boys born in September, October or November have a statistically-higher chance of becoming footballers, and so it is here – more or less. March and May are outriders, but that may be down to something peculiar to Scotland or to the smallness of the sample.

Although these are the good years, it’s obvious that talent born later in the year was not getting opportunities. Perhaps school sports should switch to sorting pupils by size and weight, not by age?

The next table shows the years of birth of the 1974-86 internationals:

imageThe men at each end, if you’re interested, are Denis Law in 1940, and Andy Goram and Paul McStay in 1964.

If you DO look at the 1990 squad, you’ll find that only 8 members of the 1986 squad survive – but of the new arrivals, only three would fail to appear on the table above.

What is truly bizarre is that the 1998 squad contains a player – Tosh McKinlay – who WOULD appear (by a matter of days) on the table above, but who featured in neither ’86 nor ’90.

If you extend the table seven years, to 1971, you will be able to include all but three of the 1998 squad, which means – in my opinion – that whatever happened to Scottish football started happening in the mid-to-late seventies and has carried on ever since.

My own feelings on the matter are that the ’74 squad was better than the ’78 one which was better than the ’82, and you get the idea. I can’t imagine anyone disagreeing with me.

Alex Ferguson has said that the best time to develop as a Scottish player was in the 1950s, partly because everyone played all the time – so you could develop your skills at ages 6 and 7 – and because the school setup at that time was excellent. There was comparatively good coaching available in state secondary schools.

But it’s such a small sample. And I’m hopeless at reading stats anyway. Thoughts, people?

What Should Be Done About Scottish Football?

This is really a placeholder from which you are to go to Rob Marrs’ post on the failures of Scottish football and their potential futures. But I have four thoughts to add.

  1. You won’t get Simon Clifford, as he has other fish to fry, but putting someone with that degree of genuine vision and that kind of strength of character and that depth of self-belief in unchallenged charge of youth development in Scotland would do the trick in, say, 12 years. Forgive me for such a crass observation, but there’s so much self-hatred around in Scottish football at the moment, and it’s so visibly getting in the way, that an out-and-out ego with talent and foresight, like Clifford, is badly needed.
  2. The Scottish football media are more excitable, more destructive in their criticism, more localised in their outlook and even more shackled by the past than their English counterparts: there are one or two exceptions, no more. Without the media’s cooperation to some extent, without some willing from that department, it will be very hard to change the atmosphere in Scottish football. There is no chance whatsoever of generating anything like that kind of cooperation from them. Not when there’s an Old Firm derby next week, like there was last week.
  3. There are actually quite a few groundbreaking youth schemes in Scotland, and more happening at club and school level, than meets the eye: things are already getting better.
  4. Managers. One thing about Scottish football of the last 15 years is that it has generated a lot of intelligent men who were violently dissatisfied with their playing careers. Result? There are rather more very good Scottish managers than English ones. Run the list through your head: Ferguson, Moyes, McCleish, Strachan, Levein, Coyle, young Walter Smith, Burley, Calderwood, Paul Lambert, the underrated Paul Sturrock. I’ll have missed more than a few. Darren Ferguson? Ian McParland, Alan Irvine, Billy Davies? There are, so far as I can see, only achievers in that list, and no sign of the timeserving visible in any equivalent list of English coaches.

Perhaps Scottish football doesn’t have the players – or perhaps it does, and it needs someone to tell them that they are players. But it certainly does have the managers. Scottish football has found some drivers, and that’s a start.