Offside, 11 November

Why is Scottish fitba in such wretched health?

Duleep Allirajah

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‘When I took over, Scottish football was knackered. It was on its last legs’, said Berti Vogts shortly before he was sacked as Scotland manager.

Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of Herr McVogts’ ill-fated tenure was to leave the Scottish team even more knackered than when he took over in February 2002. The Scotland team, currently sixty-eighth in the FIFA world rankings, is now the undisputed laughing stock of British football.

The plight of Scottish football has long been the source of much soul-searching north of the Hadrian’s Wall and considerable mirth in England (we know the sweaties were cheering when Maradona scored with his hand in 1986 and we haven’t forgotten). But, putting schadenfreude to one side for a moment, why is Scottish fitba in such wretched health?

The English professional game has always relied on a steady flow of Scottish talent south of the border. Every successful English team would have once had Scottish players at their core. Where would the all-conquering Liverpool teams of the 1970s and 80s been without Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen, or Graeme Souness? But times have changed. Now there are just a handful of Scots holding down regular first-team places at Premiership clubs. Manchester United’s Darren Fletcher has captained Scotland but is still only a fringe player at Old Trafford.

Some critics have said that the Scottish Football Association (SFA) was wrong to appoint a foreign coach. It is true that, while the Scots have forgotten how to play football, some of them still know how to manage. But whoever takes over from Berti Vogts will face a thankless task, because the players at the new manager’s disposal are simply not good enough. Would David Moyes or Graeme Souness risk irreparable damage to their reputations by managing a bunch of no-hopers? I can’t see it myself. Gordon Strachan is currently ‘in between jobs’ but it remains to be seen whether he is prepared to trade the comfy Match of the Day sofa for the privilege of being gobbed on by the Tartan Army.

Invariably, the influx of foreign players has been blamed for stifling the development of homegrown Scottish talent. If you watch an Old Firm game these days you could count the number of Scottish players on one hand. But blaming foreign imports is a lazy excuse. English clubs also rely heavily on overseas players but are still capable of developing talented homegrown players.

The financially impoverished professional league system in Scotland has also been blamed. It is true that the Scottish Premier League is about as competitive as a North Korean election and that, outside the Old Firm, Scottish clubs are struggling financially. But lack of money ought to provide an incentive for developing homegrown talent. If clubs have opted to spend their meagre resources on third-rate Scandinavians instead of investing in youth development, that’s their own fault.

Some commentators have pointed to the demise of street football in Scotland as the root cause of the current crisis. ‘Traffic means kids can’t play on the streets. Parents won’t let them go to the parks which have not yet been concreted over. Teachers don’t see it as their job to run the school team and the cycle of decline seems never-ending’, laments Scottish Nationalist MSP Kenny McAskill. But the decline of street football is not just a Scottish phenomenon. You rarely see small boys, jumpers for goalposts, playing football on the streets of England, but, through youth academies and centres of excellence, talented young players are emerging. Scottish clubs have established academies but these are still in their infancy.

Perhaps there is a simpler explanation. I’ve long held the suspicion – admittedly unsupported by any evidence – that ever since the coal mines, steel mills, and shipyards closed down, the Scots have simply gone soft. In one of the many inquests into the demise of Scottish football that I’ve seen, the writer bemoaned the absence of indoor football facilities. Similarly, a recent SFA review of youth football stated that ‘Scotland’s weather, geography and declining population have had the combined effect of fewer young players being involved’.

Indoor facilities? The weather? Football’s universal appeal lies precisely in the fact that you don’t need expensive facilities to play the game. Did the likes of John ‘Dixie’ Deans, Denis Law or Jim Baxter develop their skills at indoor facilities? Of course they didn’t. Scottish kids wouldn’t have been deterred by a little frostbite in the past. They would have quite happily kicked a ball around in subzero temperatures for hours on end. If young Scots today don’t play football because it’s too cold there is only one conclusion to be drawn: Scotland has become a nation of big Jessies.

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spiked-issue: Sport

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