The crisis of Scottish football, part 147

This week’s sacking of Scotland manager George Burley won’t make a mediocre generation of players any better.

Duleep Allirajah

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Scottish fitba: where did it all go wrong? This week, Scotland coach George Burley got the sack after a wretched 3-0 defeat to Wales. If you throw in the financial crisis at Rangers and the growing unrest amongst the Parkhead faithful at the erratic performances of Tony Mowbray’s team, it’s clear that things are in a sorry state north of the border. Whoops, must try not to laugh. How is it that a once-proud footballing nation has been reduced to an international laughing stock?

Burley’s record is abject – three wins and eight defeats in 14 games. But the problems run much deeper than a poor World Cup qualifying campaign. The conveyor belt of Scottish talent has ground to a halt. Former Scotland captain Graeme Souness doesn’t think changing the coach will revive the fortunes of the national team. ‘I don’t think if you had Arsene Wenger or Alex Ferguson managing the Scottish team right now the results would be much different’, said Souness. ‘I think the Scottish players right now are a limited bunch.’

If you look at the players at Burley’s disposal you can see that Souness has a point. Darren Fletcher is the only Scot who plays for one of the big four English Premiership teams. Of the rest, most are Championship quality at best. It wasn’t always thus. It used to be the case that the spine of any successful English team was made in Scotland. Look at the great Liverpool teams of the 1970s and 1980s. Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Alan Hansen were integral to their success. The successful Leeds United teams of the 1970s were also built around Scottish players – Billy Bremner, Peter Lorimer, Joe Jordan and Gordon McQueen. Most of these players were good enough to get into the England team. Could the same be said now? Darren Fletcher would probably be a strong contender for the holding midfield berth. The rest? Not a chance.

Why is Scottish football in such a wretched state? Many point the finger at the Old Firm, Rangers and Celtic. Firstly, it is argued that the Old Firm’s duopoly has made the Scottish Premier League about as competitive as an Afghan election. Secondly, they have given up nurturing homegrown talent and gone for the quick fix of importing foreigners.

Okay, admittedly the Scottish league isn’t the most competitive of leagues. The last team outside the Old Firm to win the league was Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen in the 1985-86 season. But Rangers and Celtic’s domination is hardly new. The Scottish league title has been won only seven times in the past 50 years by a team outside the Old Firm. Rangers and Celtic dominated the league when Scottish football was in much ruder health. And they dominate today. There is no causal relationship between the Old Firm stranglehold and parlous state of the national team.

Blaming foreign imports for stifling homegrown talent isn’t a persuasive explanation either. It muddles up cause and effect. The foreign imports are brought in because the production line of talent is broken, not the other way round. Most Scottish clubs simply can’t compete with the financial clout of the Old Firm. A perfect incentive you’d have thought to develop homegrown players. So why isn’t it happening? You can’t blame the Old Firm for the failure of all their rivals to develop players.

Another common explanation is the lack of facilities. A 2006 audit of sports facilities in Scotland found that 75 per cent of grass pitches and 61 per cent of astroturf pitches needed renovation and that the 400 mineral pitches were unfit for football. There is no doubt that grassroots facilities have suffered from decades of neglect. But you have to ask yourself this: what training facilities are available to poor Brazilian kids? Indeed, what facilities were available to Jimmy Johnstone or Jim Baxter when they were growing up in the tenement blocks of Glasgow? The beauty of football is that you don’t need expensive facilities. You just need a ball, jumpers for goalposts, and you can play anywhere: school playground, street, tenement yard.

I’m tempted to say that the Scots have just gone soft – but I’m not sure that explanation really convinces either. Of course kids in Scotland don’t play street football any more. But this is not a uniquely Scottish problem. Where in Western Europe will you find kids playing football on the streets? The Dutch recognised that street football was in decline 30 years ago. To address this problem they developed a loosely supervised small-sided 4v4 format of the game to encourage skill development in youngsters. Have the Scottish football authorities taken any similar action to develop young talent? I think you can work out the answer for yourselves.

The most plausible explanation is the failure of the Scottish FA and clubs to find another way of developing young players after the supply of street footballers dried up. It’s not just about facilities, it’s also about the coaching and technical development of young players. Former Scottish international John Collins thinks that the Scots need to take French lessons. ‘We need to get them under the umbrella of the clubs at a younger age and get them training every day’, said Collins. ‘French kids go into academies at 14 and are full-time. In Scotland they can’t become full-time until 16, but those two years of training every day make a big difference’. Forty-one Premiership and Football League clubs have established youth academies. Scotland, by contrast, has been slow to modernise its youth systems. The bigger SPL clubs have now set up academies, but they are a decade behind England. The Scots are playing catch-up. They may be doing so for quite some time to come.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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