Their national team has been on a soul-sapping wane ever since the 1980’s, one of their big two sides has been missing from the top flight for almost five years after mismanaging finances and the world seems to have given up on the commercial future of the sport in the nation, but it’s hardy inhabitants have remained admirably loyal to the system. No, it’s not some dilapidated Eastern European country or a principality in deepest, darkest South America, this is the story of a nation rather closer to home, in fact just north of the border (as I’m sure you’ve guessed from the title) if you live here in England, a veritable ocean of cash and prosperity for football in the modern age. While one UK territory is counting its stacks of billions, sitting pretty on a golden throne paid for by foreign investors, its brother-in-arms has been left to a life of scrimping and dreaming of a brighter future whilst stuck with an outdated and stale system. On the weekend of both the Manchester and Old Firm derbies, I don’t think these two fixtures have shown so many glaring opposites in their considerable histories, and it is painful to witness, especially considering how good Celtic and Rangers, amongst others, actually were in the past. What better build-up, then, to a blog about the past, present and especially the future of Scottish football, and how it is struggling to keep up in a world that is considerably different to the one which Kenny Dalglish, Ally McCoist, Paul Gascoigne or even Henrik Larsson graced during their vastly impressive footballing careers.
Let’s get it clear, the Old Firm derby is still a season-defining fixture for all involved in Glaswegian, as well as Scottish, football, but it doesn’t quite boast the big names and high-quality offerings that would engross viewers from around the world and force the likes of Sky Sports and BT Sport to really offer them the type of air time and build-up they would, for example, ironically hand the Manchester derby. Basically, Scottish football is being ignored, with the exception of possibly just this fixture, by the world’s sporting media, for a number of obvious, and a few less glaring reasons, which seriously hamper any thoughts the heads of the SFA (Scottish Football Association) or the SPFL (Scottish Professional Football League) may have of drawing in the investment like their English cousins have. I’ll take you through these reasons, detailing how each has restricted the roaring lion that could be Scottish football, in a straightjacket from joining their English, Spanish, Italian, German and French counterparts on the other side of the prison bars, and how they could possibly be fixed. So follow me over the border and into the land of – forgive the cultural stereotypes - William Wallace, Haggis, Irn Bru and Kilts as we go from the Old Firm to Queen of the South vs Stranraer, Hearts vs Hibs to East Stirlingshire vs Stenhousemuir and of course East Fife vs Forfar on a whistle-stop tour, exploring the upsides and drawbacks of being a small nation in a big footballing world in 2016.
Well, first off, as we enter Scotland, it should be said that this is only a micro-nation (inside the UK, but more than likely soon to be outside of it) of around 5 million people, which has overachieved culturally and economically on the world stage, much like the rest of the UK, over its considerable history. Given it’s rocky, dramatic and challenging terrain, especially prevalent in the vast Highlands and numerous isolated islands in the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean, it is plain to see why, despite being only 1.63 times smaller than England in land mass, its population is only one eleventh of the English total (of 55 million, in case you were struggling). From a population of 5,000,000 (or just above), then, I should imagine that the cut of those who are fit, youthful and willing enough to become semi-professional (male) footballers is fairly small, especially compared to England, around 100,000-250,000 people I would assume (this is including a number of players who might turn to other popular sports such as Rugby, Tennis, Golf, Athletics or Tossing the Caber). From this, only 30,000 or so will ever make it far enough every decade, with the requisite skill, to reach the squads of SPFL clubs, most of which will be in League Two or League One, rather than the actually professional (as England would rank them, a study showed Ross County players in 2013/14 earned £692 a week despite being in the top division) Championship or Premiership. So, summing up, the talent pool is pretty small for Scottish clubs to prosper with, so they do, at the top level, have to import overseas talent to cover the needs of the managers, who have pretty high expectations (especially Brendan Rodgers, considering he’s had the budget of Liverpool to work with before), as well as the fans, who want to see a high standard of football.
As if a lack of quality home-grown players wasn’t bad enough, the lack of professional or semi-professional clubs to go with it, limiting the opportunities for the small number of players, is a terrible shame for any chance Scottish football may have of making a prosperous path for itself decades down the line. Seriously, in the SPFL, which consists of four leagues, there are only 42 sides, with 12 in the Premiership, and 10 each in the Championship, League One and League Two. This means there is only an average of one ‘professional’ club every 1907 km2 (about the size of West Sussex), whereas in England it would be every 1417 km2 (slightly less than Greater London). But while all of England’s clubs only have to play each other club in their league home and away every season, Scottish Premiership clubs have to either play each side three or four times a season, depending on where they finish after 33 games (as the league then split into two halves), and Championship, League One and League Two sides have to play each other four times. The only reason for this is fulfilling the fixture quota and drawing out a season on par with other leagues, which is honestly not a good reason to segregate sides, when it could be (in theory) so easily changed. You must get sick of the sight of some sides if you have to play them four times every season, maybe even five if you draw them in the cup, especially if you lose each time. It can’t be a good thing for clubs, nor for supporters.
Linking in to my next point, it certainly hasn’t had a wide-ranging positive effect on the commercial side either, as which self-respecting company would want to invest in such a drawn-out, tedious and stale competition? Aah yes, Ladbrokes of course, who paid what, in comparison to Barclays, EA, Nike, Carling and TAG Heuer in the Premier League, would seem a measly fee of £4 million for two years’ worth of sponsorship of the entire SPFL. In all probability, they were the only serious candidate for the sponsorship in the end, as their whole business relies on sports fans using them, and in comparison, it would be useless for large global brands to invest in a league that fails to capture even the imagination of some of the fans inside Scottish borders.
Why doesn’t it though? Well, there is a palpable lack of competition between clubs, most prominently in the Premiership, for the title, and also for the top three places. The disparity between Celtic, their nearest challengers Rangers and Aberdeen, and the rest of the top 12 sides in Scotland, is horribly wide, to the extent where you can literally guess the placings in the top league in the space of a minute, and probably be one or two teams off it being perfect. To have the same champions of your nation for the past five years is embarrassing really, and in England it would be lead to wide scale changes (maybe not by the league, but clubs would look to foreign owners to provide an injection to put them in contention), but the SPFL just doesn’t seem to want to discuss the matter. What is the point of clubs with proud histories like Kilmarnock, Motherwell, Dundee and Inverness CT actually existing if all they are going to do is remain mid-table for half a decade, maybe win one of the two cups by nature of Celtic’s lack of rest forcing them into rare slip-ups, and just fail to ever challenge the best two or three sides? What is the motivation for supporters to come back every week right now, considering they are very aware they don’t stand a chance against particularly Celtic or Rangers?
Honestly, I think I would give up if I were a fan of a club in the mid-table obscurity of Scottish football, as other than loyalty to your hometown side, and getting together with your mates every week, I don’t see any benefits. You could argue the same about clubs like Stoke, West Brom or Swansea in England (or Wales, if you’re being picky about the geography), but I’m sure the response would be that they all have a fair chance of beating any of the top seven clubs (who all stand a chance of winning the title), whereas those in Scotland only ever rarely come out victorious against the Hoops or the Gers.
This whole combination of problems creates a vicious cycle that harms the progress of clubs in all four top divisions in Scotland in the 21st Century. First off, if clubs can’t keep producing young players it will lead to there being fewer clubs competing, less competition and therefore greatly shortened chances of sponsorship offers flying in, which means clubs can’t invest in the top talent, as other leagues keep upping prices for players. Whilst Championship clubs in England can afford to pay up to £15 million for a leading players (if you are Newcastle, Aston Villa or Fulham rather than Burton Albion), even Celtic rarely break the £5 million barrier. In fact, only last summer, the Bhoys set the new Scottish transfer record by signing Jozo Šimunović for what is, in the 2010’s, a reasonably pathetic £6.38 million, especially for a player who has only made eleven appearances for them so far, and was only a matters of hours (and an agreed final fee) away from leaving for Torino this summer. It’s sad to see Scottish football in such a state after its glory days in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, when it had all the best Scottish players at some stage in their career (other than Denis Law, who escaped to Huddersfield and then Manchester without ever playing in his homeland), as they can’t even attract players of the calibre of mid-table Premier League teams to Celtic or Rangers these days.
Going into this weekend’s Old Firm, the best battles fans were hoping to see were seriously Scott Brown vs Joey Barton, Scott Sinclair vs Lee Wallace and Kenny Miller vs Kolo Toure. The first two are a failed Scotland captain and a man more famous for his Twitter musings rather than his steely play, the next battle is between a prodigy who never made his way in the world and a humbly loyal captain who has spent the past four years working up from League Two, and the latter duo are washed up from the glory days of their careers. Having these kinds of players as your main draws to the biggest match of the season in the entire Premiership is pretty poor on the accounts of the league system, which fails to support clubs with funding. I bet these clubs are dying to be given the opportunity to bring in higher quality players, as seriously foreign owners won’t want to be investing in the SPFL in its current state, as it won’t reward them with notable profits if they do succeed.
Let’s be a bit more upbeat though. Looking at the league on paper, it has everything it should need to succeed financially; three very competitive top sides, plenty of great stadiums which are effortlessly filled every week with thousands of passionate fans, considerably history and continental opportunities for those at the top. But somehow, the equation of adding all these aspects together doesn’t seem to fit. Why that is, when the clubs seem to have everything sorted, has got to come down to the SPFL and their organisation of the not only the Premiership, but all four professional leagues, and the SFA for their governing of all football in the nation, failing to produce more footballers or professional/semi-professional sides. I’m not sure Celtic and Rangers could do more as clubs if I’m honest, as they sign the biggest names they can for their small budgets, and provide rocking atmospheres, ranked as some of the best in Europe, drawing cameras from BT Sport and Sky Sports to Glasgow for their matches, even if they are rarely paid the same amount of attention as any Premier League match, even Hull vs Burnley.
But how do you fix so many problems that seem so entrenched into the Scottish system, especially since the SPFL is unlikely to change any time soon, having adopted its current regime in just 2013, after merging the broken-off SPL (Scottish Premier League) with the rest of the national leagues? In truth, there has never been much certainty in Scottish football; they change the system more often than Jack Wilshere gets injuries (well, maybe not quite, but they have made five adaptations, appeals and drastic U-turns over the past 40 years in order to reach the current conclusion). Considering all the downsides to the SPFL in 2016, including most dramatically a complete lack of serious, financially all-rewarding, sponsorship to help grow clubs, their academies, facilities and grounds, not to mention add to wage budgets. If clubs don’t have enough money to do this, surely you as the organiser of that very sponsorship should be doing a better job, going on a charm offensive across the world to find some decent sponsors who would have the optimistic foresight to buy into the dream, which would afford clubs the budgets to become competitive again and grow the league.
If clubs had a larger starting budget, then they could play attractive, camera-friendly football, which engrosses fans from the most obscure corners of the earth, encouraging new sponsors to invest in individual clubs, which would vastly increase competitiveness in the league, as Celtic and Rangers are the only clubs with brands big enough right now for big companies to pour their money into. Just imagine what would happen if the likes of St Johnstone, Hamilton Academicals or St Mirren (I mention them because I just resigned from my role as manager of them in FM16, in the year 2034) had sponsors on par with Magners, Dafabet, 32Bet and New Balance like those big boys in Glasgow. Maybe I’m thinking a bit too far ahead, but I seriously believe the SPFL have to be this optimistic if they want to succeed, and they have to instil that self-belief into the money men if they want their system to succeed, and Scottish football to be revitalised and brought into the modern age. In truth, it needs a shock to the heart to give it the hard-to-stomach truth that it has fallen at least 20 years behind the times of the big leagues like the EPL.
They haven’t got the know-how, the tech-savvy, charming attitude towards football and any possible sponsors that they need if they want to make Scottish football a real force to be reckoned with, up there at least with the Dutch, Portuguese, Turkish and maybe even Belgian leagues (yes that’s how far they’ve fallen for me) in 2016. They haven’t got world-famous stars, clubs competitive in the Champions League or the battles in their own domestic division to rival those others I’ve just mentioned, and that is where they are failing. But there’s no doubt though that Scotland has the scarily passionate fans on par with, or arguably far superior, to these other nations. So, to paint a picture for you to simplify the subject, they have the fertile earth to plant the seeds of success in, it’s just those at the SPFL aren’t very good farmers, and all their crops keep dying on them. Certainly what they need to do now though is assess their situation; are they actually happy with it, and if not why? Where can they improve things for the better of the game, for Scottish fans and overall for the future of the sport in such a complex and fast-moving nation? Well, that’s for them to say I suppose, but I’ve assessed the situation, as I’m sure many fans and journalists have, and I don’t think Scotland is getting the best deal for its national sport in the 21st Century. We just have to hope the SPFL can take their rose-tinted glasses off and see things the same way.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!