Scottish Football is all but dead, holding on by life support with little hope of ever waking again.
That’s more or less the sad conclusion I’ve come to recently. Now, I freely admit it could be because my team – Celtic – aren’t having the best of seasons. But I’ve been there before. I grew up through the 1990s and went to a school full of Rangers fans, so I don’t think it’s just that – although the fact they are so bad, and not just in Scotland, is probably part of the bigger problem.
My first ever football match was a World Cup warm up match against Poland ahead of Italia 90 as Scotland were preparing to take on Costa Rica, Sweden and Brazil. The 1990 tournament was the fifth in a row that Scotland had qualified for and people were now used to watching us fail in the group stages in Germany to Argentina to Spain to Mexico and then to Italy.
Ahh those happy days.
Later we qualified for Euro 92 in Sweden, missed out on World Cup 94 but made up for it by getting to Euro 96 in England before returning to the World Cup in France 98. The 90s was a period in my life where my club team sucked, with the exception of that summer in 1998 where for a brief moment club and country looked good – but for the most part the national team cheered me up throughout that decade.
Then Scotland sucked as we lost that playoff to England and went through the Berti Vogts era, but it was fine because my club team took over and I watched them beat some of Europe’s finest teams. All of that culminating not in a UEFA Cup final – which was brilliant – but for me, my all time football highlight, beating the mighty Barcelona.
I was there. Best trip ever. My voice has never recovered from singing all the way out of the stadium. We were THAT high up.
But now they suck too. If Celtic played Barcelona tomorrow, I’d be hiding behind the couch. We can’t even beat Sion, and they’re rotten.
Back before my football awakening, even before the national team qualified for every World Cup going, Celtic were one of the best teams in Europe. At home they won nine in a row, while abroad they were regular participants in European Cup quarter finals and semi finals in that same period. They weren’t alone either, with Rangers usually somewhere in the latter stages of one of the other two tournaments and several other Scottish clubs doing likewise.
Of course, 1967 was probably the high points of Scottish football. We gubbed the world champions in their own stadium – the first team to do that since they lifted the trophy – Celtic were crowned European champions, Rangers lost in the Cup Winners Cup final, and Kilmarnock were semi-finalists in the Fair Cities Cup. You find me a better season than that for Scottish Football and I’ll be amazed.
Sadly, if 1967 was the high point then 2011 is probably the low point. All of our teams were knocked out of Europe before August – something which had never happened in the history of European competition which started in 1955 with Hibernian making the semi finals of the very first European Cup. Yeah, first again. We’ll forget the fact that Celtic got reinstated to this season’s Europa League, on the field they were still knocked out. The national team were third in a group which was pretty much a bye for the reigning World and European champions Spain – a very poor Czech Republic team pipped us to the second spot, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Montenegro beat them in the playoffs. When it comes to the European stage, Scotland are nobody.
What about domestically? Well it’s scary reading there too. There are stories of both Rangers and Hearts being on the brink of administration, and they’re just the tip of a financial mess that the game is in. In this calendar year both of the cup competitions have been sponsored by the government because no one wants to be associated with them. The majority of SPL sides downsized their squads in the summer in an effort to cut costs. Money has completely ruined the game the world over, and no one is investing any in Scotland to even give us a bit of hope that it might recover here. We’re more or less waiting on the rest of the world going bust to catch up now.
I wonder how we got into this mess. The Celtic man in me – and several others I know – says “David Murray did it”. Well, him, Lawrence Malborough and David Holmes combined. If you look back before Graeme Souness came in as manager, we can see the 1985/86 table has Celtic at the top having pipped Hearts to the title on the final day. Dundee had been the team to stop Hearts and they had finished level on points with Rangers – who were fifth. Aberdeen and Dundee United both finished well above them in one of the last times that the race for the title was exciting and didn’t just involve the big two. I certainly can’t think of the last time that as many as four teams were still in it so late in the season.
But with English clubs banned from Europe, Souness was able to come in and buy up England’s top players with the promise of European competition as a carrot to dangle. When the English clubs returned to Europe they knew things had to change and the Premiership was born. Money in the game went mad and kept spiraling out of control to the point that we Scotland can’t even compete with the lower leagues in England, let alone the top league.
The truth is, David Murray and his predecessors saw an opportunity which paid dividends, but that’s not what caused the problems we have now. The response to Rangers opportunistic moves were the real catalyst. Murray, having tasted the top, then tried desperately to keep up with the demands of a rejuvenated Rangers support. The rest of Scottish Football, in turn, tried to keep up with Rangers. By the turn of the Millennium, most of the clubs were skint and only Celtic had any resources to give Rangers a bloody nose. Celtic did that for a couple of years before they themselves reigned in their spending again while Rangers had to respond to Celtic’s challenge and just made their own problems worse still. The pair of them have more or less been downsizing since with varying degrees of success. Gordon Strachan and Walter Smith should both be praised for continuing the dream despite working with so little compared to their predecessors.
Despite the downsizing, I got an offer letter for Celtic’s visit to Ibrox this season that suggested each ticket would cost £42. I declined the offer, it just wasn’t worth it any more. It cost me less to see Larsson, Sutton, Lambert and Lennon playing against the likes of the De Boer brothers, and it no doubt cost less again when the home support would have been watching the likes of Laudrup and Gascoigne playing against Van Hooijdonk, Cadete and Di Canio.
Is it any wonder that at almost every football stadium in the country you can see empty seats when the fans are being asked to pay more and more for a product that offers less and less? Okay, so the global economy probably hasn’t helped that, but where’s the incentive for the fans to turn out any more? Loyalty and faith is running what’s left of the game, nothing more.
But more importantly, is there any way out of this mess we find ourselves in? Or is it only a matter of time before we pull the plug on our game’s life support machine? Probably not while we spend our time quibbling over 10 or 12 or 14 team leagues, and which fans are singing which songs at each other. It all smacks of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic to me.
I’m not asking for a return to the heights of 1967. But even a return to 1986, 1990, 1998 or 2004 would be nice about now.