2007 - 2021

1998 and all That

scotlandbadgeAndorra, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Faroe Islands, Georgia, Gibraltar, Israel, Kazakhstan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Malta, Moldova, Montenegro and San Marino.

Of the 55 member countries of UEFA, these footballing titans are the only nations not to have qualified for a major tournament since Scotland last did, at the 1998 World Cup in France. I was at Celtic Park as an 8 year old to watch us record a routine 2-0 win over Latvia to effectively clinch our place at that tournament, blissfully unaware that a whole generation would become adults without memory of seeing us back at that stage. After the latest shambles last week, another couple of these teams might soon be crossed off before Scotland.

When I was about 15, I chose to write an essay about a “transaction” for a Standard Grade English prelim exam. By that age I really should have known what the word meant, but I got it confused with “transition” and wrote a piece contending that Scottish football was in the middle of a period of change (I failed the paper for not answering the question – lucky it was just a prelim!). I argued that the recent slump in the sport could be attributed to our inability, in contrast to most other European nations, to adapt to a new era in which world class footballers no longer emerged organically from crowded tarmac streets but from multi-purpose academy systems with high-quality facilities and modern coaching. Young people of every western country have playstations and iPhones, yet they still manage to churn out good footballers.

That analysis has become a well-worn cliche, if it wasn’t already at the time, but whether we have embraced those changes or not, the results show no sign of improvement (although one big positive is the relative success of the women’s team, who have just qualified for their first major tournament).

If this is the answer, what, indeed, was the question? In the twelve years since I wrote that essay the Scotland men’s team have found new and creative ways to screw up every campaign, either by throwing it away from a good position or falling at the first hurdle; whether embarrassed at the hands of minnows or going down bravely in good old-fashioned glorious failure. There was Berti Vogts’ draws against the Faroe Islands and Moldova; Faddy’s despairing lunge against Italy which flew agonisingly wide; Ferguson and McGregor’s “Boozegate”; Iwelumo’s inexplicable open goal miss; Craig Levein’s 4-6-0 and his petty stand-off with Steven Fletcher; George Burley and his petty stand-off with Kris Boyd; final day stoppage-time defeats; and two miserable losses in Georgia on the two occasions qualification was genuinely in our hands.

It’s occurred to me Scotland supporters must suffer the biggest investment-reward deficit in international football. The day after the Poland game last year, I went on a brilliant trip with friends to visit our pals in Wales, which helped banish our blues. The pub was mobbed for the Rugby World Cup, but oddly empty for the football later as their team sealed qualification for the first time since 1958. Folk didn’t seem that fussed. By contrast, every campaign without fail, the tartan army descends in its thousands to far-flung corners of the continent. Our 3-0 away loss to an average Slovakia side took place in a seemingly half-empty stadium, with our fans making most of the noise. What other country of five million people regularly packs out a 50,000 seater arena, despite the dismal record on the pitch? Our attendances for domestic football are among the highest per head of population, yet increasingly Scottish clubs fail to make any impact on the European stage.

Maybe the problem is too many spectators and not enough people playing the game. Maybe it’s our chronic diet, or notorious relationship with alcohol. Maybe it’s the old boys network in the SFA; too set in their ways to implement the radical measures needed. Or maybe it’s even our collective defeatism, as if a tendency to bottle it is indelibly etched in our national character. Every time Scotland lose a big rugby or football match (or a referendum goes a certain way), social media explodes with self-flagellant sentiments, grimly and almost masochistically encapsulated by the iconic scene from Trainspotting about how shite it is being Scottish.

All things considered, the success of a particular sport in a country may seem a trivial concern. It’s an indulgence offered by our privilege. There are obviously far more important things in life, both here and in the rest of the world. But as football remains our most popular sport and pastime, it’s clear that improving the game at every level has real implications not only for society’s health and fitness, but for our common self-confidence and morale. Whether things might change someday, or we’re in terminal decline, remains to be seen.

Anyway, next month we brace ourselves for the Auld Enemy at Wembley, possibly Strachan’s final stand. England are at a low ebb themselves, but the thought of being handed a humiliating thrashing isn’t far-fetched.

Then again – a win would put us right back in it…


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  1. punklin says:

    So frustrating wanting our football team (male one at least) to be as full of potential and as successful in its results as many other aspects of our country’s growing self-confidence are.

    How can our struggle for independence be reflected in our leading sport?

    As many answers as commentators, I know, but like many others I yearn to understand how Scotland could at least win a place at an international tournament.

  2. c rober says:

    The working class game , but not working class players?

    There is many reasons why the Scottish game is useless , my personal opinion is that instead of choosing the highest paid players for 100 percent of the team – choices should look perhaps to those on less wages , lower down the food chain and into the div1.

    This is of course of interest of those players , they will play that extra bit , one only needs to look at teams once filled with part time joiners , no not back in the 60s but in modernity – Caley , the giant killers. If a team can play and win , with a fraction of the budget against the mighty Celtic on more than an occasion , then perhaps the heart is missing from our Bravehearts when any game can end their 100k a week career.

    This is not only a Scottish thing , my personal hate is the likes of Ronaldo , when he was at Man U he was worked like a horse. But today in any tournament he sits back and is an opportunist , not a creator.

    Its not a matter of money in developing the game and the players , its a matter of money though , of income – So it is time to outsource , look lower than the premiership for talent , a shop front for those younger keener stars to offer their wares for sale.

    Chq book football has too something to blame , not just because of wages. Celtic , Rangers are just like the Reals and Barcas of the world – its cheaper to buy and bench the talent from the competition , thus festering at the by line , just honed enough in case there is a major fitness upset within 90 mins where they can be sent on. Hardly keeping an athlete at a peak.

  3. bringiton says:

    Norway,at one point,was on the verge of withdrawing from international football due to lack of competiveness.
    We should be doing the same.

    1. James Mills says:

      I thought we had !

  4. Jim MacKenzie says:

    Agree with most of the sentiments in the article. In my opinion Scotland would be regularly qualifying for major tournaments if 4 changes were made.

    1. Competitive schools football where the whole school attends during school time. This should be taken onto regional teams where players are picked on merit creating a pyramid system.

    2. Money put into creating indoor facilities where it is free for anyone under 16. Where does the SFA’s money get spent at the moment? The Scottish Government has a responsibility to invest also for fighting obesity alone.

    3. Referees need to be re-educated to protect players. We have fallen behind other countries because their skilful players can thrive by getting the benefit of the doubt. When Scottish teams play against foreign teams they have to be less physical than they are in the domestic game.

    4. Reduce the amount of youth players being snapped up by clubs and stopped from playing with their mates. Let theme play for enjoyment for as long as possible.

    1. Thanks Jim, great ideas, particularly like the schools idea

  5. Redgauntlet says:

    You can’t expect to have a serious national team unless you take fitba seriously. And guess what, I don’t think the powers that be in Scotland really do take it seriously, despite the press never failing to state the opposite.

    The following need to be sacked ASAP:

    1) The entire board of the SFA
    2) The entire Scottish fitba press corps.
    3) All of the leading youth and under 21 people.
    4) Stuart, Tam and everybody involved with Off The Ball (cheers guys, but we’ve had enough). In Europe, they have radio programmes where they actually discuss football and tactics in a serious way. They analyze, discuss, and inform. The best writing in the Spanish newspapers, including the weekend literary supplement, is on football.
    5) All of the pundits like Willie Miller, Craig Paterson, Murdo MacLeod, Billy Dodds and especially Chick Young. I can’t be the only one who can’t take any more of their crap patter and ongoing dehumanisation of the beautiful game. They contribute to the mediocrity. They talk in cliches and soundbites and set a very low intellectual standard. It’s another representation of the cringe….

    They’re meant to provide the listener with insight. We don’t need clowns and banter. We’ve got plenty of both already…

    I would add Gordon Strachan to that list to get the boot if there was anybody competent to take over from him, but there isn’t.

    As the author rightly notes, events off the park are a constant with the Scottish team. You might expect young, overpaid men to act idiots from time to time, but good managers know how to handle them.

    But it is even worse than that, because it turns out that a string of our national managers are quite happy to match them in immaturity, showing about the same level of emotional intelligence as players 20 years younger than them. Anybody know why Strachan won’t pick Griffiths?

    The drink culture, the bad diet, the mediocrity of Scottish league football, the atrocious weather are make for a perfect breeding ground of crap fitba.

    But the real problem is that nobody seems to take fitba seriously in Scotland any more… except the fans of course. Think of journalists like John Rafferty and Hugh MacIlvaney, and then compare them to the mugs writing today. Think of the great chairmen of Scottish football clubs and compare them to shysters like we have had to endure over the last 20 years in the stands.

    And that’s not even getting to the players…

  6. Redgauntlet says:

    Thesis for a future Phd: examine and investigate the near symmetrical decline of Scottish football and the simultaneous rise of the Thatcherite neo-liberalism model and discuss relations of cause and effect….

    …aye, that Scottish fitba is crap, is Thatcher’s fault too. Because Scottish fitba has been running on a Thatcherite, winner takes all philosophy for years now, thanks to Thatcherite shysters like David Murray…and look where we are.

    No other country in the history of world football has gone from such heights to such depths. Something has gone massively wrong. Hungary are the only possible comparable country, from the halcyon days of the 50’s, to near complete irrelevance.

    As for Gordon Strachan….Chris Martin….one cap…in your first big home game of a World Cup qualifying campaign. Seriously?

    Any schoolboy knows you don’t experiment in such a crucial game as Lithuania at home….Stein would never have done it, Ferguson would never done it, Andy Roxburgh would never have done it either, nor would Craig Brown for that matter…

    …and you get this feeling he has a personal problem with Griffiths. If that is the case, if Strachan is prepared to put a personal issue with Griffiths before the well being of the national team, he’s not fit for the job.

    As for the BBC, why are they interviewing Barry Ferguson? Why is Barry Ferguson even allowed in Hampden Park after he sat on the bench and raised his fingers at the whole nation? What would Jock Stein have done to Ferguson?

    As I say, nobody really takes it seriously…

  7. Redgauntlet says:

    See if I was the Scotland manager at the time of Boozgate, I wouldn’t have just banned Ferguson from the national team, I’d have told him I wanted a word with him, got him in the car and driven him to Berwick, and dumped him there and told him never to set foot in Scotland again…

    …I’d have exiled him.

    As for Tam and Stuart and all the other pundits, and BBC Scotland in general….why not talk about world football? Why not talk about what’s going in leagues all over the world? Why not interview a star coach every week from another football culture? Or a tactician. The Spanish national team could play Scotland off the park, but my bet is your average Spanish football fan knows much more about world football than your average Scottish supporter, because Scottish football s run by parochial, narrow people with no international vision at all.

    And why not devote more time to youth football in Scotland? You know, treat youth football with more respect. What is the point in doing the same show every single week about crap we are and how funny it is?

    It isn’t funny. As for the Tartan Army, well they’re great supporters, but maybe it’s time they actually stopped going to follow Scotland everywhere. You must have cash to burn if you’re prepared to follow the national team over the last two decades, and there’s no questioning their loyalty, but it has maybe now become counter productive. Maybe the Scotland team needs to play in Slovakia without a single Scotland supporter, you know?

    The international image we project is of a really stupid footballing nation. Clueless on the park, and clueless off it…

  8. Craig P says:

    My theory is that the political success of the country and the footballing success are inversely linked. The better one does (great team, Thatcher) the worse the other (indyref, 4-6-0).

    It helps me cope and even enjoy seeing the Scotland football team do so badly…

  9. john young says:

    For whatever reason we in Scotland do not produce Athletic/strong/big players,just watch all of our teams take the field they appear to be “wee bachles”,you might just get away with it if like Chile you are naturally gifted you have good technique but our “wee bachles” do not possess these in almost every sense of the game.I played football as did my father and brother as pros my uncles were also proffessionals so I have the right pedigree and was reckoned by others to be a good player,I played with and against many many very good players in the old Glasgow under-21 league a helluva a lot of them didn,t”make it” I was one,only playing junior I preferred to have a good time.The problem then and to my mind still is that there were very few at club level that had an eye for real talent a helluva lot of “diddies” did make it and so it seems to-day,watching Scotland the other night seems to bear this out,how in Gods name can you come through the ranks yet cannot control the ball from a standing position not to mention whilst moving,who sees or oversees these players? or their development.It is a typical brotherhood/jobs for the boys set up that drags Scotland down and not only in football.There are still good young players going around but for some reason they are at amateur/juvenile level.Look at Celtic with their state of the art facilities up at Lennoxtown yet produce nothing but average players?though they have to my mind at the moment the most seriously talented young bhoy I have seen,he is 13yrs old and from Govan his name is Karamoko Dembele,everybody knows the Dembele,s from Govan don,t they? while you get a chance download the clip of this bhoy on you-tube while you still can he is sensational and won,t last long up here,he is a throw back to the Jinky/Wee Wullie Henderson era we might never see the likes again.We do not have the mix of bloods that the English and to a lesser extent the Welsh have,could be something in that.

  10. Crubag says:

    “As football remains our most popular sport and pastime”

    To be honest, I think “football” is out of touch with how popular it really is. The top five “sports” in Scotland are walking, swimming, keep fit/yoga, snooker/pool, and cycling…

  11. Alf Baird says:

    Many of us laddies who grew up in the 1960’s would play football most of the day, and almost every day. My grandson plays football and he seemed amazed when I recently practised with him that I was able to play keepie-uppie (wi twa fit an the heid), dribble, heed the baw hard, trap it, lob it, pass it accurately, sell a dummie, kick the baw with either foot, and swerve the baw with the outside of my foot. He and his contemporaries are unable to do much of this largely because they do not play with the ball frequently enough, as our earlier generations did. And I’ve not played competitively for almost 40 years – so I guess what we used to call ‘natural ability’ may have something to do with it as well. I would have liked to play more at secondary but the teachers at my state school only allowed rugby, reflecting their private education nae doot – this probably held many back, as did dominant faithers running youth/amateur fitba teams who with bias select their own kids and their mates to play and can unfairly prevent/exclude others from developing. I did play amateur in Germany while working there (1980) and thought the players in general far more respectful (in tackling, fouling etc), and intelligent, and the play more technical compared to Scotland where everybody still seems to run aboot like heidless chickens kickin lumps oot o each ither. My favourite Scottish player was Sandy Jardine, the epitome of composure and highly intelligent too, and probably the best Hearts player I ever saw, and as a Hearts fan I happily paid money to watch the great George Best at Easter Road.

  12. john young says:

    Alf,ball work/ball work/ and then some more from the earliest age until around 11/12yrs,I have my grandson doing everything with a ball,walking/running/standing anything all with the ball until they become so conversant with it,so that it becomes second nature becomes a part of them not apart from them,watching the Inverness team v Rangers it amazed me that there were still “hoofers” on the park,still guysthat couldn,t get the ball down quickly couldn,t pass if they did manage if they did,how can these players come through a myriad of teams with coaches e.t.c.? it baffles me totally.

    1. Alf Baird says:

      Aye John, I think we’re right, bairns need to play with the ball far more often, but maybe too many IT distractions today, as well as coaches who think they can ‘teach’ people to play football, forgetting real skill is often a natural gift. On your other point about the ball becoming part of them, I ended up playing amateur snooker (Scottish Boys Champion 1974 plus various senior titles) and recall the need for the cue to become virtually another part of your anatomy! I found similarities with football in the notion of ‘weighting’ in terms of passing the ball and the same was crucial with the snooker/billiard balls (e.g. ‘drop’ shots, follow throughs, cannons etc). John Robertson was a century break man.

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