Heart of Midlothian arrive at White Hart Lane tonight for what Scottish football (Hibernian fans excepted) fears will be a second ritual slaughter in eight days.
Hearts’ 5-0 drubbing by Tottenham at Tynecastle last week appeared to lay bare the impoverishment of the modern Scottish game. With the Old Firm’s Europa League progress also in jeopardy Scottish clubs’ involvement in European football could be over before August is out. Oh for the Lisbon Lions of so many years ago.
The national team, once more regular World Cup participants than England, last qualified for a major tournament in 1998. They retain an outside chance of a place in the Euro 2012 play-offs, but must defeat the Czech Republic at Hampden Park next month.
It was the away tie in Prague last October which threw into sharp relief the problems facing Craig Levein. Amid much criticism the Scotland manager fielded a 4-6-0 formation in an attempt to snatch a point. Scotland held out for 69 minutes before losing 1-0. This followed a desperate injury-minute home win over Liechtenstein the previous month.
Add the problems that beset the domestic game with last season marred by a referees’ strike and a series of rabid Old Firm matches, plus falling gates, an on-going dispute about re-structuring the league and widespread financial problems, and the state of play in one of football’s birthplaces appears grim.
“It’s not all doom and gloom,” insisted Scottish Football Association’s chief executive Stewart Regan. “We are doing a lot of good things, and we have to remember we are a small nation of five million,”
Indeed, some perspective is needed. In 2009/10, the last available figures, Hearts’ turnover was £8m; Tottenham’s was £120m. Even with Hearts lavishing 115 per cent of revenue on wages Spurs are paying their squad seven times as much. The same night former Spurs’ manager Juande Ramos, now coach of Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk who have spent close to £50m in transfers in the last three years, explained his team’s 3-0 defeat at Fulham by saying: ‘we’re not yet ready to play a team from the English Premier League’.
Confirming the scale of football’s Hadrian’s Wall Rangers, one of Scottish football’s two behemoths, with an average gate of 47,564 and Champions League group stage participation, earned £56m and paid £28m in wages. Wolves, who spent the English season fighting relegation, had a gate of 28,366, earned £60m and paid £29m wages. From these similar figures Wolves made £9m pre-tax profit, Rangers £4m.
This year Rangers have no Champions League income and are unlikely to make any profit. Wolves will because the TV income will keep rolling in. The 20 English Premier League clubs share £1bn from TV (home and abroad) each season, the 12 SPL clubs receive £13m on their domestic deal, and loose change from overseas rights.
However, in contrast to the situation south of the border, where the clubs’ wealth has damaged the England team, the poverty of Scottish clubs should benefit the national side. Stretched to buy from overseas, or even from England’s Championship, clubs are investing in their own. Celtic, who fielded an all-foreign XI under Martin O’Neill, played six Scots at the weekend. The authorities have acted too. Regan, copying an idea from English cricket (his previous post was at Yorkshire CCC) provides financial incentives to clubs who play Scottish youngsters.
While this enhances opportunity, it is of little benefit if the raw material is not there. One of the themes of Scottish football in recent decades is the decline of talent. There was a time when English clubs relied on Scots, from Billy Bremner, Dave Mackay and Denis Law, to Alan Hansen, Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness. And this when good players like John Greig, Danny McGrain and Willie Miller did not cross the border.
In 1972-73 50 Scots figured on the opening day of the English top flight; ten years later the total was 31. By 1992-93 it was 13 and a decade later six. In this respect there has been some progress: Eight started their club’s opening Premier League match this season.
One reason is English clubs’ mass importing of foreign players, but that does not explain why there are significantly more Irish players, nor the poverty of play in much of the SPL which can compare unfavourably to the Championship. Anthony Stokes and John Sutton struggled in the Football League but have prospered in Scotland while Middlesbrough’s heavy investment in Scots last season failed.
In May Newcastle manager Alan Pardew, said: “We have watched the SPL all year and been very disappointed with the quality of the games, even some Rangers v Celtic games have been poor.”
Craig Brown, the last manager to lead Scotland to a World Cup in 1998, now managing Aberdeen, has two main explanations. One is that it is cyclical, a small population will inevitably have dips in production. The other is facilities, or rather, a lack of them, which exacerbate the same socio-economic reasons affecting English youth development: electronic games, poor diet and a lack of school sport.
“Player development should be good because we have excellent coach education,” said Brown. “People like Jose Mourinho and Andre Villas-Boas have come here to do their licence, and look at all the Scots managing in the Premier League. The problem is facilities, that has stuffed us.
“Our weather is not conducive to going out and playing football, not when kids have so many alternatives. We have three indoor full-size pitches in Scotland. I went to Norway, a country with a similar climate 15 years ago; they had 12 back then, and every village had a half-size indoors pitch.”
Belatedly, change is on the way. In 2009 the SFA commissioned Henry McLeish, former first minister at Holyrood, and an ex-footballer with East Fife, to conduct a review of the Scottish game. His report, released in two stages last year, had a raft of recommendations, chief among them a call for £500m to be injected into facilities for youth development.
“We have a crisis on our hands in terms of facilities and infrastructure,” he said, adding there had been “chronic underinvestment”, leading to “chronic underachievement” with club and country. McLeish continued: “Why can Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, have better facilities than a nation that supposedly wants to be a world-class football country?”
“I think there is a disposition to put more money into the game,” said Brown. “There is government support.” There should be. Football remains central to Scottish culture. SPL chief executive Neil Doncaster recently pointed out that despite five years of falling gates his league was “still the best supported per head of the population anywhere in Europe (one in 63 of the population attend matches each week)."
There is political will for change within the game too, far more than in England. Regan, following McLeish’s recommendations, persuaded the SFA council to streamline the decision-making structure and eradicate a stultifying mass of committees. The SFA also shook up youth development overnight, instituting summer football, small-sided games and fewer league tables. The FA have been spending months garnering support for similar reforms.
Scotland have appointed their first Performance Director, the Dutch ex-Southampton manager Mark Wotte. Young players are coming through with Hibernian and Dundee United to the fore, and profiting. The latter sold striker David Goodwillie, Scotland’s young player of the year, to Blackburn this summer for £2m-plus.
Levein’s team, when not ravaged by injuries, can be competitive pushing Spain hard in October before losing 3-2. There is a lack of depth and quality but in Charlie Adam, Darren Fletcher and James McArthur he has a strong midfield to build around.
Lennon, who played in England’s top flight with Leicester, said after the Hearts result Scottish fans should “stop comparing ourselves to England”. He added: “We drool over the English league instead of just concentrating on what we have got, trying to improve it and making the most of it.”
Maybe the model should be Portugal, a smallish country which makes an impact through good youth development and, at club level, shrewd transfer strategies. There is one significant difference - the climate. As Brown and McLeish argue, Scotland’s football future depends on investment in facilities. “I’m not naïve enough to think we’ll get half-billion pounds in this financial climate,” said Regan, “but the government has already provided £5m for investment in 3G surfaces and we are talking about a multi-million investment in a performance centre. We need facilities. When it is dark outside and freezing cold it’s doesn’t encourage kids to go outside.”
Three to watch:
James Forrest (Celtic): The winger, age 20, was given his international debut in Mayafter just 26 appearances for the Bhoys
Paul Hanlon (Hibs): The 19-year-old central defender is already captain of Scotland under-21s and vice-captain of his club.
Lee Wallace (Rangers): Signed for £1.5m from Hearts this summer the left-sided attacking full-back/wide midfielder has five caps. Age 24.
Rankings riddle: Dutch are top and England are somehow No 4
The Fifa world rankings are usually as perplexing as molecular physics or the Duckworth-Lewis method but they outdid themselves with yesterday's list.
Spain are the European and world champions, so surely they top list? Er, no. The Netherlands – whose most memorable recent contribution to world football was the rugged tactics they used in losing to Spain in the 2010 World Cup final – have overtaken them of course. They rose to the top by not even playing.
England, as we all know, crashed out of the last World Cup in hopeless fashion at the last-16 stage, thrashed 4-1 by Germany. They must have tumbled down then? Er, no. They are now up to fourth, above the likes of Brazil, Argentina and Italy, despite their most recent friendly against the Dutch being called off.
Scotland managed to rise six places – to 55th – while the Republic of Ireland are 31st, Northern Ireland 59th and Wales are 117th – behind Haiti.