By Kevin Williamson
Football is a simple enough game. It’s all about possession. You find space, collect the ball and pass it to a team-mate. When the opportunity arises you take a shot at goal. What’s so difficult about that?
The best teams in the world follow this simple formula. When they get it right they mesmerise and entertain us. Watching a team like Barcelona ripping apart opposition is like watching pinball. The ball pings from player to player, from defence to midfield to attack. Each player is comfortable with the basic concept of cushioning a ball and passing it in a single movement. There is an ebb and flow of direction and pace not dissimilar to the movement of poetry or music.
Scotland versus Lichtenstein. 7th September, 2010. On paper the Scotland team looks strong enough to canter this one. The national team is comprised of the best players plying their trade for the likes of Celtic, Rangers, and Manchester United. However, as the great Bill Shankly once observed, football is a game played on grass not paper. What happened on the park was a shambles.
But what went wrong? Or more to the point why was the Scottish national team incapable of playing simple direct passing football that cuts through a team of amateurs like a hot knife through butter? Why do professional footballers in Scotland collect the ball. Stop. Look around. Take a few steps forward. Then run into an opponents legs or give the ball away? What is that all about?
Despite the palpable relief at an uber-late winner, and the inevitable recriminations, the after match analysis from manager, players, and media commentators was banal. Nobody seemed to be asking the important question of how we got into this pickle. Why can the top Scottish footballers not pass a ball properly? Why is their off-the-ball movement so poor?
I’d go further and ask: Which players in the Scottish national team are comfortable with the basic concept of one-touch football? Leaving aside the leaden-footed huddies in central defence the midfield gives us some clues.
The engine room of a creative football team is always the midfield. Craig Levein selected Scott Brown of Celtic, Darren Fletcher of Manchester United, and Lee McCulloch of Rangers for the tough job of dominating the midfield of the mighty Lichtenstein (population: half that of Inverness).
In descending order of ability: Darren Fletcher is the only genuine world-class outfield player at Scotland’s disposal. He’s the engine room of the Manchester United midfield; a box-to-box runner who puts himself about. Scott Brown is an enigma wrapped in a fish supper. He’s the engine room of Glasgow Celtic; a box-to-box runner who puts himself about. Does Brown make the ball work for him. It’s debatable. Lee McCulloch on the other hand is, well, a box-to-halfway line runner who puts himself about.
Around them are James McFadden, Kris Boyd, and Kenny Miller. Kris Boyd is the quintessential Scottish target man. A bustling striker who is incapable of one-touch football, who doesn’t run about much, but is selected to get in about the defence and score goals. In European terms this would be considered quite pish. This one trick pony might bang them in for an SPL team but in the English Premiership he’s been found out.
Kenny Miller is another enigma, a bust-a-gut runner who uses his speed to slip off the shoulder of the last defender. When it comes to one-touch football he’s a lot better than some of the others around him. He likes to run at defenders with the ball at his feet and make space for himself. In this respect he’s more of a European style player. McFadden is the class act in the team, on occasion, but he too prefers to run at defenders with the ball at his feet.
But when it comes down to it run, run, run and hoof, hoof, hoof, seems to be the Scottish style of football. And then mostly when the ball is at the players feet. The stupefyingly simple concept of off-the ball movement and passing your way through opponents seems to be lost on Scottish football. Our national team often struggles to string a few forward passes together. Time after time the ball is given away and we revert to hoofball from the back. It’s embarrassing to watch.
Only once in the last ten years have I seen a Scottish manager successfully instil into his players the concept of one-touch passing football. It didn’t always work but when it did the Hibs team under Tony Mowbray played the most beautiful football seen in Scotland since Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen.
In training Mowbray’s players were penalised if they played the ball above shoulder height. The Hibs players often cushioned the ball and passed in a single movement. Ping. It didn’t always come off but when it did it was a joy to watch. This was a team you paid good money to see. The commentators salivated. When things clicked into place the Old Firm, like every other team in Scotland, chased shadows. Hibs under Mowbray regularly went to Glasgow, destroying both Celtic and Rangers, often scoring three goals in the process.
But the Mowbray-inspired Hibs team were an aberration in the otherwise downward spiral of Scottish football. Scottish football is dominated by two lumbering behemoths: Celtic and Rangers. Successful Old Firm managers such as Walter Smith, Alex McLeish, Martin O’Neill and Gordon Strachan had little interest in ripping the opposition a new arsehole by playing fast attractive one-touch football. It wasn’t their philosophy. Instead they relied on power, strength and runners. It got results. Zzzzzz.
The much-lauded (but rarely analysed) attacking philosophy of Glasgow Celtic wasn’t based on a modern continental-style one-touch passing game but on an archaic 2-3-5 philosophy of Jock Stein where players put their heads down and ran at opponents with the ball at their feet.
The tricky wee wingers of the Willie Henderson and Jimmy Johnstone era were the template for the Old Firm’s archaic brand of attacking football. These dazzling wingers were supplemented by overlapping full backs in the mould of Tommy Gemmell, Danny McGrain or Sandy Jardine. The aim was always to wiggle, jink or pound down the wing hoping to sling in a cross for the big target man. Chris Sutton or Kris Boyd anyone?
And what, you may wonder, about defence and midfield? The defence – or back four – is not a pressing problem for Scottish football. Except when it comes to movement and passing. At higher levels Scottish football invariably has to rely on robust defending against technically superior opposition. Our tactics have evolved to make Scottish teams “hard to break down.” We can hold our own in defence.
The midfield on the other hand is invariably filled with workhorses and runners rather than cultured thoughtful footballers. Which successful European club sides use this antiquated Old Firm template for football? None. And I suspect that school coaches in Italy are not showing kids DVDs of the latest Old Firm thumpathon.
Lionel Messi described it as “anti-football” after one such encounter at Ibrox in 2007. Glasgow Rangers scud-all draw at Old Trafford recently was about as good as an Old Firm team can hope for these days. It was pitiful to watch and showed that nothing had changed at Ibrox in the three years since the visit of Barcelona. (In between Rangers had bored rigid a European TV audience in a cup final and got what their brand of anti-football deserved: SFA.)
Rangers outgoing manager Walter Smith blames a disparity in money between his team and the big guns. Apart from the mindless irony of the remark when related to the SPL this embarrassing draw with Manchester United illustrated what is surely the biggest problem in Scottish football:
The Old Firm financially dominate Scottish football but their heads-down-no-nonsense-mindless-running philosophy is holding back the development of the game here.
The recent experience of Tony Mowbray as Celtic manager sums up the state we’re in. Tony Mowbray is a bright intelligent young manager who wants his teams to play attactive passing one-touch football. On the ground that is rather than in the sky.
Mowbray took a critical look at the sort of players at Parkhead who had been moderately successful (in domestic competitions) under Gordon Strachan and what he saw was essentially a team of runners, hoofers and cloggers. So he simply binned the bulk of his first team! His intention was to rebuild Celtic from scratch as a footballing side in the continental mould.
The immediate result was always going to be a period of disruption as the club was reconstructed into his way of thinking. Games were lost and drawn, naturally, as wholesale change was instituted. Temporarily this passed the domestic initiative over to the cloggers and runners at Ibrox who, comfortable with their own brand of result-achieving mediocrity, cantered ahead in the league.
A vocal majority of Celtic fans didn’t understand what was happening and resorted to the usual whiney recriminations that are the meat and one veg of Glasgow football. The fans in the East End of Glasgow couldn’t handle the pain and humiliation of not winning everything every year. ‘Boo hoo’ became ”boo boo’ and Tony Mowbray walked just half way through his first season in charge.
It’s a moot point what would have happened if Mowbray had been given a few years in charge at Parkhead. Perhaps he could have changed Scottish football forever by forging a successful team who played the beautiful game like other successful European teams. But that would presuppose that Celtic fans understand how the game should be played, and were prepared to give him time. But their yardstick, as always, is beating the wife. If she’s no trailing behind, laden down with the shopping, then they slash their wrists.
Learning to pass a football and move into space is at the heart of the problem for the Old Firm and for Scottish football. The philosophy of running at the opposition with the ball seems to be deeply rooted at every level of the game. Will it ever change?
The most obvious solution would be to say adios to the Old Firm. This might help in the short term. But there’s no point getting our hopes up as it’s not going to happen anytime soon. No other league wants them. So for now we’re stuck with the “Greatest Club Rivalry In The World” and the mediocrity they inflict on the national game.
Perhaps its time for coaches at every level of the game to use training methods that discourage players putting their heads down and running with the ball. Put the emphasis on movement and making the ball do the legwork. Get kids comfortable with cushioning the ball and passing it with a single movement. (Of course, getting comfortable with the ball at your feet is an ABC for any budding player How that is done is a social question as much as a footballing question, as it’s the personal responsibility of any kid who wants to play well).
Perhaps now is the time for Scottish coaches at every level to forget about Jimmy Johnstone and start encouraging the most talented kids in a team to perfect their passing and movement; show their team mates how to pass through teams rather than run with the ball at defenders. The greedy wee shites who try to beat everyone on their own and only look up to pass when they run into trouble are holding back kids football and at higher levels. Passing should always be the cultured player’s first thought on seeing the ball come towards him unless there is space to run into. Fast passing football is beautiful to watch and is the way forward. Drum this into young players, and into football coaches, and change might become a reality.
Two polar opposite footballing philosophies will collide head-to-head when Scotland entertain the world champions Spain at Hampden on 12th October. Did I say ‘entertain’? Change that to ‘host’. While Scotland may grind out an unlikely result (anything’s possible, remember Paris) one thing’s certain. The entertaining passing one-touch football will all come courtesy of the away team. We’ll be the eternal bust-a-gut cloggers from the land that time forgot, hoping to batter our way to the points.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.