Scottish football: When does the revolution begin?

The legacy of Jimmy Johnstone? A blessing or a curse?


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.

Comments (14)

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  1. For Mowbray read Paul Le Guen, an enigmatic manager noted for his philosophy of disciplined free flowing football, discovering lower league players and nurturing them onto genuine masters of their craft, wanted all over Europe by the toppermost clubs, only to be persuaded to be part of a revolution that would change the way Glasgow Rangers play the game.

    P 31 W16 D 8 L7 plus a dressing room full of neddish twats equalled the shortest reign ever for Rangers manager. Leaving lovers of genuine football feeling nothing would ever change in Scottish football.

    To see Levein, thirled to the Old Firm players and bending over to bring back Ferguson, denuded him of any respect I might have harboured for him, hoping that here was a coach that was worth more than the ‘fuck ’em all’ school of coaching.

    We deserve to be on the wrong end of 6-0 humping by the Spaniards, maybe then we’ll wake up.

  2. Tocasaid says:

    An entertaining and thought-provoking article but one which leaves me with as many questions as it answers. These mostly concern Hibs!
    – why did Mowbray fail to win any silverware, despite improving on Hibs’ league position? If ‘sexy’ fitba is good enough for Euro giants then why doesn’t it work on our smaller stage? My main memory of Mowbray’s Hibs is the 4-0 humiliation at the hands of Hearts in the semi-final. The best football that day was undoubtedly from Hearts, with Hibs left to stamp, impede and ultimately make fools of themselves. Hibs fans too were a disappointment and thousands neglected to see this ‘slick’ football on Scoltand’s ultimate stage and witness the chance for Hibs to break their Scots Cup hoodoo – who would’ve predicted that result beforehand? You also talk of Celtic’s lumpen hoofbaw team – but didn’t they contain 3 ex-Hibees – Riordain, Brown and Caldwell?
    – While, the points made regarding the passing game in Scottish football as a whole are relevant ones, there is more than that. Passion and discipline for a start. Scotland’s displays of late have not only lacked finesse and skill but there has been little of the auld passion. Discipline in the modern age is also a must and not just for the neddish antics of yon Rangers’ clowns but for the likes of Riordain who thinks a touch of magic every now and then is his ticket to international football. Our attitude needs to change.
    – Having witnessed a lot of schools football in the few years, I can see the passing mentality is there. It has been for at least a decade. And if my memory serves me, wasn’t there some kind of international success for our under 19s a few years back? Therefore, it is lost somewhere down the line? Is it a cultural malaise? Do our gifted youngsters get bogged down in chip fat, souped-up cars and clubbing? I’m thinking here of Barry Ferguson’s continental team-mates looking on incredulously as this ‘athlete’ wolfed his chips ‘n cheese and washed it down with Irn Bru. Nae salad in Glasgow, wha’s like us?
    – Would community ownership help us? While I can’t see Stirling Albion becoming the new Barca in the near future, I do applaud their initiative. It certainly smells better than Mad Vlad at Hearts or even the Farmer/Petrie set-up at Hibs which sees a good bank balance but continued mediocrity on the field, a proven goal-scorer sold needlessly to rivals and a poverty of ambition in simply signing a “Hibs man” as manager.

    We seem to be left clutching at straws. We canny blame our small nation status – other small nations have punched above their weight. Poverty? Nah, that doesn’t wash either – Pele and Maradona prove that wrong.

    Like I said, I have more questions than answers. Maybe we need to change sport? (!) We can beat Eire at the shinty/hurling international. We’re good at curling and that’s played by more nations than play cricket. What’s left? Badminton?

  3. Martin says:

    “Football is a simple enough game. It’s all about possession.”

    Are you a Hibs fan, perchance?

    Unfortunately, football is not about possession. You’re maybe thinking of some other sport – or possibly a board game, like chess or draugh…ts.

    Fifa laws of the game, Article 10: The team scoring the greater number of goals during a match is the winner. If both teams score an equal number of goals, or if no goals are scored, the match is drawn.

    There’s nothing in the rules about “possession”. It’s about scoring more goals than the other team, regardless of how it’s done. If you can entertain people along the way, fine. If you want to be entertained, go to the cinema. If you want to win football matches, score goals. Otherwise, if you’re a Scottish football fan, you’re going to suffer the empty promises of managers like Tony Mowbray; all show and no trousers.

    Scotland scored more goals than Liechtenstein and Rangers drew against Manchester United, which was within the gift of the rules. If the Lichtenstein game had been the match that sent Scotland through to the play-offs, no-one would be complaining about “anti-football”.

    People need to get off the slagging Scotland and Scottish football bandwagon and start criticising the people who administrate the game and their sock-tucking Secret Seven brand of exclusion and nepotism.

    The game will only change in this country when we eliminate the brutal Scottish mentality of wannabe Gordon Strachans screaming and bawling at eight-year-old kids from the sidelines as though they’ve let down their entire country after blundering a slack pass in a non-competitive soccer sevens league.

  4. Kevin says:

    Martin – are you sure you’ve not been secretly managing Uganda? That aside If this was a two part article – which its not – the second part would take its cue from the last coupla parags of yer comments. From the SFA to primary school coaching Scottish football is in dire need of serious restructuring/revolution in attitudes.

  5. Martin says:

    Again Kevin, in the first instance – especially where kids are concerned – football isn’t about passing, it’s about developing a passion for the game; enjoyment, inclusion and above all, scoring goals.

    Trying to teach kids to pass a ball is a futile exercise until they’ve developed a basic hunger and desire for the game, plus the motivation to participate and the basic motor skills required to perform the function. Most kids don’t reasonably achieve this until they are around 11 or 12 years old – but we’ve usually written them off by then.

    Kids don’t want to pass the ball – they want to score goals – which, as I’ve said, is the fundamental principle of the game.

    Take a look at continental football – the Italians, the Spaniards and the Dutch (countries who can actually play the game and win things) – competitive football doesn’t start until the kids reach 14 or 15. Coaches don’t scream at kids – they let the kids get on with it.

    Football is a sport to be enjoyed, first and foremost – and in Scotland we have our kids running around on Saturday mornings from August to April in the coldest weather in western Europe.

    We also have poor support from the government and local authorities with respect to facilities – with 40-year-old has-beens harbouring a desire to play for Celtic or Rangers block-booking indoor facilities on midweek evenings to indulge in their weekly five-a-side ritual, thereby denying children the opportunity to be coached in a warm, safe environment at a decent hour.

    Teaching kids technical skills or drilling them at sub-10 years is pointless and exasperating for everyone involved – not least of all the children being forced to do it – which is why we have such a terrible standard of football in Scotland; we’re too focused on Deep Heat, bone-crushing tackling and naturally-talented kids being howled at to release the ball, when all they want to do is acheive the basic concept of the game: score.

  6. Tocasaid says:

    Does the existence of either passing or passion automatically negate the other?

    Our weather certainly didn’t hamper the Lisbon Lions. Further in terms of wee kids and education – the Norwegians have their 5 and 6 year olds out in all weathers (literally) using axes, fishing for crabs etc. Why should we wrap ours up in cotton wool? On the other extreme some players from climates where searing heat is the norm also do quite well for themselves.

  7. Martin says:

    Saying the weather didn’t hamper the Lisbon Lions is like saying syphillis didn’t hamper Mozart – Jock Stein’s Celtic were an exception to the rule, and his influence is still felt in Scottish football – we just haven’t moved on from it, or worse, we haven’t learned from it.

    Also, I can’t remember the last time Norway won a thing – they’re marginally better than Scotland, which really doesn’t say much for all their getting kids to weild axes in the snow.

    Scotland breeds a culture of criticism, fuelled by people who think they know the game just because they read the Daily Record.

    Nations like Spain, Italy and France win things because they allow kids to enjoy themselves before trying to make them play like professionals.

    I’ve watched it first-hand – weaker kids being marginalised at eight years of age in favour of kids who are clearly talented – when it should be the other way around; talented kids don’t need to be on the pitch for a full match, the weaker kids do. Winning isn’t important, developing a desire to be part of a team is.

    The philosophy, infrastructure and mentality in Scotland is backward, institutionalised and run by morons. You only need to take a look at the SFA to see who is in charge – a man who ran a professional football club out of business.

    That’s why we don’t succeed – not because we can’t play football, but because we haven’t a clue how to run the game.

  8. Tocasaid says:

    Martin – the mainland Nordic countries have had more ‘success’ than Scotland in recent decades. Denmark won the Euro’s not that long ago if I remember rightly. And did not Sweden play us off the park a few months ago?

    You mention Holland but when did they last win anything? Close but no cigar aint winning and their football this year was dreadful certainly uglier than anything I’ve seen in years.

    I may agree with some of what you say – philosophy and mentality – but weather?? Try getting a 10yo to wear a jacket, whatever the weather! Certainly, as a youngster I was out in the heat of summer and on frozen pitches in winter. Loved every minute of it so the fact that I didn’t become Ronaldo (top player but not an international winner) must be down to other reasons.

  9. Martin says:

    Tocasaid – you didn’t say Demnark or Netherlands in your original comment. You said Norway, which is why I replied regarding their abysmal performances on the national and domestic scene in comparison to Scotland’s.

    Demark’s win in 1992 wasn’t quite the blip you’re making it out to be; they’ve been in the quarter-finals of the European Championships twice and the semis eight years previously in 1986. Scotland have never as much reached the last 16 of the Euros. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

    Suggesting that Holland are “close, but no cigar” is a bit on the preposterous side. They won the European Championships in 1998 and have been semi-finalists on four ocassions, quarter-finalists twice. And let’s not forget their World Cup record – runners-up on three ocassions. Sure, they’ve never won it, but for a country of about 16m people, that’s pretty good – considering the populations of the countries above them in the honours list.

    Also, Netherlands clubs have won the European Cup six times, and been runners-up twice – and they’ve won the Uefa Cup four times and been runners-up twice.

    Their football may be ugly – but when was the last time Italy played decent football, yet they still win things. The same goes for Spain – for all their ticky-tacky football, they hardly set the heather alight at the World Cup.

    No, the team with the best defence wins things – take a look at the record of any major winner in any major tournament, national, or domestic.

    It’s aechived by the very virtue of not conceding goals, which is, after all the other fundamental principle of football; not to concede any goals.

  10. bellacaledonia says:

    Martin – to explain when I referred to kids I wasnt meaning primary school age! Would agree with most of what you say regarding enjoying the game, scoring goals, and the pointlessness of frustrated adults yelping from the sidelines.

    In addition the point of this article wasnt to have a swipe at the footballing authorities. Although I’d agree with the points you make. The SFA are inept. They’re a Glasgow old boys mafia. The whole setup is wrong. Winter football is a farce. The Old Firm have squandered the resources of Scottish football on an assembly line of over-paid foreign duds. Outside of Glasgow most of this is accepted.

    My point was that Scottish footballers might be able to tackle or score but they cant pass a ball properly and their movement is abysmal. Until that changes we’re going nowhere. All the rhetoric about winning ugly is just a smokescreen for accepting mediocrity.

  11. Tocasaid says:

    Winning ugly? If only… watching Scotland losing ugly tonight was sickening. We don’t even have the balls to go for a team that were all too vulnerable.

    Its tempting to call for the removal of CL as manager, but would it solve anything?

  12. wilson lawson says:

    What is so interesting is that full grown men get exercised about 22 balloons dressed in shorts and long socks kicking a bladder over a field.
    Now I loved the game when I was a boy…and I wasn’t bad at it either, but I realize that it was an obligation almost to be one of the lads. I had no choice but to like the game. It was rammed down my throat for most of my young life. Now, I’d rather watch badminton…and I’m not joking. It’s fast, requires bags of stamina, fast thinking and a deft touch and the reactions of a mongoose.
    Seriously, if TV aired the sports that are actually exiting to watching, I don’t think football would get much of a look in.
    We’ve been conditioned to accept garbage like golf and formula one as sports…the emperor has no clothes and I for one am sick of listening to blind men tell me he has.

  13. I personally have certainly loved viewing this. Glad that other folks appreciate just how great a treat Scottish Hampers can be. We only began marketing them online last year, and the comments has already been excellent. I believe that the love for good quality Scottish produce spreads quite far, and is a great advertising instrument for the Nation.

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