If You Rebuild It, They Will Come
As the same Scottish Football elite which has led the game disastrously for two decades and more leads us into further short-term chaos, we examine the options for bringing sanity and values other than cash-chasing back to the game.
In the aftermath of the McLeish Report (part 2) into the future of Scottish football, the debate continues with much smoke but not a lot of fire. There are many elephants in the dressing rooms of Scottish football and, given today’s news from the SPL meeting, it seems the powers that be are content to continue ignoring them. The influence of television and the clear imbalance in the top league means we have a set up devoid of real competition – on the park and in the media, a product which, in its live version, is not attractive to those who have grown up with the armchair experience of televised football, and a faintly pathetic clinging on to the memory of what we like to believe was our rightful position in world football. In its commercial pandering to the Old Firm support, the media merely speeds up the roundabout.
Well, we need to get over it, and start asking what we really want for football in our country. The current model is clearly broken and there is little chance of it being fixed.
At present our game suffers because its administration is cumbersome and out of touch. We have administrators telling us ‘football is a business’ and running an operation that would not be tolerated in the ‘real’ business world. We have a nation which is amongst the least fit in Europe, which is addicted to dressing as sportsmen but not acting like them, and who, in football terms, are much happier watching football on television with a drink than actually going to a ground and getting involved in supporting. Even where there are large crowds, at Old Firm games, these can largely be attributed to following success and tribalism.
The way forward is not to rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic – it is to design a ship that won’t be sunk by an iceberg.
There needs to be one governing body in charge, working alongside other agencies, to promote football as a part of a wider Scottish sports strategy. Such a body would promote fitness and community action and fight the selling off of sports facilities and playing fields. It would operate in such a manner that no Scottish Government would dare ignore its demands for support and helpful policies. This would also lead to a pyramid system, where all decently run teams would have the possibility of promotion to the national leagues. Elegibility for the top leagues would depend not on numbers of seats but on connection to a core community and a contribution to the well being of our youth.
Then there needs to be a redistribution of cash. The only current defence of the imbalance in Scottish football is the pretence that by holding on to all the cash they generate, Rangers and Celtic are given a chance of European success – which will be good for the whole game in Scotland. Even the most diehard fan has to admit that this is fantasy land. If we are dependent on television fees, a country of 5 million can never generate anything like the cash that is available in England, Spain or Italy, nor can we attract billionaires to our clubs. Indeed, the attempt to keep up with the others has almost brought financial ruin to both halves of the Old Firm.
So how do teams from small countries compete in Europe – in the absence of local oligarchs or international conglomerates? Well the Scandinavian and Dutch models would suggest that a grass roots organisation with strong community links – building from the bottom up, is the best way to progress. The SFA have used this language for years, but there is precious little evidence for it happening on the ground, except in a few pockets of enlightenment (Spartans in Edinburgh, Ross County in Dingwall come to mind). Those who run football in this country should take a trip through France, Belgium, Switzerland and Scandinavia and notice the level of facilities in even the smallest towns, and ask how that happens. How many village resources for football could be provided for the cost of one Old Firm ‘marquee signing’?
There is an interesting model across the Irish Sea in Ireland’s Gaelic Athletic Association. At the outset, it should be admitted that there are major differences between Scottish Football and the GAA. Theirs is an amateur game with no international structure, and residence requirements lead to virtually no transfer activity, but it is more in the matter of administration and support that it could give the Scottish football authorities a lesson.
It is a grassroots organisation – every parish has a team and club players are picked for the County team for the Inter-County leagues and Cup competitions. Rivalry is fierce, local and entirely civilised, and involves the whole family. If a family of 6 attend an inter County fixture, the chances are that all of them have played Gaelic at some stage and the adults will probably be involved in coaching or support administration for their local club.
The biggest difficulty the GAA faces is in demographics. As the structure is county based, there is a real danger that the most populated counties such as Dublin and Cork would be perennially winners. The difference is in how the GAA distributes the cash generated. The bigger counties are, naturally cash rich, but proceeds from competitions are centrally pooled and , right down to local club level, the GAA central administration helps with infrastructure, facilities, coaching and organisation. As a result, though Dublin have won 22 titles, Kerry lead the way with 34 – a reflection not of wealth or size , but of commitment to the sport, and, importantly, 19 different counties have been successful in the past 120 years or so.The central body administers the cash that comes into the coffers for the good of the whole game at all levels – not for the benefit of the top teams. The game is central in its communities and can truly claim to be the country’s national sport, with regular gates of 80.000 plus at Croke Park – a stadium which is embarrassingly better than Hampden in every way. And this on a population on the island of less than 4 million. The bigger counties accept this because they recognise they need competition to attract the crowds.
Clearly the comparison is not exact, but it shows what can be achieved if the game is run for the benefit of its supporters rather than a minority of special interests. It’s fair to say that the Irish Government too gives support to the GAA, recognising its cultural importance to the country, and the GAA has provided excellent facilities in even the most remote parts of the country.
In Scotland, attendance at games and the viability of clubs is declining because the fans don’t like what is on offer, and because it is easier to watch more star laden teams playing on television. Scotland cannot compete with the wealth overseas and will never receive the television fees to make European success a reality – even for the top two teams. In 2008, the SPL turnover was £200m, with around £160m provided by the Old Firm. £200 million is a reasonable amount to support a top league in Scotland at a sensible level – if it were evenly distributed. Even if a third of each of the Old Firm’s incomes had been redistributed throughout the game, their income would still have been comfortably more than any other team, but other teams would have been able to provide stiffer competition, benefiting the league and the playing standard of all teams. That would be a start, but self interest proclaims it’s not a possibility.
You can’t turn the clock back, but you can return to original values, if the desire is there. If football becomes a means of regeneration rather than an advertising vehicle for distant television tycoons, the support would be there. If the fans felt they were important, or even acknowledged, by those who run the game, they would return.
But, after today’s decision – please don’t tell me football is the People’s Game.