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.

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  1. Doug Daniel says:

    I’m always amazed by the rubbish excuses used to justify the proposal to return to a 10-team league. Craig Levein was on TV last night saying that his main reason for supporting a 10-team league was that, from his perspective, he wants people to be playing the top teams as much as possible. This is patently absolute garbage. Any team from the first division can beat any team in the SPL – Ross County showed us last season that even the Old Firm are not infallible. Does anyone seriously think the gap between SPL and first division teams is so great that playing them regularly would lead to a significant drop in the standard of the league? Besides, the Scotland team should be getting picked almost exclusively from players in the two English top flights – it’s particularly ridiculous that players like Christophe Berra, Steven Fletcher and Charlie Adam are Premiership regulars but can’t get into the team because of SPL players like Lee McCulloch, who should be permanent bench warmers. I’ll tell you what Craig, we’ll start paying attention to your ideas when you start playing Darren Fletcher in his best position.

    This reasoning has a similar problem to the reasoning that a 16- or 18-team league would lead to a mass of redundant games. We already have redundant games. Taking this idea to its logical conclusion, the only way to avoid that redundancy would be to reduce the league to such a size that every place leads to either a European place or relegation, perhaps with at most 2 extra teams. I make that a league of 6 teams. This is clearly ridiculous, and exposes the stupidity behind this thinking – surely football is about more than just winning a European place or avoiding relegation?

    Sometimes I wonder why we don’t just have a two-team league and be done with it. It’s clearly what the men at the top, the advertisers and the TV executives really want. But what the fans want is a bit of variety, hence the clamour for a larger league. Also, a short league makes it difficult for a second-tier of teams to form. With a larger league, it would be easier for teams like Aberdeen, Hearts, Dundee United and Motherwell to establish themselves once and for all as the main non-OF teams. Look at the EPL, with Tottenham apparently breaking ito the top 4. They couldn’t have done that without having first graduated through the second-tier of teams like Villa and Everton. You can’t get a second-tier with 12 teams, never mind 10 teams, so we’re forever condemned to have a league where the strength of the non-OF teams is completely random from one season to the next, as no one really has anything to build upon.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      The bottom line (if you want to get all business-speak about it) is that any business which ignores the wishes of its customers is in big trouble.

      Despite attempts to pretend otherwise there is a vast consensus against a ten team league amongst fans.

  2. I don’t really follow football, but I recognise a lot of what you’re saying from discussions I’ve had with others about sports like rugby and basketball. Organisations like the GAA, and the multi-sports clubs like Partizan, Dynamo and Spartak in Eastern Europe provide a lot of examples of how our sporting institutions could be re-organised in a way that focuses on the communities rather than the boardroom.

    I don’t really see why you need a division between SPL and SFL in the new system, it’d probably be more effective if there was a single national league of 20 teams, and the four “provincial leagues” underneath, with relegation play-offs between them.

    1. R Bell says:

      “Organisations like the GAA, and the multi-sports clubs like Partizan, Dynamo and Spartak in Eastern Europe provide a lot of examples of how our sporting institutions could be re-organised in a way that focuses on the communities rather than the boardroom.”

      Well, I’ve heard complaints about the GAA recently, but they do at least emphasise community in their set-up.

      Football has a lot of problems here. I have experienced rugby league crowds in Edinburgh, and hurling crowds in Dublin, shinty crowds in Inverness and rugby union crowds as well. None of these were that much bother. The hurling fans in Dublin could share the same trams and buses and sit next to each other in the pub, without the aggression and violence that football crowds often seem to lean towards. Likewise the rugby league crowds were working class folk from areas of Northern England not unlike urban Scotland, but they hardly gave anyone grief either.

      I wouldn’t want to take a child to an SPL game these days. A lot of the crowd behaviour veers between masculine insecurity and narrow mindedness of a dozen varieties. If you go to a game in the lower leagues, there is less of this, but still…

    2. After spending a few years living in Greece, the multi-sport clubs there remain an impressive idea to me. Even allowing for the poisonous rivalry between Panathinaikos and Olympiakos (the old firm of Greek sport) both they and almost all the major league (Superliga) clubs run several football teams taking in all age groups from primary school age up as well as girls football teams, basketball, handball and volleyball teams at all levels and for both genders. The same is true of smaller regional clubs.
      I know of one club based in a village of maybe 1500 people in the foothills of the Cretan mountains which runs 4 football teams 2 basketball teams and 2 volleyball teams. They play their football at their own stadium on an astroturf pitch. They run a social club in the village. Their closest neighbouring club are in the next village about 3 kilometres up the road, and the smaller neighbours still manage to run 2 football teams in spite of the small population. The rivalry there is fierce on match days, but outwith the 90 minutes on match day it settle down to the level of banter among friends. These tiny wee places run their clubs as community resources and their success as such was, for me, a bit of a revelation.
      Such a set up in Scotland seems all but impossible to me while we still have the Old Firm perched unassailably on top of the pile and calling all the shots.

  3. R Bell says:

    There are so many ways Scottish football could be improved, not to mention Scottish shinty, rugby, golf, Highland games etc.

    I think the Old Firm are a problem. They are partly victims of their own success, but they also hinder the quality of the game at a wider level, divert local support from various teams and so on… and don’t even get me on to the complete failure of the SFA and SPL to deal with sectarianism, which is one of Central Scotland’s main social diseases.

    I actually think that football doesn’t need too much public funding, as it happens by itself more or less, but the numerous youth FCs, registered players, five-a-side leagues etc are not reflected in the quality of the domestic or international game.

    Lastly, if we’re talking about the media’s sport coverage there are two problems. Firstly, its inability to engage with much apart from football, and secondly, its inability to engage with much apart from the Old Firm.

  4. Steve says:

    Pedant’s corner- the island of Ireland (32 counties) has a population approaching 6 million. The Irish Republic is just over 4 million.

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