The Old Firm and the Saltire: Some thoughts on Scottish Football

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by A. Reader

As a baseball lover himself, Fidel Castro would have been well aware of the role played by the sport in shaping the national identity of ordinary Cubans, to the extent that it’s unlikely he would have been surprised to learn that the day after his abdication baseball was still the pre-eminent topic of conversation in Havana’s Parque Central.

Similarly, Nelson Mandela, recently portrayed by Morgan Freeman in the film Invictus, was prepared to risk alienating elements of his own support in order to position rugby, the Afrikaner game, at the centre of his new South Africa.  Both leaders understood the grip that sport held on the imagination and the loyalties of their respective nations and both were expert at deploying that support for the wider, national purpose.

So whither Scotland, and football?

It could be argued that, in terms of the popular consciousness, football defines Scottish society almost as much as any other traditional civic institution; such as the church and the state.  On any given day, an objective assessment of Scottish society’s internal dialogue with itself, as carried out in the newspapers, on television, on internet message boards and between people, would show that a significant proportion of the conversation is about football.  If any of the parties currently campaigning in May’s Holyrood election could be certain of the votes of every Scottish football supporter, they would win.  Easily.

So, why aren’t the parties doing more to win the football vote?  Possibly because they see football fans as falling outwith of their voter base (Tories), because they think they’re already included (Labour) or because they’re not sure enough of their ground to be able to articulate a convincing ‘offer’ to this section of the electorate (SNP/Lib Dems).  This is a shame because there’s ground to be won here.

How?  Well, a couple of good, football friendly policies would be a useful start.  There’s ammunition in the McLeish Review of Scottish Football, the second part of which was published last December.  The SNP (for example) could make a commitment to work with the SFA to implement some of McLeish’s findings.  More practically perhaps, given the obvious comeback of ‘frivolous’ spending when jobs and homes are at risk, would be a challenge to the other parties to say which elements of the Review they would support.  The key here would be to position the party as the ‘Scottish Football’ party.  There’s probably value in simply making that statement – that the party supports Scottish football, from Highland playgrounds to Hampden Park, and will do its best to work for improvement.  Let’s face it, Scottish football, from the current less-than-worldbeating form of the national team to the parlous state of Glasgow Rangers’ finances, is in need of a shot in the arm.

And once in power?  What could or should the Scottish Government be doing about football.

Lots, I think.  Here are a couple of suggestions.  It’s arguable that the average-at-best performance of the national side is due, at least in part, to the lack of development of talent by SPL and SFL clubs.  This used to be due, at least in part, to the fact that it was cheaper to import proven, foreign talent than it was to grow Scottish skills.  This is less the case now as even cheap foreign imports are beyond the financial reach of most Scottish clubs, if they want to remain solvent.  Instead, I’d suggest, it’s down to the quality of the development and the willingness to invest.

So let’s put all our eggs in one basket.  Let’s have a National Centre for Footballing Excellence.  Let’s found it in partnership with the SFA, the SFL and the SPL.  Let’s tithe all the clubs in the top two divisions to fund it on a means tested basis – so the richest pay the most.  And then let’s have a draft, similar to the system in place in American Football.

The Centre wouldn’t completely replace clubs’ youth set-ups.  What it would do would be to seek to draw in the best Scottish talent, identified by schools, clubs and the Juniors game, and return 20-30 highly-skilled graduates to the SPL and the First Division.  Every year, the highest achieving ‘graduates’ from the centre would join the squads of the least-successful SPL and First Division teams, working up the division until all have a place.  There would be a ‘no sell on’ clause, which prevented ‘graduates’ from being transferred for a minimum of three years. but clubs would also be free to recruit in the normal way, to supplement the draft.

The obvious problem – Celtic and Rangers would never support a system that took talent away from their youth schemes and returned it, instead to Hamilton, Dundee or even Stirling Albion.  This scheme is intended, in part, to correct the imbalance in Scottish football that sees flourishing talent being regularly poached by one or other of the Glasgow teams.  I’ve no doubt therefore would almost certainly be greeted with venom and vitriol, from certain quarters.  But does that necessarily make it a bad idea?

There are alternatives, possibly better more workable ideas, and readers will have their own suggestions.  For example, we could also look at Jim Spence’s proposal in his weekly BBC blog to lift the barriers to promotion at the bottom of the SFL to allow competitive new entries from the Highland League, East of Scotland League and the Scottish Junior Football Association.  This would in theory create more opportunities for young Scottish talent to enter the game at a lower level and, if they’re good enough, to progress.  On top of that, it would increase competition and liven up an increasingly moribund Third Division.

Two proposals, one imposing change from the top down, the other trying to build from the bottom up.  Could either be implemented?  Well, let’s look at it this way – if there was felt to be sufficient support, in and outside the football community, and if the Scottish Government were to put their weight behind one or the other – well, who knows what might be achieved?

They key here is this: the old, inarguable assertions have to be challenged if Scottish football, particularly at a national level wishes to recapture some of its pride.  And, surely, there is value, if not glory, to be won through being the Government that is openly and publicly seen as trying to achieve this, trying to return Scottish football to the days of Dalgliesh and Souness or of Baxter and Johnstone.

So why hasn’t the Scottish Government done more to build popular support on the back of Scotland’s love of football?  Or, to frame the question in another, slightly tangential way, “How do you get more Saltires flown at Old Firm games?”

There’s no doubt in my mind that the ‘British dimension’ to the Old Firm rivalry (and, let’s be clear, sectarianism is a product of the British state, not the Scottish people) is an inhibiting factor in terms of progress towards some measure of autonomy.  One side of the Old Firm divide have built their footballing identity around being ‘British’, the other on being, in some way, ‘Irish’.  Neither state of mind is completely open to the call to become part of an independently Scottish future.

So how do you change this?  Well, I would suggest that an approach which offers hope and make that light shine brighter rather than one which offers only shame and delves into the darkness might be more successful in the long run.  In other words, if we were to build a winning Scotland team and invite fans of the Old Firm to join in its success then we might stand a better chance of changing attitudes than continuing to blame the failure of the national side on the ‘parasitic’ influence of the Old Firm.  Easier said than done, I know, I know.

But again, surely there is ground to be won simply by stating that intent.  Not the ‘winning support for greater autonomy’ bit but the part about ‘building a winning Scotland team’.  It’s my belief that an increase in support for further autonomy would naturally follow.  There’s no doubt in my mind, for example, that UK Labour’s landslide success in the 1997 Westminster Elections was built, in some small part, on the boost to the general sense of self-esteem and public sense of ‘positivity’ that came from the English national team’s excellent showing in the 1996 European Cup.  (To this date, fifteen years later, the last genuinely competitive showing in a major competition by a side that claims to be ‘world class’.)

What effect would a similar success, say a World or European Cup semi-final, have on the Scottish psyche?  You might say all we can do is dream.  But then in 1967 the idea of an SNP Government was just a dream.  Dreams can come true if good men and women are prepared to put aside their differences and work to achieve them. I t’s my dream that one day Scottish football will be returned to its rightful place in the hearts of all football loving Scottish people and not just the blue and green halves of the Daily Record reading public, a showpiece for the pride and aspirations of the nation as a whole.