21 May 2003: For the first time since 1987, a Scottish football team – in this case, Celtic– is competing in the final of a major European competition, the UEFA Cup. Facing them is FC Porto, managed by a certain Jose Mourinho. No prizes for guessing the victors that night.
Yet, even though it was the Portuguese and not the Scottish side who were victorious that night, in hindsight a lot was said for Celtic. This was a Porto side who boasted players of the calibre of Deco and Ricardo Carvallho, to name but a few. Celtic didn’t even manage a single honour in domestic Scottish football that season in comparison.
Fast-forward to now; there is no Celtic, or Scottish team for that matter, in the Champions League. Having lost 6-1 on aggregate to the might of, erm, Legia Warsaw, the Scottish title-winners received a very fortunate reprieve but were still knocked out of the next qualifying round by the even mightier Maribor.
In 2003, there were two Champions League qualifying spots in the then-Scottish Premier League, and at one point the winner of the latter could gain automatic qualification. 11 years later and there is just one such spot in the rebranded Scottish Premiership, and the holder of that has to pit their strengths against the champions of such footballing powerhouses as Kazakhstan in order to have that speculative shot at European footballing glory.
Rangers, the joint-largest club in Scotland along with Celtic, have only just been promoted to the second-tier of Scottish football after a financial catastrophe that very briefly threatened to obliterate its existence; Heart of Midlothian and Hibernian, the two main clubs from the capital Edinburgh, are both also out of the top league, the former finding itself in similarly precarious financial situation to Rangers.
So what has caused football, in a country where it plays such in important role in society and culture, for good reasons as well as bad, to be in such a dire state as it appears to be? As usual, this is a situation where there are so many possible answers. Money is one, and especially when our neighbouring clubs down south are more or less rolling in it – at least in the Premier League – finding it in Scottish football is like finding a needle in a haystack. Even without television money, Cardiff City pocketed over £8 million for finishing last in the English Premier League. By contrast, Celtic, for winning the Scottish Premiership, were awarded a mere £2.5 million.
Indeed, money is a good start if we are to attempt to trace the root of Scottish football’s problems. Back in the ‘80s Scottish football reached its zenith. In 1983 Aberdeen won the European Cup Winners’ Cup under the management of a youthful Alex Ferguson. In 1987 Dundee United, under the similarly bullish Jim McLean, reached the UEFA Cup final.
But this was to change in 1988, when David Murray, a businessman who made his fortune in steel, bought Rangers for £6 million. Murray was to oversee a sustained spending spree by Rangers that included the recruitment of several England internationals over the next decade such as Ray Wilkins, Chris Wood and Paul Gascoigne, to name but a few. While bringing hitherto unprecedented domestic success to the club, he also succeeded in making Rangers a hegemony in Scottish football, a proverbial Great White Shark in a small pond. Celtic were nearly forced into bankruptcy, saved only by the money of Fergus McCann when 30 minutes away from receivership in 1994. The previous forces of Aberdeen and Dundee United, post-Ferguson and McLean were unable to match the spending of Murray and entered a period of decline that has since brought them a fraction – no, a molecule – of the success they once had.
This lack of corresponding investment in Scottish football coupled with the foundation of the Premier League in England supported by the cash of Rupert Murdoch, meant that Scottish clubs were now being outshone financially both in Scotland and in England in a way that had never happened on a scale of its kind before. The money entering English football meant that English teams could now buy the best players money could buy; Scottish teams, with the exception of Rangers, could not similarly compete, and this lack of competition for Rangers, along with their lack of success in Europe, meant even their attractiveness to “big names” was not sustainable. The Scotland National Team, meanwhile, reached its last World Cup in 1998, exiting at the group stage after a 3-0 defeat to Morocco. Scotland has never qualified for the finals of a major tournament since.
But like with many problems in the world, to point out money as the root cause is overly simplistic and not the full answer. For example, Scotland is not helped by a population of just a tad over five million. Yet, while it may be that the Scottish domestic teams may never rub shoulders with football’s elite again as long as this situation exists we must still look at places such as Belgium, whose pool of talent includes the likes of Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany and Thibaut Coutois (all three of whom, incidentally, play in the English Premier League), and ask ourselves: why them and not us, especially considering that football is by far the most popular sport in this country?
After all, Belgium has just 34 professional clubs and two divisions to contain them. It is a neighbouring country of France, itself a major footballing nation with many times as people and resources as Belgium. And yet this small Benelux nation, famous for not much other than chocolate, Tintin and Jean Claude Van Damme, has on multiple occasions (this year included) managed to get further in the World Cup than Scotland teams containing the likes of Kenny Dalglish, Denis Law and Graeme Sounness. The answer, at least in the team that reached the semi-finals of this year’s World Cup, was a complete revolution of Belgian youth football. For the purposes of word limits, this can be summarised the following way: every youth team in Belgium was instructed by the footballing authorities to play a 4-3-3 formation; training was focused on developing dribbling and quick passing, whereby drills would consist mainly of small games of 2vs2, 5vs5 and 8vs8; children’s youth teams were told explicitly not to use league tables in order to focus primarily on developing such technical skills; and on top of all this, 8 national academies were set up around the country.
So it is in the development of players in Scotland wherein the problem lies. Scottish youth football was traditionally about developing players with primarily physical attributes without too much focus on the technical side of the game. In youth teams, players who were taller. And this is before we move on to the stereotypical drinking culture that has afflicted Scottish youth football. Fair enough, they want to act like normal people – but it is not how to become a good athlete. Ergo, it is no coincidence that the cleancut culture of European countries means they consistently produce better youth prospects than Scotland does.
It is not all doom and gloom though. There are signs that things are possibly on the move, that Scotland is trying to propel itself into the footballing 21st century. A case in point is Sporting Lisbon’s Ryan Gauld who moved from Dundee to allow his technique to flourish in a European environment. Dundee United, in fact, are a relative beacon of light with academy graduates such as John Souttar and Andrew Robertson who are knocking on the door of Premier League outfits. At Celtic, 21 year-old academy product Callum McGregor is another one for the future. Even at the moment, the Scotland team itself is not doing all that badly – under manager Gordon Strachan, they were unbeaten for 6 matches before losing narrowly to Germany (they of 2014 World Cup winning fame). Nonetheless, it is a long road, if that road exists at all, for Scotland to travel before they can find themselves in any major football tournament. It is one that is beset by the potholes of lack of finance, ingrained mentalities and a simple lack of competence in Scottish footballing authorities. But if Scotland was once able to produce players that could win European Cups, hold their own against and play alongside the very best the world had to offer – and all within relatively recent memory – should we really abandon all hope that it can ever happen again?