Dominic O’Hagan’s article from the most recent edition of the 90 Minute Cynic quarterly Magazine The Cynical on why Scottish Football is on the up.
Slowly but surely, Scottish football is on the up. Seemingly more and more comfortable in its own skin, Dominic O’Hagan explains how the national game has pulled itself up by its bootstraps and why it should embrace what it is, rather than comparing itself with the big beast down south.
It seems there are only two streams of thought when it comes to Scottish football: it’s either shite, or it’s not as shite as people think. I would like to present a third option: Scottish football is no longer shite.
Although it has become de rigueur to claim that “even their nan could play in that Mickey Mouse league”, as far as I am aware, busloads of octogenarians haven’t been traveling from Hertfordshire to pick up an easy pay packet north of the border. We have our own octogenarians in Kris Boyd and Aaron Hughes.
Similarly, there have been claims that no one cares about any clubs other than Celtic. It’s worth noting that these claims have mostly been made by fans of such illustrious clubs like Barnsley and Huddersfield.
So, in no particular order: 6 Reasons Why Scottish Football is No Longer Shite.
In an age of one-club dominance, plenty of casual observers outwith Scotland will scoff at the idea that football in Scotland might be flourishing.
I’m sure those same people will point at Bayern Munich’s sixth consecutive title as proof that German football is dead. Diddy teams like Schalke, Werder Bremen and Dortmund are just there to make up the numbers.
The thing is, in both Germany and Scotland, most fans don’t support either Bayern Munich or Celtic. The majority of fans support smaller clubs, all of which have something to play for even if the title is most likely out of their grasp.
The title was decided in three of the four top European leagues before it was decided in Scotland. In some of those leagues, the top spot seems to be the only thing pundits care about. In Scotland there is genuine excitement about the race for second, third and fourth place, which looks likely to go down to the final game of this current season.
If Rangers finish out of the top two places for a second consecutive season, the club’s view of themselves as the other major team in Scotland will be shattered. Aberdeen, who have now come to define themselves as Scotland’s second team and will fight for that title as fiercely as other teams do their top spot. Hibernian’s almost unstoppable journey upwards under Lennon has given the team a fairytale return to the top flight that it will want to end in style.
Unlike in England, the Europa League still carries a strong resonance with every club in Scotland. It is the level where our clubs can hope to achieve a bit of wider glory. Gaining a stronger chance of group stage qualification isn’t seen as a distraction or a way to get guaranteed Champions League football like it would be for Chelsea or Arsenal.
Since 2012, the list of clubs to have won a cup include St Mirren, Aberdeen, Hibernian , Inverness Caledonian Thistle, St Johnstone, and Ross County – for the last three it was their first-ever major honour.
Two seasons ago also saw one of the most memorable Scottish Cup moments of all time when Hibs broke their 100-plus-year hoodoo by lifting the cup against Rangers in a dramatic fashion. The incredible videos of Hibs fans singing “Sunshine on Leith” traveled the world and showed that there is a level of passion involved in Scottish football rarely seen elsewhere in the UK.
Calibre of Managers
In 2015 – 2016 the nominations for PFA Scotland Manager of the Year were Mark Warburton, Jim McIntyre, Peter Houston, and Jim McInally. Mr Magic Hat himself was the eventual winner. Of those footballing giants only Jim McInally is still gainfully employed in management, at Peterhead who sit second behind Montrose in League Two.
Two years have gone by, and now nominations include Brendan Rodgers, Steve Clarke, Neil Lennon, and Jack Ross. Comparing this lineup to that of 2015-2016 feels like trying to compare a Kinder Surprise to a Fabergé egg.
Like all good things, this improvement in quality began with Brendan Rodgers when he signed for Celtic in May 2016. It still seems bizarre that the man who achieved Liverpool’s best-ever league season only a couple of years previously would sign for Celtic, even with the gulf in resources between Scotland and larger European leagues.
However, Celtic wasn’t the only club that was able to attract a relative heavyweight. Kilmarnock was able to coax an English Premiership manager to a peripheral Ayrshire team. It’s worth remembering that Steve Clarke was Jose Mourinho’s assistant during Chelsea’s most successful spell. Later, as a manager in his own right, Clarke guided West Brom to their highest-ever Premiership position since the reformation of the English leagues.
It was also impressive that Hibs managed to attract a manager that had relative Champions League success at Celtic to ply his trade in the Scottish Championship. The decision to take Lennon on has been rewarded with Hibs gaining promotion and challenging for second place in their first year back in the top division.
It is a statement of the depth of managerial talent in Scotland that the eventual Manager of the Year went to St Mirren boss, Jack Ross. In the overly pragmatic world of Scottish lower division football, it has been especially refreshing to see a young progressive manager achieve success by building a recognisable style into his team.
It is indicative of the newfound confidence in Scottish football that Jack Ross later turned down the opportunity to move to the equivalent level in England with English Championship side Barnsley.
Steven Gerrard’s announcement as Rangers manager in a four-year deal has led to a flurry of press and interest in the SPFL (not to mention a flurry of edits to this article). I am unconvinced that it will turn out to be a good decision for either party. While claims that it has “put Scottish football on the map” are overstated and patronizing, it is undeniable that it has generated added exposure for Scottish football and provides another compelling storyline.
Calibre of Players
Not so long ago, a Celtic squad littered with Scottish players was an indication of cutbacks and a style of play that would most often be described as “pragmatic”. Think Stephen McManus.
That’s not to say that there weren’t some excellent servants and even some decent players among them. However, the best players were usually brought to Celtic from warmer climates.
Not so nowadays. There are eight Scottish players in or around the first team and several more promising talents skirting around the edges – the highest number in ten years. Among them are some of our best players.
Standouts for the last two seasons were Brown, McGregor, Tierney, and Forrest, the last three having also come through the academy.
The same can be seen across the league where some of the best talent, and even the flair players, are Scottish. Christie at Aberdeen and Morgan at St Mirren are two cases in point.
It isn’t only Christie who has gained favourable ratings in Aberdeen. 21-year-old Scott McKenna has been a mainstay in the Dons’ defence this season. It looks like he could cope at a much higher level moving forward.
Aberdeen reportedly rejected a bid for him from English Championship side Hull City, once again showing that there is a newfound confidence in Scottish football as talent is no longer punted at the first opportunity.
At Tynecastle, 16-year-old Harry Cochrane has managed to make the move up to the first team at Hearts. What is even more impressive is that he seems to possess many of the skills that have been missing from Scottish players, namely, a good first touch, and the ability to read a run and pick out the pass.
His skinny frame isn’t typical to many of the young players that make the leap to first team football. Rather than the focus being simply on physical players, skill and technique finally seem to be winning out.
At Hibs, John McGinn is often described as the engine that has propelled the Leith team forward in the last two successful campaigns. Such a description doesn’t quite reflect just how much this Hibs team relies on him. Although McGinn is obviously technically proficient, what stands out is how much responsibility the 23-year-old has been given.
Perhaps the most interesting characteristic of this current crop of technically proficient Scottish players is that so many of them have developed while remaining in Scotland. Of course, some still choose to make the move south when they reach professional age. Billy Gilmour, who moved from Rangers to Chelsea, is a case in point. However, more have stayed and developed and have become better players for it.
Some will point to the likes of Scott McTominay at Man Utd and Andrew Robertson at Liverpool as evidence that for their talent to flourish, players have to make the move to the promised land of post industrial England.
Yet, Robertson’s case in particular highlights that there are diamonds in the Scottish game who can make the move from relative obscurity at the likes of Queen’s Park to plying their trade in England.
TV Coverage and Social Media
When you have grown too used to microwaved ready meals, you sometimes forget what decent homemade food tastes like. You know it’s better in theory, but you’re still shocked by the difference when you taste it.
That is how Scottish football fans feel about Sky and BT Sport. Everything from production values to the amount of time spent interviewing players and managers – BT Sport is better than Sky. Making content with a higher production value also seems to be catching on across Scottish football.
Si Ferry’s Open Goal interviews featuring past and present footballers are proving to be a hit. Although Ferry’s East Coast mannerisms are so exaggerated it feels like the inspiration behind a Limmy sketch, there is something endearing about the fact that he isn’t attempting to capture any audience outside of Scotland.
Open Goal is well-produced, frivolous content, and it has managed to find a willing market – something the big broadcasters are unwilling to invest in. Where the real change is taking place, though, isn’t in TV studios but online.
In the last couple of years there has been a flourishing of grassroots content for all tastes. Although Scotland has always had a healthy fanzine culture and podcasts have been a growing trend for 10 years, the new kids on the block are providing content not available in the mainstream.
Gone are the days when all that was on offer were idiotic Clyde phone-ins and a print media that didn’t understand it was no longer 1993. Recently, there’s been a move to provide fan content that focuses on such exotic concepts as statistics, analytics and tactics. It is a small but growing and thriving community that are putting traditional media to shame.
On the less analytical side, Scottish football Twitter has finally embraced the fact that we are not England. The ridiculous and at times hilariously amateurish nature of the Scottish game is being celebrated rather than lambasted. There is no finer example of this new approach out there than the Twitter account @OldFirmFacts1. There might not be many Ballon d’Or winners coming out of Scotland but with OldFirmFacts, we can watch just as entertaining balloons.
Fan Power and Experience
Fans have been taken advantage of since the the first punter donned the first bunnet cap. They are an easy target for those that have no qualms about exploiting loyalty in the pursuit of profit and for politicians who prefer finding scapegoats instead of offering solutions.
Everyone knows that the price to attend most Scottish football grounds is ridiculous when compared to other European leagues of a higher quality. It is a difficult balancing act for many Scottish clubs. On the one hand, they must balance the lack of sponsorship and TV money with revenue raised through the gate.
On the other, higher prices can keep punters away. Most fans understand this. However, it seems like fans are finally becoming more demanding of what they want from their clubs in return for their support.
In 2016, Motherwell became the first top division club to become fan-owned. The Well Society, who bought the club for £1 has been rewarded with a higher footfall, and manager Stephen Robertson has spoken positively about the link that exists between fans and the club.
At Hearts, fans stepped in to save their club from financial ruin, but not without demanding a place at the top table. Although the club was fraught with difficulties, Hearts fans have contributed £6.5 million towards their pursuit of fan ownership.
While the aim of fan ownership at Hearts is to protect the club from the trauma of administration and a repeat of the Romanov years, the initiative has already paid off for the wider community. Hearts were the first club to become a Living Wage employer and even struck up a sponsorship deal with Save the Children.
And fans are influencing club management from outwith the boardrooms. Only this month, a fan-led campaign has managed to pressure Celtic into becoming the first club in the UK to provide woman with free sanitary products in the stadium.
Fan-led activism is best exemplified in the work of Fans Against Criminalisation. The 2012 Offensive Behaviour Act was an ill-conceived piece of legislation that unfairly targeted football fans for behaviour that on a non-match day would not be considered criminal.
It was inconceivable that fans would be able to take on Police Scotland, the Scottish Government and much of the chattering classes. What followed was arguably the most successful targeted grassroots campaign in the devolution era.
The organic growth in fan culture is bringing physical changes to the stadiums as well. The growing ultras scene in Scotland has led to better atmospheres in stadiums and streets across the country.
Videos of the Green Brigade, Northbank and the Well Bois are becoming as watched as the actual games. The organic growth in fan culture is bringing physical changes to the stadiums as well. People forget that the safe standing section at Celtic Park wasn’t a given. It was a consequence of the Green Brigade unrepentantly supporting the team in their own manner.
Police Scotland’s pathetic attempts to stop ‘lateral movement’ and the club’s acceptance that they wouldn’t be able to ban the group permanently without provoking a backlash led all the parties involved to view safe standing as the only viable option.
Celtic Park is now the only safe standing ground in the UK. Although it looks unlikely that safe standing will be rolled out any time soon in England (where there would have to be a change in the law), in Scotland, clubs like St Mirren are actively looking at bringing it in.
Who knows, in 10 years’ time Scottish football’s unique selling point might be its contrast to the sanitized product in England. Dreams of a mini-Bundesliga in the far northwest of Europe may not be as far-fetched as they once seemed.
For the last three years, Scottish football has been in good financial health, or rather, it has seen a modern low point for financial crisis for clubs.
That is according to Begbies Traynor, which I was shocked to discover is the name of one of the UK’s largest financial consultancy firms and not a radge Hibs fan. According to their recent survey:
“Football distress levels peaked between 2010 and 2012 as rising wages, falling attendances and falling television deals combined to create pressure on many of the league’s biggest spending clubs.”
In April 2017, the firm declared that “All but one of Scotland’s league football clubs is free of financial distress” showing the unbelievable progress made in Scottish football.
University of Liverpool football financial expert Kieran Maguire (you can find him on Twitter at @KieranMaguire), has also looked at Scottish football’s finances and discovered reasons to be cheerful.
Of the six clubs that have published their full set of accounts (Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen, Hibs, Hearts and Kilmarnock) he found that all were all in relative good health. He has pointed out that not all clubs submit full sets of accounts due to a legal loophole, whereby they are considered too small to have to publish their profit and loss accounts or information such as wage costs.
Maguire has pointed out that these six clubs are doing well to keep wages under control. On average, they are spending £53 in wages for every £100 of income they generate. In a conversation with me he pointed out how this compares with clubs in England:
“This compares to £67 in the Premier League, and £101 in the car crash that is the English Championship, where club owners throw money at players in a desperate attempt to gain promotion and access to the lucrative £2.7 billion a year TV monies (…) Half of the clubs in the (Scottish) Premiership are operating with a total wage bill of less than £2.5 million, which is the average wage for a single player in the English Premier League.”
Although the English football bubble is yet to burst, it seems that if it does, there could be massive consequences for some of the big teams in the English Championship where the trading losses will exceed £300 million in 2016/17. As Kieran points out, “any other business would result in a more sensible approach, but the £100 million a year lure of TV money turns heads.”
As Scottish football is not expecting a £100m lotto anytime soon, clubs have been forced into a less-risky approach, and what has been most striking is that the clubs haven’t suffered on the pitch from it.
There is a momentum to Scottish football at the moment: Managers are pushing a more modern and entertaining game; talent is staying in Scotland and learning to dazzle instead of lob; the quality of content is on the up and fan-led communities are challenging the game’s established commentators; fans are demanding a place at the table and are no longer happy to be passive consumers, waiting to be told “that’s just how it is” from the powers that be; punters are turning up at the gates; and clubs are learning how to run a club without running it into the ground.
However, what is conspicuous from that list is that for all the good that is going on in Scottish football it has largely been led by fans and clubs. Good governance, leadership and new thinking have been absent from the Scottish football authorities. Our TV deals are poorer than smaller, less glamorous football leagues, e.g. Norway. When it came to standing up for fans, other than a couple of critical comments from the side, the SFA largely chose not to take part.
Although this article largely compared the Scottish game with that in England, it was done so that people could use it as a reference point. The SFA seem to be content to act like English football’s poor little brother.
It is yet to be seen if the merger of the SPL and SFL will bring about good results, however, the needless and slightly sad re-branding of the Scottish game to the ‘Scottish Premier League’ and ‘Scottish Championship’ is a small but annoying reminder of how little independent thinking exists at the top of Scottish football.
There lies the major issue in Scottish football. We are compared to other countries way beyond our means. Scottish football’s rich history and relatively big clubs mask how tiny we are. Scotland is a country of 5.4 million people.
Yet we insist on comparing ourselves to England which has 55 million. When we are feeling generous, we compare ourselves to other ‘wee’ countries like the Netherlands (17 million), Belgium (11 million), Greece (11 million), Czech Republic (10.5 million), Portugal (10 million), Sweden (9 million), or Switzerland (8 million).
There are actually only six countries in Europe that are roughly similar in population to Scotland: Norway, Denmark, Finland, Slovakia, Ireland and Croatia. Surely we should benchmark our league and national team to these countries to gauge what kind of stat our football is in?
Although the national team has been poor for years, in part through a lack of forward planning from our governing bodies, and some clubs have stumbled in Europe, in reality our game is in a decent position to achieve a lot more.
Scottish football isn’t English football. That doesn’t mean it’s shite.
What are your thoughts on the state of Scottish Football? Comment Below or tweet us @90Minutecynic
Follow Dominic on Twitter @DominicOHagan