What are the origins of the current problems in Scottish domestic football? Ask that question to a hundred people and you will probably receive a hundred very different answers – and that’s even before you’ve asked for suggestions as to what the solutions might be.
Faced with poor gates (until the demise of the old Rangers, at least), supporter apathy, dwindling hospitality and sponsorship revenues in economically austere times and the simple fact that “consumers” now have many more leisure choices available on a Saturday afternoon than they did 30 years ago, any solution must reflect the complex origins of these difficulties.
Whatever the spectrum of opinion amongst the paying supporters, a brief look at recent interventions by high-profile journalists and ex-players reveals an intriguing trend. In April 2011, Jim Spence wrote on his BBC blog that:
“A club can finish bottom of the Third Division for years on end and still be guaranteed continuing membership and the financial hand-outs that go with it. It’s a great big self-interested cartel that so far has appeared frightened of competition from fresher, more ambitious clubs.”
Leaving aside the thorny issue of how “ambition” at semi-professional level might be defined, Spence is merely echoing a recurrent theme in Scottish football debate for the last 50 or so years: that in having a handful of clubs who seem to perennially struggle at the foot of the lowest league table season after season, somehow the national game is diminished as a result. It is a trend that has excercised clubs and administrators for as long as anyone can remember.
As old Rangers slowly expired with a phlegmy death rattle over the summer, the case where they tried to have five of the smallest League clubs removed in the mid-sixties was remembered with more than a hint of schadenfreude. In William McIlvanney’s canonical series on Scottish football Only A Game?, first aired in 1986, the episode entitled “The Game” features a lengthy debate on the future organisation of the Scottish league and the fate of small clubs.
Forfar Athletic boss Doug Houston and Tom Fagan, the elderly chairman of Albion Rovers, are the lone voices speaking up for small clubs, while figures from Wallace Mercer to Jim McLean predict radical re-structuring, and, from their lofty perches, prescribe everything from merger to closure to “let the market decide” for the smaller teams.
The close season just finished saw a renewed focus on the mechanics of the Scottish Football League. There was some thoughtful analysis with regard to the absurdity of having three national governing bodies and the administrative logjam this creates for effective decision-making; there was also deserved criticism for the extremely poor quality of governance at all three league bodies. But amidst such insight, there was also a strong “blame the diddies” aftertaste, particularly in the tabloids. In a widely-ridiculed article in the Sunday Mail in July, former Celtic and Scotland player Craig Burley offered his expert opinion:
“Has it really come to this? The future of Scottish football placed in the hands of a few nonentities from the lower divisions. Muppets in charge of clubs that draw embarrassing crowds of 200 people suddenly standing as judge and jury over a decision that could cost the country millions of pounds in lost revenue…
“Better to trim the dead wood than give them the power to kill off one of the two clubs that matters most. In short, it’s better them than Rangers when it comes down to a stark choice of who should go.”
Leaving aside the gap-toothed non-sequitor in the “argument” here – that somehow the choice is between Cowdenbeath or Rangers, between “Armageddon” or “the way it’s always been” – the venomously insulting nature of this piece probably did more harm to the cause of those wanting Rangers placed in the First Division than good.
The sentiments, however, remain unchanged from the mid-sixties. They are sentiments widely shared by a tabloid media at once ignorant of, and highly patronising towards the SFL – a view deftly taken apart by Peterhead manager Jim McInally in his post-match interviews following his side’s 2-2 draw with Rangers at Balmoor. Hugh Keevins’ “glorified juniors”, James Traynor’s “awful standard”, Graham Spiers’s sneering “lower league dross” and comments made about part-time SFL clubs at the beginning of the season were gleefully rammed back down their throats by Peterhead’s spirited performance.
However, there is little point just observing that journalists don’t know much about Second and Third Divisions and are evidently not terribly interested in finding out more. Our task here is to hold up the “dead wood is holding the Scottish game back” line to some kind of scrutiny and see if it is more than just a lazy media cliché.