Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The glass just got bigger

A stout middle aged man dressed in an ill-fitting Arsenal shirt squeezed into the seat beside me on the plane from Palma to Gatwick some time ago. Upon hearing my accent he proceeded to lecture me on how truly awful Scottish football was and how wonderful the English Premiership was. ‘Best league in the world, Jock,’ he intoned in that condescending manner we’ve all heard from time to time. ‘You got nothing up there, just two clubs and the rest playing at non-league standard.’ I mentioned the fact that for a nation smaller than Finland to have produced teams who have appeared in 10 European finals is unmatched. I mentioned the fact that my club holds the European record for attendances in a cup tie, League match and European club match. I mentioned the fact that we produced the first non-Latin European Champions and that most of the great English teams in the history of the game had a fair smattering of Scottish players in their ranks and for good measure, I tossed in the fact that his club, Arsenal, were founded as ‘Dial Square FC’ by four Scots, most notably David Danskin from Fife and that the instigator of the football league in England was a certain William McGregor, a Scot. Also the passing game currently played around the world was developed in Scotland and copied by England following the Scottish national team’s domination of games against England in late Victorian times. I threw in Ferguson, Shankly and Busby for good measure and the chap in the Arsenal shirt gave me a blank look and turned back to his Daily Mail.

The sort of casual prejudice some in England have for our game has little effect on me these days. The arrogance they display is akin to looking over your neighbour’s fence and telling him how crap his house is. Many small nations face such prejudice when bordered by a much larger state and it can breed an antagonistic relationship. For instance, the antagonism found between many Dutch football fans and their German counterparts is rooted in history and in that unequal relationship between the larger nation and the smaller bordering one. The Germans occupied Holland twice in the twentieth century and that leaves a historical echo. Footballing relations between the Dutch and Germans reached a low point with the infamous spitting incidents at the 1990 World Cup finals in Italy when Frank Rijkaard was guilty of repeatedly spitting on German striker Rudi Voller. Some years later Ronald Koeman, the gifted Dutch player exchanged shirts with a German player after a game which the Dutch had won and proceeded to mime wiping his backside with it in front of delighted Dutch fans. All of this sporting and socio-political rivalry is of course an integral part of football but we have to accept that some take it a little far. Indeed, we have seen much worse excesses over the years from the multi-layered Celtic-Rangers rivalry.

Jock Stein took added delight in defeating Leeds United in the 1970 European Cup Semi Final precisely because he felt Scottish teams were not given the recognition they were due. He said, ‘Quite possibly we’ve not been given the recognition down there (England) for what we’ve achieved but that’s not important. We know when they play us they’ll give us due respect.’ How right he was as Celtic destroyed the ‘Invincible’ Leeds team of Don Revie at home and away. In that era we saw St Johnstone defeat HSV Hamburg in Europe while Dunfermline were doing the same to Everton and Valencia. Dundee beat AC Milan, Kilmarnock held Real Madrid to a 2-2 draw and Dundee United defeated Barcelona home and away. (twice) Hibs also ran a very good Liverpool side close before losing 3-2 on aggregate in a time which some see as the golden age of Scottish football. What has changed since those days is the huge disparity in financial resources between the English leagues and the SPFL. The Sky deals of the early 1990s heralded an era of huge financial power for England’s top clubs. Indeed a club like Newcastle United who have won nothing since 1968 can boast of a turnover 3 or 4 times greater than Celtic’s. Top English clubs always paid two or three times what the best in Scotland could offer but that gap has now grown to become a huge gulf. Manchester City recently hired a player for £340,000 per week and the wages in the top half of the English Championship now comfortably outstrip even Celtic’s. Of course all of this money has brought an influx of foreign mercenaries to English football and a recent survey found that 66% of EPL players were foreigners. The English national team has undoubtedly suffered because of this. The relative paucity of resources has seen Scottish clubs look to youth development and this is slowly improving the Scottish national team.

So what are the small nations supposed to do when faced with the financially bloated big teams who appear to be playing fantasy football in their squad composition? If we listen to people like the man on the plane we should pack up and go home but of course we don’t listen to such folk. Fans of smaller clubs like Alloa or Brechin don’t go along expecting to win trophies each season. They go along because they love football and they love their team. Bigger clubs in smaller leagues at least have the opportunity to joust with the giants in Europe and now and again score memorable successes. However the chances of a team like Celtic winning the Champions League is far more remote today than it was in the 1960s when the playing field was much more level. That is unlikely to change for as long as they remain in the low income strata of the SPFL. Ideally UEFA would ensure a little more financial parity between the various national leagues of Europe but the big boys need only threaten them with a breakaway and they would fold. So it appears the disparity will continue for as long as we allow the current financial model to exist. Some say it’s natural that the cream rises to the top but football, for so long the working person’s sport, is increasing coming to mirror the wider society as the rich get richer and poor get crumbs from their table. Pope Francis when commenting on the unequal state of human society could equally have been talking about football when he said, ‘The rich said that when their glass was full some would spill over for the poor but it didn’t, their glass just got bigger.’

Some hope the bubble bursts and we get back to what they refer to as ‘real football’ when any club with ambition could rise and win honours. As long as TV is in love with football, they will continue to plough billions into television contracts which have changed the face of football so dramatically. Here in Scotland we have pundits wailing that the absence of Rangers from the SPFL has been a great loss but that isn’t borne out by the facts. Attendances are generally up and there has been a greater spread of trophy winners. Mark Guidi on Radio Clyde spoke apocalyptically of 35,000 empty seats at Celtic Park for SPFL games this season. This conjecture simply isn’t borne out by the facts and his pessimism and constant talking down of our national game is poor coming from someone who makes a living from it. The attendances we saw in the ten years from 1996 onwards were not the norm for Scottish football. The Lisbon Lions in their greatest season 1966-67 played to an average of 36,000 fans in home matches. This ranged from 19,000 against Stirling Albion to over 70,000 when Rangers came calling. In the days when crowds of over 100,000 at Cup Finals were normal, both Celtic and Rangers still had average attendances of around 30,000. For Guidi to state that Celtic’s current 46,000 average crowd is poor is simply ignoring the fact that it remains one of the highest average gates in the history of Celtic and is unmatched in any nation of comparable size. He’d do better to challenge the high prices of tickets in Scotland which remain among the highest in Europe. £28 to see an SPFL game is simply too much and keeps some from attending games. My season ticket for the Hampden season in 1994-95 was £160. Today at Celtic Park it is just under £500. That is vastly over-priced but for as long as ticket sales make up such a large percentage of income in Scottish football, it will remain the norm.

Of course most of us would like to see a more competitive league and some miss the intense rivalry that went with the ‘Old Firm’ fixtures. Some in the media suggest that the presence of the new Rangers would help make the SPFL more competitive but the new club has to get to there on merit not on the back of some spurious media led campaign to revive Scottish football which actually seems healthier than it has been in some time. Remember these are the same people who told us 5 clubs would die within a year of Rangers going bust in 2012 and now glibly talk of the possibility of ‘Administration 2’ at Ibrox as if Rangers somehow survived administration 1. Scottish fans are increasingly realistic about what our game can aspire to in the current climate and despite the arrogance of the man on the plane or the pessimism of  so called ‘pundits’ like Guidi, most Scottish football fans will still follow their clubs because it’s a big part of their lives.
Armageddon isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.

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