• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Spiers on Sport: the decline of Scotland as an international football team

It's been a grim journey for GRAHAM SPIERS witnessing Scotland’s decline in international football. Here, in a special essay, he charts our downfall on the global stage and suggests six reasons to explain it.

Despair in the ranks of the Tartan Army...again

I was at Hampden Park as a wee kid with my father on the night of November 15 1972 when Scotland beat Denmark 2-0 in a World Cup qualifier. I remember the evening distinctly: it was freezing and a great cloud of fog generated by a 60,000 crowd hovered over the stadium.

Scotland won that qualifier 2-0, the goals coming from Kenny Dalglish and Peter Lorimer (please, don’t weep), which meant, having won the away tie in Copenhagen 4-1 four weeks earlier, Scotland had routed the Danes 6-1 over two matches. When I look back on it there was no great fuss at such an aggregate score over the two games. Back in those early, thrilling days of my football childhood Scotland had a team which was about to go to the 1974 World Cup and was feared by anyone across Europe who came to Glasgow.

I once hovered on the steps outside Hampden prior to a Scotland-England game – I think in 1976 when Scotland won 2-1 - to garner a few autographs. Out they all came, a roll call of some of Britain’s finest footballers: Danny McGrain, Kenny Dalglish, Joe Jordan, Bruce Rioch, Archie Gemmill and more. In those days in Glasgow you went home at night to watch Sportsreel (the forerunner to BBC Scotland’s Sportscene) and then Match Of The Day, the latter of which would teem with images of Scots running riot in the English First Division. At the age of 12 I never quite knew what an “anglo-Scot” was – the phrase was very much in vogue in the early 70s – but on a Saturday night you still went to bed comforted by some subconscious belief that Scottish football really was something special, something exciting.

Just to reinforce that impression, Scotland duly went on a World Cup qualifying spree, gaining entry to the finals of 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986 and 1990. By contrast, England, our mighty neighbour, only reached three of those five championships. Scotland’s fate once we got there was almost invariably a let-down, but that wasn’t the point. Scottish arrogance and self-belief back then were actually tempered with a touch of self-awareness: despite being a much smaller nation we believed we were on a par with or better than England, which was great, though in world terms many Scotland supporters knew we couldn’t cut the mustard. It was a happy psychological place to be.

Then, slowly but inexorably, and worryingly on the eye, Scotland began to produce a different, less subtle, less skilful type of international player. It happened maybe around the mid-1990s, when Scotland international teams became stolid, stuffy and grafting rather than exciting, swift and creative. Poor Craig Brown takes a lot of the flak for this, with his muscular 3-5-2 formations: big chests, brawny thighs and all, but with not a lot of the Billy Bremners or Don Massons about them. In truth, when you look back, Brown at times had little option but to play a team of 11 Colin Calderwoods, because the conveyor belt of talent dried up. Brown is a pragmatist but no-one can seriously argue that, in turning Scotland into a boot-camp team for 10 years, he wantonly omitted prized gems from his team. There weren’t any out there anymore.

I remember Brown having to repeatedly defend his inclusion of Craig Burley in his team. Burley today is a prickly and impressive football pundit, so he won’t mind a bit of retrospective prickliness coming his way. Scotland fans viewed him as a runner, a grafter, certainly not a hod-carrier but a guy of limited skill, who could not tie the laces of a Bremner, a Dalglish or a Gemmill. Burley in this appraisal (harsh as it may be) became the very emblem of the modern Scotland teams – no longer to be feared. Amid all this the Tartan Army remained faithful – indeed, there is evidence it actually grew in number – but the sense of the “brilliance of Scotland” had long gone.

For football supporters everywhere there are staging posts when you know the game is up. For me, with Scotland, that moment came on the night of June 23 1998 in Saint Etienne in France. This remains the last match Scotland played in a major football finals, now 14 years ago, when Morocco utterly humped us 3-0 in the final group-game of the 1998 World Cup.

In the build-up to that game, just for one last time, we kept our doubts about Scotland’s undeniable decline at bay. I was part of the press pack that month with Scotland and I remember we all actually believed we would beat Morocco and get through. I don’t remember a single dissenting voice on the issue. Craig Brown somewhat egged us on, claiming the Moroccans “had weaknesses to exploit”, and we all just thought we’d win.

I watched aghast from up in the stand that night as Scotland’s future disintegration in international football began its course. Morocco lacerated us – they were quicker, more skilful, more lithe – and Brown’s players were left chasing shadows. Ignominiously but fittingly, Jim Leighton got caught up in the rigging of his goal, his ankles and arms entangled, as if being netted by a medieval mob, as another goal zipped past him. That night summed up what Scotland had become: a comical catastrophe.

Since around 2000 the navel-gazing and gnashing of teeth over Scotland’s international decline have been ceaseless. Eight international finals have now passed with the Scots failing to qualify – it has been a national disgrace, prompting sackings, resignations, questions in parliament and the like. On occasion, such as in Paris in the autumn of 2007 when the score was James McFadden 1, France 0, we thought the drought was about to end, but alas, no. Craig Levein’s grim, dogged tenure is just the latest instalment in Scotland’s terminal decline.

There is no need to be too wordy about the reasons for that decline. Like a GP’s diagnosis of an illness they can be listed here in linear, uncomplicated fashion.

Scottish football has declined because:

1. The death of street football, a modern necessity, killed off the “natural womb” of talent the country once had. Scottish kids once played fitba’ til the dying of the light. No more.

2. Scottish society improved, social conditions were enhanced, and the urchin-footballer went with it. Social deprivation was once a prolific conveyor-belt of gifted players. No more.

3. The Scottish FA endured decades of complacent neglect. While other countries – the Scandinavians – were putting coaching structures in place, the Scottish FA said: “We’re alright, we’re going to all these World Cups.” What a price Scotland has paid.

4. The modern “idle age” means kids no longer go out to play. At one time you put a jumper down in a park. In recent times you’d open a computer screen while scoffing Monster Munches.

5. Rangers and Celtic in part killed the “grow your own” culture of Scottish football by spending two decades buying in “big names”. Other SPL clubs scrambled to keep pace. Patience in rearing young Scots went by the wayside.

6. Football used to dominate school sports – in part unfairly. Today other sports have muscled in on the agenda. Educationally, Scotland has ceased to be a football-orientated country.

In any debate about the decline of Scottish football most of the reasons cited would fall somewhere within the orbit of these six causes. Of course, the argument goes that other countries have also suffered from social changes, while remaining adept at the game, which is all well and good. These other countries, however, have adapted to change far better than Scotland when it comes to football. The evidence for this is incontrovertible.

Today, after these years of failure, the Scottish football psyche is a deadbeat. Where once optimism and bravado prevailed, today a certain black-humour is a necessary part of the Tartan Army’s body armour. Scotland fans, while not becoming parodies, have to laugh at themselves and their team…otherwise, what would be the point in maintaining any allegiance? You can no longer be straight-faced about it. It would kill you today if you actually lived and died by Scotland’s international results.

Personally I don’t pine for those years of my 1970s youth – Scottish life in so many ways is better than back then – but I do look back fondly to those days in terms of Scottish football. The old Hampden Park was a heady place: dusty and teeming in the summer months, in winter gripped by an icy expectation as Scotland put the Czechs or someone else to the sword. Yes, it was an innocent age, summed up by Arthur Montford, his Scotland rosette worn under his big coat as he urged Scotland to victory via his STV microphone. But it was also a great time, especially for a wide-eyed kid, mesmerised by Scotland’s dark blue jersey and Joe Jordan’s fearsome fangs.

Where will we be in 2016 or 2018? I don’t know. Like a dour old Presbyterian preacher I dread to say this: we might still be in decline.

Additional Images: 

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

126414