Scots wha hae! Thoughts on the sad and ominous decline of Scottish soccer

By Paul Gardner

I note, with considerable exasperation tempered by sadness, that Scottish soccer is experimenting with a marvelous new scheme for eliminating diving from their game.

That Scottish soccer vitally needs something to save it from obscurity, something to save its very soul ... which, let it be remembered was once a guiding light for the sport -- cannot be doubted. But to be tinkering with a minor annoyance like diving ... well, what does that tell us about any hopes for a Scottish revival?

The vital part played by Scottish players in the early development of the sport in Britain is, I think, not as widely cherished as it should be. Scottish players were much sought after by English clubs until well into the 1960s.

During the 1940s it was almost a given that all the top English teams would include at least one Scot -- and he would likely be the key player. Yes, there were Scots famous for their fighting spirit, but there were also plenty of Scottish artists, wonderfully skillful players who liked the ball on the ground, who could dribble and dazzle and entertain.

The English had been left in no doubt about the superiority of the Scottish game back in 1928 when an unfancied Scottish XI had thumped England 5-1 at Wembley. The scoreline was bad enough. But it was rubbed in by the electric play of the Scots forward line, five small men -- Alan Morton, the wee blue devil himself, the shortest at 5-foot-4, up to Alex Jackson, the tallest at 5-7, who scored three times.

Things were to change dramatically. In 1954, Scotland made its first appearance in the World Cup. They ran into Uruguay and were mauled 7-0.

Looking back, I suppose that really marked the beginning of the end. But not for the Scots. They hung tenaciously on and the famous Tartan Army, the Scottish fans, continues to accompany Scotland to all its away games, certain that some dramatic success was about to happen.

Afraid not. From 1954 to 1998 Scotland played in eight World Cups -- but it never got out of the first round. At the club level, things were -- apparently -- much better, for it was Glasgow Celtic that become the first British club to win the old European Cup, in 1967, with a stirring win over Inter Milan. Yet even this proved to be a swan song. Celtic reached the final again three years later, in 1970, playing as strong favorites against the little-known Feyenoord, but it was the Dutch who won the game.

To those who were not following the demise of Scotland and Scottish soccer too closely -- people like me, that is -- things seemed to happen so quickly. Suddenly there seemed to be no top Scottish players. Despite that awkward fact, the Scottish Premier League was formed -- to be quickly dominated by the two Glasgow clubs, Rangers and Celtic.

Rangers had won the European Cup Winners Cup in 1972, but their adventures into Europe after that were no more successful than Celtic’s. It became unavoidably obvious that Scottish teams were not up to European, never mind world, standards.

The great Scottish traditions in English soccer were kept alight, not by players, but by a bunch of great coaches -- Bill Shankly, Matt Busby, Alex Ferguson. All of them products of the tough mining and ship-building communities. But it was exactly those industries that were disappearing as Scotland underwent enormous changes.

In 2011, the unthinkable. Rangers went bankrupt, with an unpaid tax bill estimated at $111 million. The club, only a decade or two from being one of the most famous in the world, was reborn -- to play in the Scottish fourth division.

Leaving Celtic to rule the roost in Scotland. That is still the situation. This year, Celtic was unbeaten in its 38 games and took the title with an astonishing 30-point lead over second place Aberdeen. In third place came Rangers, which has fought its way back up to the Premier League.

But now the SPL seems to be almost a minor league. Celtic, so utterly dominant there for years, has suffered almost yearly humiliation in its attempts to impact the European scene. Early exits have become the norm, with Celtic vanquished by the likes of Politehnica Timisoara, Wisla Krakow, Sachsenring Zwickau, Wacker Innsbruck, Neuchatel Xamax. Hardly an imposing list of conquerors. But when Celtic did face a top team, the scoreline in 2016 was Barcelona 7 Celtic 0.

Are we witnessing Scottish soccer in its death throes? The presence of talented Scots in the English game used to be living proof that the Scottish game was a formidable influence in the sport. Alas, if you’re looking for Scots in the current Premier League teams, you will find a desert.

Twelve of the 20 teams -- including the top eight -- have no Scottish players at all. Among the other 8 teams, there is a meager sprinkling of 15 Scots. None of them can be considered a world-class player. West Brom captain Darren Fletcher is probably the most well-known. He is 33.

The doom-laden thought intrudes. As the miners and the dockers have disappeared, they have taken Scottish soccer with them? Mines and dockyards will not be reappearing. Is that to be the fate of soccer?

The supply line of skilled players has dried up. A similar fate has overtaken Scottish coaches. Just one was there last season. David Moyes, who presided at Sunderland as the club finished in last place.

There is an old idea that keeps popping up: would it not make sense to have a British super league? But how many Scottish teams would make the grade? Such a league would inevitably be dominated by English clubs and English organization -- probably to the extent of wiping out Scottish soccer as a separate entity altogether.

Something that fits ill with Scotland’s independence desires. And something that no one who recalls the great days of the Scottish game could possibly wish for.

Surely, it is not too late. Surely something can be done, must be done, to set Scottish soccer back on its twinkling feet. It is this urgent and heartfelt desire that makes it so frustrating to watch as the Scottish soccer authorities waste their time and energy in combating the greatly exaggerated menace of diving.

We are told: Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad ... Is that what the soccer gods are up to in Scotland?

16 comments about "Scots wha hae! Thoughts on the sad and ominous decline of Scottish soccer".
  1. R2 Dad, May 27, 2017 at 1:38 p.m.

    Thanks for addressing this issue, Paul. Scotland has the same issues we see here in the US, just on a smaller scale. There are few open fields for public play--I've never seen kids playing anywhere; the old school fields one could sneak onto have been converted into homes. With both parents working and family sizes small, kids aren't left to their own devices to run around playing football, rounders, non-stop cricket anymore. Their FA is directly involved in identifying kids at U6 so if there is innate talent they see it. But these days Scottish parents see that an education far out-weighs the benefits of professional sports where one injury can end a promising career. On the plus side, their officiating process is solid, refereeing crews and mentoring are good. The "agricultural" soccer so often attributed to them by the Auld Enemy is being replaced by a more nuanced version. There is still more work to be done, as all the wild cheering from reckless tackles indicates. Scotland is a small country of 5 million. I think they were over-represented being near the origins of the game, and are now reverting to the mean.

  2. frank schoon, May 27, 2017 at 1:44 p.m.

    Too bad Paul, but this column should have been written back in the 80's. I remember in the 60's, 70's an English team needed to have one or two scottish players to be good, they brought life to any English team,like Billy Bremner of Leeds, Andy Gray, a great winger. Scotland produced some great winger players, Jimmy Johnstone, and Denis Law and others. Scottish soccer over the years has become ,hard fighting ,no brains, take out the dentures, roll up the sleeves, as the scottish spectators enjoy the smell of BenGay as the players would run past the stands. I have no idea, why any American would play in Scotland, what a waste.
    Basically the Scots only care about playing England and beating them. I hope they will begin all over and totally begin to play a new type of game, more a thinking , possession game, employing wingers of which they produced so many of over the years...They need to bring great people in like Guardiola, those types to help who know the game backwards and forwards and not allow these A-licensed 'paper poopers" to get their hands on Scottish soccer.

  3. Fire Paul Gardner Now, May 27, 2017 at 1:50 p.m.

    This has been obvious to anyone following the sport for the last 30 years but it's apparently news to Paul.

  4. Ray Shines, May 27, 2017 at 4:46 p.m.

    I'm just stunned Gardner wrote an entire column without mentioning Hispanics.

  5. Ric Fonseca replied, May 28, 2017 at 5:56 p.m.

    For being a solid supporter of "HIspanic" or U.S. born "Latino" players, I believe that PG is exercising journalistic license to write whatever he deems news worthy of a futbol-soccer article. As a naturalized US citizen Mexican birth, I can take your comment several ways: as a sarcastic or innocent view, but know what mi buen amigo, I could care less, 'cause who says PG must mention "Hispanics?" Honestly now, I am stunned that YOU are stunned! Saludos & PLAY ON!!!

  6. Christopher Tallmadge, May 27, 2017 at 7:13 p.m.

    it is really is too bad. Twenty years ago the Scots were still good enough to qualify for the World Cup. Now? Forget it. If a starless Ireland can be consistently competitive why can't Scotland? Maybe young Scots just aren't playing much anymore.

  7. Lou vulovich, May 27, 2017 at 11:04 p.m.

    Paul. Could not the same be said for 30 other countries, including soccer in general.

  8. Gus Keri, May 28, 2017 at 6:25 a.m.

    Congratulation, Paul. You finally managed to publish this article that you started writing 40 years ago. :)

  9. Paul Cox, May 28, 2017 at 4:31 p.m.

    Blah blah blah. You wanna know why Scotland is having problems? Because their population is just over 5 million people. This isn't rocket science.

  10. Ric Fonseca replied, May 28, 2017 at 5:58 p.m.

    You are correct it isn't "rocket science" nut an introductory course into social-political science...

  11. frank schoon replied, May 28, 2017 at 6:04 p.m.

    Paul, Scotland back in the 60's and 70's had less people and had great soccer but now with a bigger population they stink, go figure....

  12. frank schoon replied, May 28, 2017 at 6:07 p.m.

    paul, Iceland has population of a few hundred thousand and they are doing just great ....go figure. It has nothing to do with population but with the quality of training...

  13. R2 Dad replied, May 29, 2017 at 4:35 p.m.

    Hmmmm. NI = 1.8M, Ireland = 6.4M, Wales = 3M.

  14. Scot Sutherland, May 28, 2017 at 11:41 p.m.

    As an American of Scottish heritage the decline of the Scottish Soccer is pretty easy to explain. In 1900 Glasgow was one of the largest cities in the world and Scotland was home to 4.8 million people in 1911. The energy and creativity of the country was at an all time high. There was a drain on the population with more than 2 million immigrating elsewhere. While countries around the world have grown in population and economy, Scotland has not grown nearly as much, current population about 5.3 million for a net gain 10% in comparison to the US 236% and England 58% growth. You can't export your best and brightest to the rest of the world and sustain the home front.

  15. Scott Johnson, May 29, 2017 at 2:34 a.m.

    It's not that English soccer is doing all that swell, either. The Premier League is still probably the strongest pro league in the world from top to bottom (even if English team struggle against the Bayerns and Barcelonas of the world), but it's full of foreigners. England still usually qualifies for the World Cup, but has not had a strong showing in one for quite a while. At least there is Wales to show their fellow Brits how it is done...

  16. Nick Daverese, May 29, 2017 at 4:58 p.m.

    I will say one thing about Scotland they may have the best supporters in the world. They are gentlemen met some of them years ago at a game. Went drinking with them after the game. Their team lost but man were they cool people.

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