Friday 23 February 2018

How Scottish football spiralled into decline

Denis Law is hugged by a fan after Scotland beat England 3-2 at Wembley in 1967. Photo: Larry Ellis/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Denis Law is hugged by a fan after Scotland beat England 3-2 at Wembley in 1967. Photo: Larry Ellis/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Jonathan Liew

Complete the following sequence: Saudi Arabia, the Congo Republic, Montenegro, blank.

The sequence is taken from the Fifa world rankings in descending order, and the next entry is Scotland: the world's 57th best team, the only home nation not at Euro 2016, and now almost two decades on from its last foray onto the global stage.

As they prepare to face England in a fixture bearing a fraction of its former venom, it is worth asking how one of the sport's oldest and most venerated teams reached this point. As with England, Scotland's national game has been in decline for some years. But was it preventable? And is there any way back?

Craig Burley went to the 1998 World Cup in France, and to this day remains the last player to score for Scotland in a major finals. Burley is now 45 years old, a pundit for ESPN in the US, and gave up on watching Scotland years ago.

"I remember pitching up at the old Hampden with my dad when I was 10 or 11," he says. "And I was in awe of those players. Joe Jordan. Graeme Souness. Gordon McQueen. Now, to be honest with you, it's a shambles. I couldn't tell you half the squad."


Gordon Strachan watches his team draw with Lithuania last month. Photo: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
Gordon Strachan watches his team draw with Lithuania last month. Photo: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Three decades ago, when Scotland went to the 1986 World Cup, they bore representatives of Manchester United, Liverpool, Everton and Barcelona. Two decades ago in France, Scotland had Premier League winners in Colin Hendry and Kevin Gallacher, a Champions League winner in Paul Lambert, a French champion in John Collins. By contrast, the squad picked to face England tomorrow night has almost twice as many Championship players as Premier League players.

"It's a culmination of a lot of things," says Arthur Albiston, the United defender who played in that 1986 side. "When I was in the Scotland squad, Dundee United, Aberdeen, Rangers and Celtic were getting long runs in European tournaments. Most of the big clubs in England had three or four Scottish players in the squad. And they were all getting experience of European football. Now, Scotland are coming up against guys they've never come across before."

As Albiston points out, it is a problem that goes far deeper than the national side. That same year, 1986, Terry Butcher became one of the first world-class English players to move north of the border. The quality and intensity he encountered, he remembers, was unrelenting.

"Anybody could beat anybody in the old Premier Division," he recalls. "Every game was like a major final."

Even a decade on, when Burley moved to Celtic from Chelsea, the standard was still high. "We were signing Paul Lambert and Henrik Larsson," he says. "Rangers had Italian and German internationals. When I played against Rangers, Gazza was on the bench. Scottish football hasn't got the money to bring in the real quality players any more."

The days when top English players ventured north are long gone, but even the pathway in the opposite direction has dried to a trickle. When the defender Donald Love signed for Sunderland in August, it was the first time in 114 years that the club of Ferguson, Busby, Strachan and Macari had not a single Scottish player or manager. "It's a shame, really," Albiston says. "When I came to United, the foreign lads were Scottish, Irish and Welsh. Now you've got lads from all over the globe, which is the way it's got to be."

Butcher, meanwhile, was at St George's Park earlier this week to present Gary Cahill with his 50th cap. While he was there he casually asked the England squad if any of them had Scottish team-mates at their clubs. Hardly any of them did.

So is Scotland's decline simply a by-product of football's globalisation, the inevitable levelling of a long-skewed playing field? Well, sort of. Look further down the ladder, and the problems seem more specific. Scotland's U-21s have not reached a major finals since 1996. The U-19s have reached one in 30 years. That was in 2006, when a Scotland team narrowly lost to Spain in the final of the European Championships. It should be a source of embarrassment that while Spain's team ended up producing seven Premier League players, including Juan Mata, Gerard Piqué and Javi García, Scotland's produced just one: Graham Dorrans. For Burley, the major stumbling block is not talent, but aspiration.

"It was never my ambition as a youngster to play in Scotland," he says. "I wanted to go to England. When I went to Celtic, it was almost as if some of their kids felt they had achieved their goal by getting an apprenticeship. We need youngsters to have the mentality that playing for Partick Thistle and Motherwell and St Mirren is OK, but not the real goal."

That may be changing. Teenager Oliver Burke was plucked from Nottingham Forest by Leipzig and sits second in the Bundesliga. Butcher, who coached the national side under Burley's uncle George between 2008 and 2009, insists that the talent pool now is greater than it was then. And throughout these long years of famine, the passion that has always underpinned Scottish football has remained undimmed.

According to the recent BBC documentary 'Scotland's Game', a higher percentage of the population attend football matches in Scotland than anywhere else in Europe.

"Even though there's a severe lack of money, there's still that love of the game," says Butcher. "I'm still amazed at how much press coverage it gets."

With a little care, a little luck, and a relatively easy World Cup qualifying group - sorry, England - could Scotland one day rise again?

Nobody knows for sure. But 144 years after they first faced the Auld Enemy on the football field, you suspect they will never stop hoping. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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