In a week when Gordon Strachan admitted that Scottish football needs “wholesale reform”, it was interesting to see comedian Andy Cameron on a re-run of Top of the Pops, singing “Ally’s Army”, that paen to the 1978 Scottish international team bound for Argentina.
How times change, for in 35 years, Scotland have gone from being a confident, strident international team to absolute also-rans. In fact, with each year, Scotland’s position becomes increasingly weaker. It’s difficult to see how they can qualify for a major tournament again. They are not alone, however, for England are in a downward spiral and Wales and the two Irelands are struggling to compete on the highest stage.
Scotland’s decline is the most stark, and indeed rather sad. Anyone over the age of 50 will recall the mighty Celtic side that lifted the European Cup in 1967 and the string of Scottish players that played in successful English sides. Billy Bremner, Dennis Law, Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness…the list goes on.
But the real fall of Scottish football began in 1986. That was when Glasgow Rangers persuaded Graene Souness to go to Ibrox Park and then the cheque book started to open. The 1980s had seen a sea change in Scottish football. After a period during which Celtic had dominated domestic football, the “new firm”, Aberdeen and Dundee United had changed the dynamics. Rangers’ position was slipping. Souness started to draft in players from south of the border, reversing a trend that had long existed – the best Scottish players joining English clubs. Now, with English clubs banned from Europe, Rangers were able to lure the likes of Chris Woods, Terry Butcher, Mark Hateley, Trevor Steven and, eventually, Paul Gascoigne to Ibrox.
Rangers spent a lot of steelman David Murray’s money, raising the bar in Scottish football. Celtic followed suit and then a host of other Scottish clubs started to spend money they could ill-afford. The emphasis moved from developing players to buying talent. It was a blueprint that has been copied ever since right across British football.
But was it really necessary? Did Rangers – and Celtic – have to spend so much to outdo each other? If it was meant to guarantee European success then it didn’t work. If both of Scotland’s leading clubs were effectively full of foreigners, some good, some expensive flops, then what chance the national team?
With a trip to Brazil 2014 now out of the question, Scotland have failed to qualify for four consecutive World Cups – this after a period during which tartan was present at the great sporting event between 1974 and 1990. And today we are in an era of 32-team tournaments. Add to that four European Championships in which Scotland have fallen at the qualifying hurdle and it’s clear that Scotland are no longer even middle-weight contenders.
What’s the answer? Souness has blamed poor Scottish diets for a lack of new talent (he may be right). And as Strachan said, it requires something seismic to change Scotland’s football. It all starts at domestic level and the big clubs – sorry Celtic, Rangers will be back – have a responsibility to start discovering young talent. If Scottish football is broke, then start nurturing players and save on the big import bills. Limit the number of foreigners in the game and start using the domestic game like the England cricket squad uses the county game – development of players for the international stage. It’s a message that could be equally applicable to the English game, but the alarm bells are not ringing as loud – yet. As it stands, Strachan probably has the worst job he’s had in football – and doesn’t he just know it….