While the present team flounders, our young players offer hope
The real home of football on television these past few weeks has not been at Sky Sports (except on a Saturday afternoon when the magnificent Jeff Stelling is presenting his splendid Soccer Saturday programme). Instead, proper football has recently taken up residence on ITV4 HD in a programme called The Big Match Revisited. I pre-recorded about 10 of them, for I have discovered that they provide the perfect accompaniment to a 3am kebab after a midweek networking event. Sometimes, they are ideal in that twilight hour on an early Saturday evening after the vigil mass has ended and before the Bacardi bacchanal begins.
The Big Match Revisited has been transporting us these last few weeks back to the spring of 1979 and, in particular, to the closing stages of a very tight English Second Division promotion race. Thus we have been treated to Terry Venables's fledgling and gifted young Crystal Palace side and matches between Sunderland and Wrexham featuring players such as Dixie McNeil playing on glaury surfaces and making the sort of challenges that afterwards have their opponents counting their balls rather than merely rubbing them. "Going in like a cancan dancer," is how the Sunday Post's late, and much lamented, Doug Baillie would have described these tackles. The shows were usually presented by the ineffable Brian Moore and sometimes by a dapper wee chap called Elton Welsby, who always looked like he was auditioning to be Dickie Davies on ITV's flagship, and rather salty, World of Sport.
Last week, though, we got extended highlights of the 1979 FA Cup final between Manchester United and Arsenal, which the London side won in a 3-2 thriller. This was the one where three goals were scored in the last three minutes and the old Wembley looked serene and majestic. Of the 22 players who started the match, only seven were English. The rest of the players were gathered from each of the other four British Isles nations, six of whom – Arthur Albiston, Gordon McQueen, Martin Buchan, Joe Jordan, Lou Macari, Willie Young – were Scots.
In the 34 years that have passed since then, we find that England's ability at football has not changed much; they still can't get young native talent into their top teams and are as far away as ever from winning a serious international tournament. Five of those Scottish players had been regulars in an international team that was in Europe's top 10. The other, Willie Young, was a member of the infamous Copenhagen Five in 1975, the last time Scotland ever caused serious mischief away from home either on or off the park. In 2013, Scotland is a third world football nation and now takes its place alongside the Faroes, the San Marinos and the Liechtensteins of European football. Burkino Faso, Sierra Leone and the Cape Verde Islands are all ahead of us in Fifa's international rankings.
Last month, we became the first team in Europe to be knocked out of the race to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil. Our best hope of ever qualifying for this event before the end of the 21st century may have to rest within the loins of a specially chosen battalion of vigorous young Scots, tasked with attending Rio next year and having some carnal behaviour with local women. This will be a sacred mission.
Scotland's footballing demise over the past 20 years or so has been slow and inexorable. Yet what has occurred this season makes you wonder how we could have offended the Almighty so much. Until last Monday, the only circus in town was the one at Rangers, forced to start again in football's fourth tier following liquidation and screaming silently as speculators still play dice with each other over what remains of the club. Rangers' downfall is hurting Scottish football, including their great rivals, Celtic, who are playing regularly to half-empty stadiums in the only competition in world football where the outcome is known before a ball has been kicked.
In order to reconfigure Scottish football and nurse it back to something approaching rude health, the authorities attempted a league reconstruction that generous-minded souls might have described as "fanciful". It involved creating a 12-12-18 three-league structure that would metamorphose into something else two-thirds into the season. At some point, the top six (or the bottom six) all do the hokey cokey and turn around (anticlockwise). To make sense of it, you would need to feed it into the Large Hadron Collider. Last week, the plan was jettisoned. This led to the sort of anger displayed by Steve Carell's character in the film Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.
In a nation of 5.2 million souls, we have 42 senior football clubs, several of which are a fortnight away from the knacker's yard. There are three separate management bodies to oversee the game, each presided over by a superannuated cost accountant type with a salary and responsibility utterly disproportionate, it would seem, to his ability. England (pop: 53 million) has 92 senior teams.
Football in Scotland is being sunk by the combined weight of its bureaucracy and needs to be run by a single body. I acknowledge that the number of redundancies resulting from this among the blazerati would need an enterprise zone all to itself but, well… cruel to be kind and all that. And the only reconstruction should be that forced upon Scottish clubs to ensure that a minimum number of Scots must feature in their first team.
There are, though, some faint traces of light piercing the darkness. Last November, I watched Scotland's under-16 team play their England counterparts at Burton Albion's ground. The young Scots lost 1-0 against players schooled at the English Premier League's richest academies but not before they outplayed their opponents for prolonged periods of the match.
I also saw something long forgotten in these parts: the sight of footballers in Scotland shirts, two-footed, technically adept and passing at tempo. I have often watched the recording to remind myself that it actually happened.