Scot­tish Foot­ball Must Look For­ward, Not Back.

By in Niall Quinn's Route One

Celtic beat Kil­mar­nock by a hat­ful of goals on Sat­urday after­noon. Rangers con­tin­ued their flat return to the SPL yes­ter­day by los­ing to Aber­deen. With their first home game of the Cham­pi­ons League com­ing up on Wed­nes­day these should be happy times in Para­dise as Celtic fans call their home place.

You would have to worry though. Not just about Celtic but about where the game in Scot­land is going gen­er­ally. 

I’m sure that for many people all over the world the real start of the Christ­mas sea­son every year comes on the 19th of Decem­ber when they com­mem­or­ate that even­ing in 1989 when Arsenal played Rangers at Ibrox for what was billed the unof­fi­cial Cham­pi­on­ship of Great Bri­tain. Okay maybe not every­one. But the win­ning goal was scored for Arsenal, as every by an up and com­ing mes­siah from the Crum­lin area in Dub­lin. 

Unfor­tu­nately there weren’t enough wise men watch­ing and he got trans­ferred to strug­gling Manchester City soon after­wards.

The point is that the game against Rangers was seen as a ser­i­ous occa­sion. The Cham­pi­ons of Eng­land in battle against the Cham­pi­ons of Scot­land.

Rangers were miss­ing Ally McCoist that night but had seven full inter­na­tion­als play­ing, five of them Eng­lish and show­cas­ing them­selves in a World Cup sea­son. Before the game the man­agers (George Gra­ham and Graeme Soun­ess, both Scots) were inter­viewed by a young, fresh faced, presenter called Jim White (whatever happened to him?) and they spoke about the prestige of the occa­sion. They backed it up by put­ting their strongest teams out. And me. 

There were thirty one thou­sand in Ibrox on a night for brass mon­keys in Decem­ber. The game was broad­cast live to fans back in High­bury and shown later on tele­vi­sion. A match between the Cham­pi­ons of Scot­land and the Cham­pi­ons of Eng­land was ser­i­ous busi­ness. 

When we won most of Ibrox booed. Maybe Rangers had the last laugh though. Four of their play­ers made the Eng­land squad for Italia 90. Another three went with Scot­land. None of the Arsenal play­ers made either squad and that was before the For­eign Legion came. 

There is still enough romance about Celtic that Wednesday’s visit of Manchester City will stir up hope and excite­ment in half of Glas­gow. If he was watch­ing his old club, Swansea, on Sat­urday after­noon Brendan Rodgers will have noticed them exploit­ing some odd quirks in City’s defence. For Pep that is still a work in pro­gress. 

Maybe Celtic can steal some­thing this week but play­ing European foot­ball after Christ­mas seems like a very long shot. The ham­mer­ing Celtic got in Bar­celona a few weeks back was a cruel demon­stra­tion on where the power lies in mod­ern foot­ball. 

Scot­tish foot­ball is no longer the noisy neigh­bour for the Eng­lish game. It’s a dis­tant and impov­er­ished place that the Eng­lish game has almost for­got­ten about. Last week the Foot­ball League decided not to enter­tain the idea of hav­ing teams like Celtic and Rangers enter it’s ranks. Either club would have been very inter­ested in get­ting a foot on that lad­der.

The reas­ons are obvi­ous. This year for example, Swansea, a Welsh club, (as the Old Firm will have noticed) will be guar­an­teed TV rights money of £97 mil­lion if they fin­ish bot­tom of the Premier League. If they appear on tele­vi­sion more than ten times they will get more than that. If they win the com­pet­i­tion they will receive £148 mil­lion. Should they fin­ish mid-table, in tenth place say, they can expect £118 mil­lion.

The cur­rent TV deal for Scot­tish foot­ball brings in £15 mil­lion a sea­son to be div­vied up between the clubs. That is £5 mil­lion less than it costs to broad­cast two Eng­lish Premier League matches. No mat­ter how you slice it Celtic and Rangers are going to struggle to be ser­i­ously com­pet­it­ive with any­body but each other for the fore­see­able future.

That is a great pity. If you grew up when I did every decent team in Eng­land seemed to be back­boned by Scot­tish play­ers. The great Liv­er­pool side of Hansen, Nicol, Soun­ess and Dalg­lish. Forest with Gem­mill, Burns, Robertson and O’ Hare. Leeds in the sev­en­ties with Brem­ner, the Grays, Lor­imer and later McQueen and Jordan. 

Just hav­ing a Scot­tish accent back then seemed to be the equi­val­ent of acquir­ing the Pro Licence today in terms of becom­ing a man­ager. Alex Fer­guson was the last of a line that runs back through Shankly, Stein, Busby and so many oth­ers. 

Some­thing changed in Scot­tish soci­ety that ended that pro­duc­tion line. I’m not sure what it was that changed and I’ve never read a good explan­a­tion but I ima­gine that Mar­garet Thatcher can’t have been a big help. Some­how hav­ing qual­i­fied for six world Cups in a row Scot­land haven’t been back to the big show since 1998.

There are plenty of clubs in the foot­ball world who aren’t the great powers that they once were. For dif­fer­ent reas­ons Celtic and Rangers are among them. Celtic have been a well run club for many years now. They will make £30 mil­lion from their European adven­ture this year. That will be really wel­come but it amounts to less than half a Paul Pogba before any­body even starts won­der­ing about wages.

Unless the world changes rap­idly Celtic will be restric­ted to con­tinu­ing their policy of scout­ing for good young play­ers who they will lose to Eng­lish clubs as soon as some­body south of the bor­der notices them.

Is there a quick fix? Not an obvi­ous one. The quick­est route to mad­ness for foot­ball people in small coun­tries is to com­pare them­selves con­stantly to the big­ger league next door. The SPL will never thrive if it is always seen as Premier League Lite. It can have it’s own vir­tues and attrac­tions.

To me as an out­sider it seems that Scot­land needs to get back to pro­du­cing the brand of player that it was once fam­ous for . That involves huge invest­ment in coach­ing going all the way down to grass­roots level and strength­en­ing the top league so that it isn’t an eternal com­pet­i­tion between two clubs in the same city. 

It’s not a quick pro­cess but if you look at the suc­cess of places like Ice­land or Bel­gium it can pay off. 

The suc­cess of their inter­na­tional sides and the vis­ib­il­ity of their top play­ers feeds back into the sys­tem and draws kids into foot­ball in greater num­bers. In Bel­gium the domestic league, a mod­est league over­shad­owed by lots of other com­pet­i­tions on the con­tin­ent draws in £40 mil­lion a year in TV rights before for­eign sales. If you cre­ate enough good play­ers, people start to identify with your clubs and with your sys­tem. They will buy the sea­son tick­ets and the sub­scrip­tions. 

They’ll still fol­low the Premier League and there is no harm in that. A lot of people who will pay a lot of money to see the Rolling Stones also enjoy a quiet gig with a singer song­writer in a small venue where they feel a con­nec­tion. 

In Hol­land about ten years ago the clubs ban­ded together and cre­ated their own foot­ball chan­nel that showed all Dutch games live. It worked. The foot­ball was decent and dis­tinct­ive. The chan­nel was bought out and the sub­sequent deal brought in nearly £60 mil­lion per sea­son. That’s a lot of money to put back into clubs and coach­ing sys­tems.

For Celtic and Rangers the Premier League isn’t the enemy. Just like the Bundes­liga isn’t the enemy for the Dutch or La Ligue isn’t the enemy for Bel­gians. The Premier League and its rights deals and its super­stars are the proof of the appet­ite there is out there to latch onto some com­pet­i­tion to believe in. 

I am con­vinced that if you get your coach­ing right, your com­munity pro­grammes right and you share the know­ledge and the tal­ent the Premier League will do noth­ing to you except pro­mote foot­ball.

Yes the good play­ers will be swal­lowed up by the big Premier League clubs but what bet­ter advert­ise­ment would there be then to have the mod­ern Hansen, Nichol, Dalg­lish and Soun­ess play­ing Cham­pi­ons League together for a top team?

People pack base­ball sta­di­ums in coun­tries like Cuba or Venezu­ala to see the next play­ers who will go to the major leagues in the states, to see the older guys who came back and the fel­las they thought might have made it. They love what they have for what it is and what it pro­duces.

The chal­lenge is pro­du­cing play­ers with the tech­nical know­ledge and skills to com­pete any­where, be it home or abroad. Pro­duce them and all the other things will come.

Celtic may sur­prise every­body on Wed­nes­day night. Celtic Park is a spe­cial place where spe­cial things hap­pen. But either way there is no point in look­ing back and won­der­ing what happened to the Lions of Lis­bon or the unof­fi­cial Cham­pi­on­ship of Bri­tain.

Where Scot­tish foot­ball is in ten years time is more import­ant than where it has come from. 

*******************************

We Have The Tal­ent In Ire­land, Now Let’s Sup­port It!

I was speak­ing to some­body recently from a big Premier League club in Eng­land and I asked had they any young Irish play­ers on their radar. The answer was a bit crush­ing. He said that they weren’t really inter­ested in Irish play­ers unless they could get them to com­mit from the age of twelve years.

Why? They are happy that they could identify the tal­ent in our kids of ten, eleven or twelve years of age but they didn’t think they could trust our sys­tem to nur­ture that tal­ent. 

It was one of those occa­sions when you want to argue but you real­ise that the bet­ter option is just to go away and think about it. 

We pro­duce a lot of good coaches in Ire­land. We pro­duce a lot of good kids who can really play foot­ball. We seem to have trouble con­nect­ing the two groups though. We pro­duce a lot of people, physios, sports psy­cho­lo­gists and admin people etc who can work in top Eng­lish clubs but they aren’t tak­ing our coaches and they are tak­ing fewer and fewer of our play­ers.

The prob­lem isn’t just an Irish prob­lem. Eng­lish clubs are start­ing to feel the same way about young Eng­lish play­ers. I think the game in Eng­land will have to look at it’s struc­tures too in a world where foot­ball scout­ing is a global busi­ness.

A few years ago some stats were pub­lished show­ing that in terms of the UEFA Pro Licence (the highest qual­i­fic­a­tion for coaches), Spain had 2,140 coaches, Ger­many had over 1,000 while Eng­land had just 203. It was the same story with the ‘A’ licence (the second-highest qual­i­fic­a­tion), Spain was again top with 12,720 coaches, Ger­many had 5,500 while Eng­land had just 1,161.

We are fur­ther down the charts in Ire­land no doubt but in per cap­ita terms we have enough good coaches. How do we con­nect them up with the tal­ent and with the broader foot­ball world?

Qual­i­fy­ing as a foot­ball coach takes a lot of time and money. The Pro licence requires 250 con­tact hours over two years. The A licence, which you must have before attempt­ing the pro licence, requires 270 con­tact hours. So get­ting through the B, A and Pro licences is going to take a lot of time and money for a young coach. We need a sys­tem that allows them to do what they are trained to do and a sys­tem which is a pass­port for work­ing abroad and per­haps bring­ing back know­ledge from there.

In Ger­many, for instance, they have a tal­ent pro­gramme to identify tal­en­ted kids whom they then put into a sys­tem to teach them skills and tac­tics. This sys­tem isn’t depend­ent on clubs as per the Eng­lish and Irish mod­els. The Ger­mans use over 1,000 of their B qual­i­fied coaches and they scout as well as train the kids. They reckon they miss noth­ing in terms of tal­ent.

And if a kid is signed up by a club they will still attend the local devel­op­ment pro­gramme in their region. Other kids, the vast major­ity play for their small local teams, go to the devel­op­ment ses­sions once a week where they may get spot­ted by big­ger clubs from here, and else­where but where they always get put in touch with coaches who will make them bet­ter play­ers. 

Every­body would know that the kids who passed through this pro­gramme while stay­ing at home (and get­ting edu­cated too) would be equipped with a guar­an­teed range of skills and tac­tical abil­it­ies. 

Incor­por­at­ing this kind of tem­plate in Ire­land would take the pres­sure off clubs where the res­ults are at best patchy right now. It would put an end to a sys­tem which is start­ing to tell us that if a kid isn’t snapped up by the age of twelve then his chances are get­ting slim­mer every year.

We pay a lot of lip ser­vice to sport in Ire­land. You can’t get stand­ing room on the band­wagon when things are going well. The rest of the year it’s a lonely, thank­less slog for coaches and volun­teers run­ning the grass­roots game. 

Sport brings all sorts of bene­fits apart from pride and cel­eb­ra­tions on great days. In terms of our health and edu­ca­tion and the sort of com­munity we want to be, we should be invest­ing far more money in sport. Leav­ing the cre­ation of facil­it­ies to one side, a lot of this new money needs to be chan­nelled to the train­ing and main­ten­ance of coaches.

Speak­ing as a former Board Mem­ber of The Irish Sports Coun­cil I find it more dif­fi­cult than ever now to see a coher­ent sports policy that is mov­ing with the times. Our elec­ted lead­ers and keep­ers of the pub­lic fin­ances must under­stand that we have the tal­ent to do bet­ter. Can they make a plan to give that tal­ent the resources and sup­port it needs?

If not, their last band­wagon may just have depar­ted.