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SOS Scotland: is there a way back for a once-great footballing nation?

Scottish football is no longer producing the great players it once regularly churned out – why?

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* Glenn Gibbons
* The Observer, Sunday 23 August 2009
* Article history

Scotland manager George Burley shows his frustration Scotland manager George Burley shows his frustration at the defeat in Norway. What can be done to improve the game in a country that used to be World Cup regulars? Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

During his halcyon days at Aberdeen, Alex Ferguson made a pronouncement to a gathering of football writers, a number of them visitors from England, which had a startling impact. Responding to the question of how he had restructured the club, with particular emphasis on scouting, he said: "Let me put it this way: no Denis Law will ever be allowed to leave Aberdeen again."

Now, on the morning after Celtic have been comprehensively outplayed on their own turf by an Arsenal team operating nowhere near optimum level in their Champions League play-off, Ferguson's regret is genuine and obvious as he admits his observation of 25 years ago will have to be amended.

"Sadly," the Manchester United manager says, "it's looking less and less likely that Aberdeen will ever again even produce a Denis Law, far less let him escape."

Ferguson's concern for the diminishing standards of Scottish football has been deepening for a considerable time, the deterioration reflected in the number of his compatriots contending for places in his own side. Even more alarming than the total of one is that Manchester United's solitary Scot, Darren Fletcher, is one more than can be found at any of the other members of England's big four – Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool. Though Law himself missed the 1968 European Cup final victory through injury, he was a star of the United side of that time and, starting a decade later, Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen and Graeme Souness were at the heart of a golden era for Liverpool.

Further embarrassment for Celtic at the Emirates Stadium on Wednesday would extend a sequence of ignominy for Scottish clubs in Europe that began with the first-hurdle collapse of all four last season. It continued with Aberdeen's recent shocking 8-1 aggregate defeat by Sigma Olomouc, Falkirk's humiliating elimination by Vaduz of Liechtenstein and Motherwell's 6-1 thrashing by Steaua Bucharest, all three clubs eliminated from the Europa League before the newly formatted tournament had even reached the play-off stage. Hearts then lost their first leg 4-0 away to Dinamo Zagreb on Thursday.

These desperate experiences have been accompanied by the national team's abortive World Cup qualifying campaign, six matches in Group Nine having yielded only seven points and culminates in the recent 4-0 whipping by a moderate Norway in Oslo.

The shortage of home-bred players of genuine quality is betrayed by the number of foreigners – themselves almost invariably moderate – at Scottish clubs, including even Celtic and Rangers. But it is when the national squad are summoned for duty that supporters' collective anxiety becomes exasperation. Few, if any, would argue with the claim that Scotland do not boast a single player who would be coveted by any rival.

George Burley, manager of a team now likely to fail to qualify for the sixth major tournament in a row since Craig Brown's side went to France 98, is in favour of some radical solutions to the problem, including allowing the Old Firm to field reserve sides in the Third Division, but with the emphasis on the grassroots. "The players coming through are not at the levels they were," he says, "so I ask why. Look at the basics. There is not enough time on the football pitch. It is not rocket science, they need time from a younger age to practise. The government have got to look at it, the councils: how can we get better facilities for youngsters to train all across Scotland?"

Burley maintains that "Scotland is a football nation", a sentiment echoed by Henry McLeish, the former Labour MP and MSP who was the country's First Minister from 2000 to 2001. "This is still a football nation, there is still a passion here which is the envy of other countries," he says. It is a passion he is examining how best to exploit as head of a review due to report in January to the Professional Football Committee, a joint body with members from the Scottish Football Association, and the country's Football League and Premier League. "There is a general agreement that things can be improved. My first interest is in looking at how best that can be done from the bottom up. It has to be coherent and it must have direction.

"This is not tacit admission that something is inherently wrong; it is us saying we can do better. We are not simply starting with a blank sheet of paper but there is a feeling we have not progressed as we should have."

What is clear is that a production line that once delivered international-class players at the rate of a car plant has been reduced almost to idleness. The beginning of the slump, curiously, may be traced to Ferguson's accession at Pittodrie, following Billy McNeill's departure for Celtic to succeed Jock Stein. Both men had conspicuous success at their clubs, but the subsequent 30 years have thrown up only three Scottish players – Charlie Nicholas, Ally McCoist and Maurice Johnston – worthy of the country's distinguished past. And all three emerged in the 80s.

Ferguson has not yet forsaken his homeland as a source of raw materials – in truth, he probably never will – but he has become emphatically less expectant of repeating the kind of business he did in the 1980s when United recruited such notable assets as Gordon Strachan and Brian McClair.

"We still had two scouts in Scotland until recently," Ferguson says, "but Jimmy Dickie died. He'll be hard to replace, because he was a great man, very discerning, would only send me lads he thought had a chance of becoming top-class. That's how it has to be at this club, of course.

"I'm prepared to wait five years for scouts in the various areas to come up with a genuine talent. It could be longer than that before we get another from Scotland. But you have to realise that our scouting system is global now, and I do mean every continent."

Ferguson shares the common conviction that the overall deterioration in standards north of the border is due in large part to the distractions that deflect youngsters' commitment to working at the game. He also believes that the dedication of his generation can be artificially replicated.

"I always thought that, in the regions of Britain at any rate, the production of great players was cyclical," he says. "For example, they used to talk about the north-east of England as a fertile area and that seems to have dried up for a while now. There was our own era here in the north-west, with the likes of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, the Neville brothers and the others from the early 90s.

"And, of course, in Scotland, the Glasgow area alone produced the Celtic team that won the European Cup in 1967. And it wasn't just the 11 who played. That squad included guys like my old friend and neighbour from Govan, Joe McBride, Charlie Gallagher, John Hughes and John Fallon, all from the city or the immediate surrounding area.

"That tells you what it meant to lads to play football in Glasgow then. We would play all day every day in the streets, running from the police when necessary, but always coming back. In that very real way, we were self-taught.

"I remember going down the Ayrshire coast to Saltcoats with my ma and da and my brother, Martin. My da would get the ball out and we'd be at it all day, using both feet. Now, for most boys, including us, that was a treat, because normally your father worked, and that included overtime and sometimes Saturdays.

"My father worked in the shipyard and, like everybody else, he would put in extra hours to increase his wages. But he took a great interest in Martin and me and would watch us play whenever he could. But the holidays were the best, because he could really take part with us. Where Scotland is concerned now, what probably has to be looked at is how boys are being encouraged and coached at an early age.

"Is enough being done with the ball? I mean, that is absolutely essential. You simply have to work relentlessly with the ball. It's just like general education. If the grounding is right, kids progress and become good students and achieve academically. Those with natural high intelligence will be high achievers. Kids who work with the ball will become good players and those blessed with outstanding natural skill will be exceptional players."

For those alarmed by the poor condition of the Scottish game – predictably, most of the managers directly involved tend to be ludicrously defensive in public, testing the credulity of fans by accusing media critics of damaging hyperbole – there is some hope to be drawn from the SFA's recognition of the decline.

Gordon Smith, the chief executive, agrees with Ferguson that concentration on ball work among the young is imperative. He is also aware, however, that the number of kids playing football has dwindled over the years and that this problem must be addressed.

Proper development and coaching, of course, requires financing and the recent collapse of the broadcaster Setanta seems to have damaged a number of SPL clubs. The new contract negotiated with Setanta would have brought an increase of £60m on their previous agreement, covering four years from 2010. Even with the new deal not due to start for another year, several clubs are said to have budgeted in expectation of the new money that will not now be forthcoming (about £1.25m per annum for each). One or two could be in serious trouble.

At the SFA, however, Smith and his team are determined to push ahead with their plans to arrest the deterioration and, if possible, return the production line to something like its former competence.

"There are a lot of things we're working on in our Soccer One programme, which concerns the development of teams," Smith says. "For a start, we need more kids actually playing the game. There was a time when you could believe that around 99% of Scots boys played football. Well, that's no longer the case.

"The emphasis has to be on athleticism, technique and the development of a football culture. It's absolutely essential that working with the ball is the priority. So, what we want to encourage in the first instance is more kids and more teams. The greater the number of participants, the greater the chance there is of producing the exceptional ones.

"Every country is producing fewer outstanding players than before, but the big countries still come up with enough to give them a strong domestic league – although they still have to import – and a credible national team. As a small country, we can't afford a drop in productivity. We've seen how short it leaves us.

"Next Sunday, we're holding a youth development conference at Hampden Park at which we want to address some important questions. For example, why are we not taking on board those things we see abroad and admire? Are boys going too young to professional clubs? Are they teaching them tactics at too early an age?

"I've come across kids of 11 who've been told by clubs that they're not going to make it. How much harm must that do? And it's ludicrous to be making judgments on any athlete's potential at that age, unless they have clearly outstanding natural talent.

"We do recognise the shrinking of the talent pool over the past few years and we are trying to do something about it. And we are already encouraged by the response. Increasing the number of kids playing the game is the first step on the road to recovery."

Billy McNeill, who captained Celtic's Glasgow and District XI to the European Cup triumph in 1967, has long lamented the lost tribe, but, perhaps surprisingly, has become more optimistic about the prospect of a brighter future.

"There's no question that the general standard has dipped to an unacceptable level," McNeill says. "When I played, you could reach into any club in the old First Division and pull out at least two above-average players. It's a long time since that was true. Those great midfielders, like Bobby Murdoch and Jim Baxter, who could shape a game, are long gone.

"But I now believe the clubs have realised where we're at and are changing course. They're concentrating on young players and on developing technique. They're improving their facilities and I really believe we've started on the road back to where we were.

"Of course, I'm more familiar with what Celtic are doing than any other club, but I know there are several others pursuing the same course. I do find it very encouraging after so many years of mediocrity."

Taken from the Guardian/Observer

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