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The only way is ethics

July 9, 2012

So, according to Stewart Regan, Rangers being placed in Division 3 of the SFL would bring ‘Scottish Football’ a ‘slow, lingering death’.

Oh dear. When he leaves his position, as leave it he surely must, at least a job beckons on a tabloid subs’ desk, because his statement is a perfectly inaccurate scare mongering sound bite. And it needs examining.

Does it mean clubs will go to the wall? Well, when he was asked, he said no.

Does it mean clubs will have to operate at an appropriate financial level? And, if so, how does that equate with ‘a slow, lingering death’?

As everybody has been saying for years, Scottish football is already dying – despite the fact that we have a bigger percentage attending live football, per head of population, than any other country in Europe.

What do folk mean when they say ‘the game is dying?’

Broadly, they seem to be referring to falling attendances and a general ennui of dissatisfaction hanging over the game, promoted by phone ins, online messageboards and parts of the media.

If they are referring to the status of our international team worldwide, they may have a point – though, in most cases that’s not the cause of their dissidence.

However, when they speak in these terms about the game, it’s normally league fodder they are meaning, and Henry McLeish’s recent report had a lot to say on the matter.

The cry is that the quality is poor, the product overpriced, and the excitement has gone.

There are three aspects to consider:
the history of the game in this country,
the position of the Old Firm and their allies,
the role of television coverage, especially, but not exclusively, in relation to our southern neighbour.

The history

The longevity of the beautiful game in Scotland is both an advantage and a hindrance to its current success or lack thereof. We had a headstart on most other countries and therefore reached a pre-eminent position in the game which was above our station and which, inevitably, we have slowly lost. As an event, football matches grew in popularity as entertainment for, largely, working class men, most of whom originally worked on a Saturday morning and for whom there were, at the time, few other affordable releases from the humdrum of the working week.

From the Sixties onwards, society changed, there were far more entertainment options, more disposable cash, and a development of family based pastimes. In Scotland, heavy industry and its attendant lifestyle slowly disappeared, television became universal and folk became more mobile with increased car ownership and more affordable public transport (in places!).

In short, most of the conditions which contributed to huge attendances at football matches post war vanished or changed irredeemably.

And football’s response to this?

Zilch.

My own team, Hibernian, who, even in the early 70s, were attracting gates of 25-40,000 for major games, played in a stadium untouched since the forties and trained on public parks. The same was true of virtually every other Scottish club. Stadia were only updated as a result of Health and Safety laws: the paying customer has never been considered by those who control the game.

In effect, the ‘slow lingering death’ of Scottish football started a long time ago when it failed to adapt to changing conditions. The problem is that Regan, Doncaster and their predecessors chose to look the other way, and coped with the situation by applying ever increasing amounts of sticking plaster, largely purchased in Glasgow.

The fact that Scottish, and English, football had been built on local communities, and in them had their strength, was ignored, and the painstaking effort that is needed to grow and maintain community roots, in any sector, was never acknowledged.

The Old Firm

For historical and demographic reasons, not all of them positive, the Old Firm maintained bigger gates (most of the time) than clubs outside of Glasgow. In the late sixties/early seventies they did well in Europe and the accepted convention was a footballing version of trickle down Reaganomics: a successful Old Firm leads to good times for Scottish football and the benefits will spread throughout the leagues.

It was a short step from this to: it’s the footballing authorities’ duty to provide optimum conditions for Old Firm success, and a cave in to the Glasgow clubs’ demands on the set up of the SPL. Anyone with half an eye could see that a league set up to favour two clubs over the others would end up uncompetitive and less than enticing to the paying customer. However, in the short term, the blazers thought they had got themselves off the hook of financial reality.

The huge irony, of course, is that the Old Firm themselves, with their 11-1 voting structure, and favourable money share arrangements, then complained that the league was non-competitive and they wanted away to the EPL. This was in a period when both clubs routinely bought the best players from their competitors and then consigned them to the bench or reserves.

It is sometimes forgotten in the present Newco frenzy that Celtic themselves were only hours away from a similar fate and that the man who extricated them from the mess, Fergus McCann, was by no means universally popular for his embracing of fiscal realities.

With David Murray’s ‘spend spend spend’ philosophy came the ultimate nail in the Scottish footballing coffin: a ‘business plan’ based on two things – we have to do better than ‘them’, at whatever price, and ‘we are just as big a club as anyone in Europe and will compete on that basis’. Both these tenets ignored one important fact – the context of Rangers, and Celtic, in Scotland, and the league in which they played. Not only was Scots football hamstrung by the pre-eminence of Old Firm and their favourable conditions, but the two clubs themselves, in defining themselves by their city rivals, lost touch with reality. “For every pound they spend…” It was good box office for the Old Firm fans, but a daft and unsustainable way of doing business – to define yourself by your closest opponents.

The media, by now struggling to sell copy, knew where their bread was buttered and heavily promoted the Old Firm and their doings – again to the detriment of the other clubs. Count the pages of Old Firm coverage in our national newspapers over the past two decades.

The whole shebang should have come falling down then – unsustainable expenditure, a non-competitive league, waning success in European competition (by other Scottish clubs as well as, for the most part, the Old Firm), – except for the arrival of Mr Murdoch.

The pre-eminence of Television

Way back in the early sixties, one of the givens in football was: “Too much exposure on television will kill the game”. Nobody seriously contested that, and there was a brief but effective period, when tv had to come cap in hand to the football authorities – knowing its viewers wanted television coverage – and agree to football’s demands: limited action, even more limited live games, no football on television when live games were being played. From a detached distance, this seems perfectly sensible – and to the good of football: television exposure highlighted the product and enhanced viewers’ appetites for ‘going to the match’.

However, two major developments occurred. Firstly, from the eighties onward, marketing became more and more ruthless and eventually totally crass in its appeal to the masses. It changed public perception: “Get the biggest pizza you can!” – which in the sixties would have been laughed to scorn as a recipe for obesity – was suddenly acceptable. “Drink till your sick!” – instead of being a description of stupidity – suddenly became the aim for thousands every weekend. Excess, as Gordon Gecco nearly said, was good. It would have been difficult for football to remain immune to this change in society’s approach, but the problem was the alacrity with which they embraced it.

That, in turn, came from the other major development: satellite television. It’s often forgotten now that in the earliest years of satellite and cable, there was a gargantuan battle between BSB, with their ‘squareals’ and Murdoch’s Sky. Just as with VHS and Betamax, it was always clear that there could only be one supplier ultimately, and that the other would die a quick and financially ruinous death. There was no way Murdoch could countenance losing, and he quickly offered silly money for football rights. The pros and cons of this in England are another story, but, in Scotland, the men in blazers must have thought, yet again, Christmas had come early and got them out of their financial hole, again.

For a short time, then, television money papered over the cracks. Again, my own team, Hibs, benefited, and, under Alex McLeish, we were able to bring in the likes of Sauzee, Latapy, Zitelli and co. It was great while it lasted – but even in the midst of it, I remember thinking it all felt faintly unreal: Where was the cash coming from?

Of course, in a financial sense, it WAS unreal. Sky had reeled in the football authorities and now were having their way with them. The marketing had worked – there was a mass audience for television football – enabling Sky to offer silly money for the rights, but, in return, so the clubs could continue to finance huge wage bills, they had to agree to Sky’s demands. The football boot was emphatically now on the other foot!

Sunday 6.05, 12.00, 12.30, 12.45, 1.00, 4.00, Monday 7.30, 7.45, Tuesday 7.45, Wednesday 6.00, 7.30, Thursday 7.45, Friday 7.45, Saturday 11.30, 12.00, 12.15, 12.30, 1.00, 2.00, 3.00

That is an (incomplete) list of the times I have been asked to go and watch Hibs over the past decade or so. Worse than the lack of consistency is the fact that the broadcasters feel it is acceptable to change or issue schedules at very late notice – so travel arrangements and allied decisions cannot be made by fans wishing to go to see the game live. As I write this, I have a ticket for an Edinburgh book festival show at 11.30 on August 11th; I also have a ticket for Scotland v England at cricket on August 12th. With just over a month to go, I should be certain of my arrangements – ah, but! The SPL League schedule tells me ‘Hibs v Hearts, 3pm August 11th’ Which fits in fine with my arrangements. However. There is a high chance that this will be re-scheduled to suit Sky TV. It could be 12.00/12.15 on Saturday – in which case I miss the book show, or it could be any time on the Sunday, in which case I miss a good part of the cricket. Either way, I had to buy the other tickets in advance for fear of a sell out, but there is a better than even chance that at least one of my purchases will be wasted – and because of my commitment to attending live football. This kind of dilemma is repeated many times a season, and is almost endemic for the poor sods from far away who have to make travel arrangements – often the most committed of supporters. Imagine having to book a theatre ticket on the understanding that the time and day of the performance might change at short notice!

When you point out to the football clubs how their most committed supporters are suffering – they show sympathy and then explain ‘we need the TV money – what can we do?’ Talk about a Faustian pact!

In the early days, this was just about defendable, as major live games still attracted full houses and the TV money was extra. Now the clubs are even more desperate for the tv cash to make up for the decline in attendances at televised games. Even Hibs are lucky to get 14000 when the Old Firm are in town.

Now you can’t altogether blame the TV companies for this: their job, after all, is to boost viewing figures fort he advertisers, but the impact on Scottish football is horrendous – in two ways.

The scheduling, as mentioned, brings its own problems. In addition, if you’re an ‘armchair fan’, consider your possible Saturday: 12.15 major SPL or EPL game; 5.15 same; 8pm Barcelona or Real Madrid. Three games for the price of your subscription, in the comfort of your own home, and even if you still like going to live games, unless you live within half an hour or so of your team’s ground, you can’t go – not without missing at least two of these games. The schedule is actually configured to keep fans away from live football and in front of the adverts.

The second problem is the quality of coverage. I can’t be the only fan who now, when at a live event, automatically looks for replays after a major incident. After multi camera angles, slow mo replays, trackside and dressing room access and a careful selection of the world’s best players and clubs as an almost daily diet, it’s not surprising that many football fans feel that the live product is no longer worth the effort.

In essence, the marketers have won. Just as my generation have probably bought their favourite music four times over – on LP, Cassette, CD and download, so ‘the average football fan’ has been converted into a couch bound expert, who watches football from three or four countries on a nightly basis from the comfort of his sofa and seldom, if ever, darkens the doors of a football stadium.

The Scottish football authorities have been compliant in this and now appear to have no idea how to get out of their mess. Their only two massively supported teams have crowds based on traditions outside of football, and the economy means that those who attend other clubs regularly are reduced to a rump of, and I use the word affectionately, ‘anoraks’, who actually enjoy going to a football match and support their team because it’s their team, regardless of results. This is a hopelessly unsustainable business model.

Those who should be perhaps the bedrock of football support, men in their twenties, don’t remember a time when football wasn’t about the glitz and celebrity of live television and consisted of Messi, Iniesta, Ronaldo, Rooney and co performing at the highest level. Unless they have been brought up as part of a ‘live game attending’ family, there is little chance they will get into the habit of going to live football – especially if the team they support is unsuccessful or inhabits a poor stadium.

Conclusion

So that’s where we are. Those who run football have neglected their duties – other than setting up regular, ineffectual and costly commissions from time to time – over generations. They have ignored society’s changing expectations, they have mismanaged football’s cherished place in the hearts of so many Scots, and they have papered over the cracks – first by pandering to the Old Firm, and then by selling out to the television people – both easy but unsustainable options. Now that the money fantasy has been blown apart they are clueless except to try and salvage some of the sticking plaster.

There needs to be a massive reality check. Scottish football is not threatened by one team operating in division 3; it is threatened by the fact that there hasn’t been a workable business plan for the game for generations.

It is also seriously threatened by a total lack of ethics. The phrase “They won’t let xxx get relegated” has long been accepted as the way things are in Scottish Football. The idea that it’s a game to be played fairly and squarely between two sides has been totally lost in a world of cozy media relations and over hyped events, and, just as much as on the field – where we now glory in ‘professional’ fouls – the business dealings of football in this country have stunk to high heaven for decades.

Fans, too, need to get real. The EPL is as much a realistic take on football as ‘Coronation Street’ is a documentary on real northern folk. The unlimited wealth available to a small number of EPL clubs may have brought ‘success’ but it has also distanced clubs from the fans and, at a far greater level, is, ultimately as unsustainable as was the SPL model. What happens when the oligarchs find new playthings? Or if television finds a more convenient way of hooking viewers – sports such a s motocross, snooker, ten pin bowling and the original Rugby League all felt a chill draft having reorganized to suit television when the cameras moved on.

We are a nation of just over five million; we cannot compete with the EPL or La Liga, and I’m not so sure we should want to. We can, however, build on a history of football by making clubs central to their communities. This month in France, Holland, Scandinavia, millions of youngsters will be enjoying sports at their local facility; whatever the sport, their happy summer memories will give them an affection for the football, rugby, tennis or basketball club – and they will support it and feel part of it.

We have 42 senior clubs and a host of often well run and supported non-league sides all over Scotland. They should be in the community, they should be playing their part in getting Scotland’s youngsters fitter; they should be working with schools and they should have government support in this.

In Scotland, football should be something you play and which you watch live, not merely an interlude between corporate advertising to be accompanied by beer and pizza.

It IS a beautiful game – at whatever level it’s played. Are we supposed to believe that folk watching games in the League of Ireland, in Malta, or in Norway are less involved, less excited, less committed than those at the San Siro, the Camp Nou or Old Trafford?

Is it to be left to the advertisers and oligarchs – a plaything for televison schedulers, or can it be taken back and given to the people, where it belongs?

Rangers FC are totally irrelevant in this – it’s like blaming Northern Rock for the world banking collapse – they are a symptom not a cause. They broke the rules and suffer the consequences – it shouldn’t matter, in an ethical world whether it’s Rangers or Annan.

Football in Scotland can become a positive and sustainable entity again, particularly given the awakening of the fan base in the past month or so.

But first we need to get rid of the blazers.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Chris Kerr permalink
    July 9, 2012 4:47 pm

    Interesting as aye McP. However 1 small point to ponder:- in the event of Newco being parachuted into our 2nd tier, is part of the price a revokation of home clubs keeping the gate receipts? If so how much of the price of my season card in Paradise will be diverted to clubs whose following comprise less than 100 of the crowd? Aye for fairness and competition but am aye irked by bleating of Clubs saying ” we cannae compete”. My feeling is there are Clubs in Scotland who can compete. It may be once in a generation or 2, but a Club from outwith Glasgow can win the league. Were I a supporter of such a team I’d be demanding my powers that be ensure the appropriate platform is in place.
    After all I still dream about Celtic becoming Champions of Europe again. Unlikely? Improbable? Yes to both but still doesn’t stop the dream.

    P.S. There are blazers and blazers.In many sports these folk are unpaid servants of their game, and command respect for their efforts. However those besporting in Scottish Football are a different case entirely.

    Hope you can make an autumnal Bores.

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