Ross Martin: Let's blow whistle on glorious failures
Another year. Another Six Nations flop. Like the failed and debt-laden bank whose fallen crest is emblazoned on the field of play, our national rugby team has suffered a catastrophic collapse. From Five Nations Grand Slam-winning amateurs playing it professionally in the 80s and 90s to a group of very well-paid professionals looking decidedly amateur, fighting over the wooden spoon.
This sad decline in rugby reflects a wider malaise in Scottish professional sport, ironically driven by huge injections of cash. Inversely proportional to the level of funding invested, a number of Scottish sports have fallen into a spiral of performance decline. As funding has increased exponentially, we have seen a reduction in competitiveness in both football and rugby. What a difference a decade makes. Look where we've come from?
Picture the stirring sight of David Sole leading his men in that long, slow march onto the field of battle in the 1990 Grand Slam decider. Remember Gavin Hastings' precision punt as he stormed over the half-way line, at full tilt down the right. I bet you can still see Tony Stanger reaching out to gather the ball as he breached the arrogantly complacent English defence, to crash over for that winning try. The Calcutta Cup. The Five Nations Championship. The Grand Slam. When will we see their like again?
Those victories for the national side, which were translated into millions of pounds, with the Scottish Rugby Union becoming the richest governing body in UK sport, are sadly a distant memory. As rugby rode its wave of mass appeal a new National Stadium rose over Edinburgh.
All was well as the game expanded so far and so fast, into parts of the country it had never previously reached, a deal with Heineken would have been even more appropriate than one with Famous Grouse. Scottish rugby was walking tall.
So what has gone so badly wrong? These successful Scottish sides were cradled, nurtured and then grown in the garden of community-based sport. A game well-grounded and growing rapidly around the country, and no longer the preserve of the chosen few. But just like Scottish football, which has moved itself from its once proud place in the nation's heart to being summoned to the nation's capital for a dressing down by the First Minister, so has Scottish rugby sold itself a side-stepping dummy too many.
These two sports have squandered huge cash injections, imitating real life where the unprecedented increase in Scottish public expenditure has not seen a consequential improvement in public service standards. Neither rugby nor football have been able to turn the massive increase in available cash into an improvement in performance. Perhaps it's time for the SFA and the SRU to get on their bikes and learn the lessons of GB Cycling, or get in at the deep end and see how our swimmers have reached Gold standard?
We can apparently afford eye-watering soccer salaries and pay bills for individual rugby players that would have kept the best club sides going for a whole season. But just as we failed to capitalise on the massive investment in Scotland's schools, so we have failed to reap the benefits of that cash injection in sport.
We haven't seen a rise in school performance and neither have we had even a glimpse of a Six Nations Trophy or even qualification for a World Cup.
From too narrow a focus, albeit at different ends of the social spectrum, football and rugby have lost their community connections. When will we see them "dancing in the streets of Hawick" again, as the late, great Voice of Rugby often described the celebrations of on-field success? Will we ever see Aberdeen FC parading again down Union Street with a European trophy? Are these glory days lost forever, or is there something that can be done to re-energise our national sports sides?
It didn't have to come to this. There is something fundamentally wrong with the structure of Scottish sport. All we get for all that sponsorship, TV and attendance money is stultifying performances that fail to inspire. Our national sides need to rediscover their roots, the basis of those great football and rugby sides of yesteryear.
These sports have squandered their earlier initiatives on school and community-based sport, not allowing them to grow into a national movement that could drive up standards across the board. School sports co-ordinators, football academies and rugby development officers initially broadened the base of participation, providing the platform upon which elite performance could be built.
These localised initiatives began to make a real difference at the grass roots level, re-integrating sport into the fabric of society, connecting clubs and school sides to their local communities. But progress not only stalled, it went into reverse. Our national rugby and football coaches are fishing in talent pools that have receded from the shores of large parts of Scottish society.
In football, we have missed a historic opportunity to reshape the sport and strengthen its structure.By creating integrated clubs that bring together all levels of the game - school sides, boys (and girls) clubs, amateurs, juniors and the local professional team - we could ensure a comprehensive connection with the community, a ladder of opportunity for local talent and a whole family involvement in not only the delivery of a great support but also, crucially, the design of the football club itself. If it's good enough for Real Madrid, well?
Instead we continue to allow Celtic and Rangers to suck their support from all over the country, encouraging the pathetic sectarianism that we witnessed all too graphically at the last Old Firm clash. These two tribes may have roots in what they regard as their own communities, but wouldn't we rather see strong local clubs in each part of the country?
A united team in Dundee? One capital side in Edinburgh? A right royal club in the Kingdom of Fife? What about Lanarskhire? Ayrshire? Dunbartonshire? Why can't the Highlands get behind a single side with critical commercial mass and comprehensive community clout?
In rugby, we've seen a similar fragmentation, with the forced creation of the regional professional sides, initially three and now only two, with no historical basis for their existence. These two sides have very little linkage to their communities and completely ignore the depth of rugby development in the Borders, or the North & Midlands. It's time to give sport back to the people.
Local identity should be at the heart of Scottish sport. Communities must feel ownership, collectively and comprehensively. Our sports clubs need to represent all the people if they are to feed from and in turn nourish the places they call home.
We must ensure that the whole community is involved in our sports clubs, playing, coaching, supporting, washing the kit, maintaining the clubhouse, indulging in their passion with their family.
Place-based sport would enable that. If a place is big enough to support a single club in one particular sport then we need to encourage that.
On the other hand, if an area needs to reach out across more than one sport, e.g. football, hockey and rugby to be big enough to compete then let's look to create that if it suits.
As we enter a period of budgetary restraint we will see shared public services, single public authorities and the like. Its time sport sat up and took notice too.
As we approach the Holyrood elections, let this move to empower communities be branded as a New Localism, the Big Society, a renewed National Identity or Co-operative Action if the Lib Dems, the Tories, the SNP or Labour respectively wish to take ownership of this idea. Let it be branded all of these things.
The important issue here is that they work together as our national parliamentary team to score one for Scottish sport on 5 May.
• Ross Martin is policy director of the Centre for Scottish Public Policy
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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