Aidan Smith: Future of football post-Brexit is clear as mud

Kenny Garland thwarts Jimmy ORourke in Hibs famous 7-0 victory on 1 January 1973, the same day as Britain became a member of the European Economic Community.

Kenny Garland thwarts Jimmy ORourke in Hibs famous 7-0 victory on 1 January 1973, the same day as Britain became a member of the European Economic Community.

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Apologies to Hearts fans but I’m going to mention 1 January, 1973 again – although not for the usual reasons. Kenny Garland may have let in seven goals that day but he definitely saved one effort from Hibernian in the Edinburgh derby.

Rev up YouTube and you can re-live it, a cat-like pounce to Garland’s right at the Gorgie Road End of Tynecastle. It was a bit flash, to be honest, but you could completely understand the goalkeeper’s determination to tether the troublesome sphere, given how many times it had flashed right past him and into the net. “The best continental style,” remarked the commentator Alastair Alexander. “And very fitting because today’s the day we become members of the European Economic Community.”

What did we think of Europe, Euro competition and “the best continental style” back then? That Europe was where they did things differently, where it was very hard for us to win, return from tournaments triumphant, but remarkably by 1973 we’d managed this twice.

Europe was exotic, lands of strange food and strangulating defences. Our teams took their own chefs to away ties, just to be safe and stodgy. And before these games club personnel would pretend they were shadowy characters in Len Deighton novels, embarking on “spying missions” and returning with “dossiers” on the trickiest members of the opposition, also the dirtiest. This was always how the research was written up in the sports pages, keen to emphasise the difference between us and our new continental brothers.

Then what happened? We became more like each other. Under free-trade agreements our football imported pasta, diving and players, lots and lots of them. The European Cup got a new name and a new self-importance. Big, bombastic and bossy, the Champions League was soon telling us when we could play our utterly inconsequential domestic games. The gigantism then spread to the European Championships.

Advances in broadcasting technology removed the crackly commentaries and the menace engendered by sub-standard floodlighting. All football started to look the same: homogenous, Euro-blobbiness on the same lush pitches, involving players who were very familiar to us.

This must have been true if you were in England, watching the Premier League’s procession of expensive foreign stars. Scotland got a lot of foreigners too, one or two diamonds but generally of lesser quality. Europe, and Euro competition, no longer seemed quite so exotic, not with such a big number of Euro players in our game, learning the lingo, acquiring nicknames like “Boozy”. Then came Thursday.

“So what the hell happens now?” That was a red-top front page in the wake of the Brexit vote. It meant everything, and certainly not football in isolation, which at the moment seems quite frivolous, but football will change. How? Ah, no-one knows just yet. The fog of confusion currently hanging over the UK is extremely thick. But if nothing else there might be a change of perception.

An EU footballer contemplating his next move, admittedly a fairly learned one, might look at a graphic showing how Britain and especially England voted, the repeated colour all along the south coast marking out a definite border suggesting the inhabitants of every seaside town are linking arms in some kind of defiance, and he might say to himself: “Do I really want to play there?”

And if he knows his vintage British 
TV comedy, the footballer could add: “This map of Britain reminds me of the one used in the titles of Dad’s Army, about a time when that defiance was very real.”

How Scotland is perceived by the rest of Europe is slightly less cloudy. The rest knows we voted to stay although our future status is unclear. But let’s not get carried away: we’re not going to be chosen over England by too many top Euro stars for ideological reasons.

Footballers are creatures of habit, which in their case means following the money and the glamour, and these things are firmly encased in England’s top flight. Little will change at all in England, and Scotland if we don’t become independent, should the freedom of movement principle remain in place.

Say it doesn’t, though. The principle is in the rules of the European Economic Area, as used by Norway, but strictly speaking it conflicts with the Leave campaign’s desire to restrict immigration from the continent. Then players would need some form of work permit to play here. The future for football post-Brexit is the same as the future of everything else right now: as clear as mud.

Again, though, less muddy in Scotland where we have fewer foreign players, a big clump of them disappearing after we lost some satellite TV money a while back. The sudden influx caused great excitement, and the best of them are rightly revered at the clubs where they strolled about, making the game look incredibly easy – but we can all assemble entire XIs of wafting imports who liked our golf courses and treatment tables but, in their brief and unproductive spells here, didn’t much care for the rain or the snarling defenders.

In the panic, football’s administrators are frantically trying to locate possible benefits of the vote. Hey, maybe our international team would get better! Fewer “bog-standard” foreigners clogging up the domestic game and all that.

This was the phrase once used by Greg Dyke, the FA chairman, and obviously England has an issue with the number of imports in football there, with players eligible for the white shirt down to less than a third of the total. Scotland could definitely tell Dyke a thing or two about bog-standard footballers but here the number of imports has fallen and they can’t be blamed to the same extent for the failures of our national team.

Maybe football won’t change very much but perhaps it should. A restriction on the number of foreigners would have been illegal in the EU but it could help in England. Can you see it happening, though, with the Premier League so rich on the back of its international flavour and very keen to stay that way?

Meanwhile, more and more, Scotland seems like a different place. A place where Kenny Garland embraced Euro-culture right from day one.

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