It’s hard to imagine how the sacked Cardiff City manager can restore faith in Scottish football shattered by the sex abuse scandal, writes Dani Garavelli
Scottish football doesn’t have its troubles to seek right now. Predictably, it has become enmeshed in the child abuse scandal that exploded into the public domain several weeks ago, with more than 100 claims already reported to Police Scotland. Predictably, too, victims have voiced suspicions of an institutional cover-up; youth coach and referee Hugh Stevenson, for example, is said to have been allowed to keep working with boys after Pete Haynes told the Scottish Football Association he had preyed on him for years. How many other allegations may have been swept under the carpet?
It should be hiring someone more obviously progressive, not a throwback to an era when anti-Semitism could be dismissed as light-hearted banter
We have learned, from previous scandals, that Scottish football’s youth system is likely to have proved a rich stalking ground for paedophiles. The access it affords to ambitious adolescents, the physical nature of the sport and, above all, the macho culture, with its contempt for any display of perceived weakness, make it ripe for exploitation.
We also know how this macho culture prevails. It feeds on intolerance – on racism, sexism and homophobia – and it manifests itself in what Trump would call “locker-room talk”: that casual denigration of outsiders that buys you entry into an exclusive club, but makes it nigh on impossible to admit that you have been sexually assaulted, especially by another man.
If only for the sake of appearances, then, you might expect the SFA to be going out of its way to demonstrate its commitment to a more enlightened and inclusive environment, stripped of old prejudices. Instead, it has appointed sacked Cardiff City manager Malky Mackay to replace Brian McClair as performance director.
It is difficult to think of a more flagrantly provocative and counterproductive act at a time when its behaviour and judgement is being so closely scrutinised. Because Mackay – with all his loose talk and implied contempt for political correctness – is the embodiment of the bad old image the sport is keen to throw off. The texts, sent while he was at Cardiff, but leaked while he was in the running to become manager of Crystal Palace, read like an Alf Garnett-style parody of stereotypes associated with footballers. “Bet you’d love a bounce on her falsies,” he wrote of female agent and lawyer Carly Barnes. Other messages included a reference to a football official as “a gay snake”, the observation “nothing like a Jew that sees money slipping through his fingers” about agent Phil Smith, and a picture captioned Black Monopoly in which every square said “Go To Jail”.
Apologists for Mackay point out he has since undergone diversity and equality training and say everyone deserves a second chance. And, fair enough, no-one should be denied a shot at redemption. But rehabilitation depends on acknowledging your mistakes and learning from them, and there is no convincing evidence he has done either.
His “apology”, issued at a time when he was still hoping to salvage his reputation and bag the Crystal Palace job, was a confection of minimisation – “it was three unacceptable texts sent in private to a friend” – and excuses – “I was under a lot of stress and was letting off steam”. He demonstrated no real insight into the offence he’d committed or other people’s reaction to it.
At a press conference last week, SFA chief executive Stewart Regan said his new performance director could be “a force for good”, but Mackay’s evasions continued as he refused to concede his texts had been racist. “I deeply regret what I said at the time and since then I have got a better understanding of it,” was as far as he would go.
I wonder how those at Show Racism the Red Card – which has backed the SFA’s decision – felt when they saw him cop out of using the actual word. Surely an organisation that has invested so much effort in tackling bigotry can’t be comfortable with a man who won’t own his past mistakes being put in a position of influence? And if Mackay is worthy of redemption, then why not referee Hugh Dallas, who was sacked for sending an email about the Pope from his work account?
The SFA’s pig-headed insistence on taking a punt on Mackay’s transformation would be understandable if he were uniquely qualified for the role he has been given. But Mackay’s background is in frontline coaching and managing, with no experience in administration or the development of elite players. And there’s another problem; Mackay’s new role involves overhauling the youth system which has already been shaken by the sex abuse allegations and the revelation that 2,500 of the 15,385 youth coaches registered with the Scottish Youth Football Association have not been PGV-disclosed. Rightly or wrongly, football is also associated with laddism and sexual entitlement. Is Mackay really the best role model for the next generation of impressionable young players?
There is a small part of me that feels sorry for Mackay. My instinct is that he is far from the only coach or manager who has sent offensive texts . He just happened to be caught. And the leaking of his messages – discovered during an investigation into alleged over-spending on transfers – had less to do with a determination to clean up football than with a desire to see him get his comeuppance. Still, at a time when the SFA needs to rebuild confidence, it should be hiring someone more obviously progressive, not a throwback to an era when anti-Semitism could be dismissed as light-hearted banter.
The organisation’s determination to press ahead with Mackay’s appointment, in defiance of the backlash, reinforces the perception of an old boys’ network which puts personal loyalty before the wider interests of the sport. Like the FA’s decision not to charge him, it suggests racism is still not regarded as a serious offence.
Mackay says he will prove his critics wrong and perhaps he will; but, in the meantime, the message being sent out is that the SFA’s declarations about the importance of equality are not deeply-held convictions, but hollow concessions to modern values it doesn’t yet fully embrace.