Henry McLeish: We can fix Scottish football - and here’s how

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Renewed optimism, self-belief, ambition and confidence are the foundations for a better future for Scottish football. The common good of the game has to reassert itself.

The “muddling along scenario” is easy. People like me are asked to live in the real world and abandon ambition.

Henry McLeish launched his review of Scottish football at Hampden Park back in 2010. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA

Henry McLeish launched his review of Scottish football at Hampden Park back in 2010. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA

Instead, through this prism, football remains shackled to pessimism, the pressures of finance and the corroding cynicism that for far too long has been a feature of the game.

Another scenario, “club game wins over country”, is more of the same, where the authority of the SFA is further eroded and the club game – often a few clubs – prospers at the expense of our national game and our involvement on the international stage. Our youth and elite strategy is fast becoming a victim of this scenario, abandoning a nationwide nurturing of talent and concentrating instead on clubs that have failed to deliver for Scotland – and indeed for themselves – in the past.

We need instead an “optimistic and balanced club and country approach”. This requires the triumph of sporting excellence over feuding factions, power and finance. Of course clubs are businesses, but this approach has not delivered success on the international stage for clubs or country and it has not produced a pipeline of young talent.

We should not accept a lesser game devoid of national ambition. We must close the aspiration gap. We must confront narrow sectional interests and develop a common good for the game.

What does success look like and how do we find a way back? The immediate shape of this is obvious and uncomplicated.

There must be regular participation by the national team in the final stages of international tournaments.

There should be a viable and sustainable professional game with clubs being financially secure, and punching well above Scotland’s population in European club competitions, but not at the expense of the national game.

Our aim must be for Scotland to be recognised by other countries as a beacon of best practice in the modern governance of the game, by removing weak, opaque, secretive and dysfunctional institutions and deeply embedded cultures.

Our young people must have the opportunity to be coached by the best and play football in facilities, at least equal to the best in Europe.

There must be a revolution in the way we treat fans by improving their match experience and involving them in all aspects of the game: our attitude to fans lags well behind the most progressive European clubs and countries.

There is a pressing need to rebalance the distribution of power, finance, authority and opportunity within the game and, in particular between club and country and the SFA and the SPFL.

We need to set in place more effective relationships with the world outside football, including government, both national and local.

For the immediate future three priorities stand out.

EMPOWER THE SFA

The SFA must re-establish its authority, power and provenance within the game and once again become a powerful and a unifying voice when football is increasingly fragmented. The credibility of the SFA has been significantly undermined. The SPFL has taken over the Board structure of the SFA and now distorts the nature and direction of the wider game. Put bluntly, the SFA must halt the power grab of the SPFL/Scottish Premiership, curtail the encroachment of the club game into decisions that are of wider significance to football and actively intervene to prevent the most recent iteration of our youth development strategy, Project Brave, being hijacked by clubs and shaped in the image of the failed 
ideas of the past.

THE SPFL

Promoting the interests of the club game should never be at the expense of the national game and the common good of football. Over the last 20 years the Scottish Premiership has eaten away at the authority of the SFA and exerted its own priorities. The SPFL/SP must make a bigger effort to address a range of social, cultural and justice issues – equality, gender, child protection, human rights, dementia, gambling and betting, diversity, inequalities, living wage, bigotry, sectarianism and racism. Progress is being made on a number of fronts but there is still a tendency for the game to special plead and refuse to accept that these wider issues apply to them to the extent that they should. This make little sense, but it does help to explain the frustration and irritation of the Scottish Government in their many dealings with the football authorities! A different attitude will bring bigger benefits to the game.

ELITE YOUTH DEVELOPMENT

After arguing for a new youth development strategy in my review in 2010, I remain very concerned about what is now happening. Project Brave, the working title, has become tarnished by recent events.

It has been derailed and we are in danger of turning the clock back and returning to the same old thinking which will inevitably produce the same old results.

This issue is vital for the future of Scottish football, the performance of our national sides and the prospect of winning again on the international stage.

Originally the restructuring of elite development was based on a Scotland-wide approach, reaching to all clubs and creating a network of regional academies. We seem to have turned our backs on this bigger ambition.

We are in danger of squandering a once-in-a generation opportunity to radically reshape youth development of both sexes: despite the success and promise of the women’s game – qualifying for the European Championships and the World Cup – and earlier ideas of inclusion in Project Brave, there is no provision for women in our new youth elite set-up. The women’s game must become an integral part of any academy structure.

Reinforcing existing problems, there are too few incentives for clubs to play young Scots, clubs are not providing enough opportunities for young players, the Scottish Premiership has too many foreign players – over 50 per cent and rising – and many managers are obsessed with short-term thinking and the so-called, “finished product,” a euphemism for young people being too much bother.

There was a time, especially during the “golden age”, that if you were good enough, you were old enough.

In a modest way that kind of thinking took me to Elland Road and Leeds United under Don Revie and later to become probably the youngest player to play for East Fife back in the 1960s.

Project Brave must be revisited, revised and recast in its original form. The future of Scottish football depends on getting this right.

POSTSCRIPT

Sometimes I wonder if my obsession with the game feeds off itself and takes me to a world only populated with other obsessives.

Have we obsessives become untethered from reality? Are we hanging on to a world, real or imaginary, where football dominated our lives to such an extent, that it, “was more than a game”, indeed, “more important than life itself’?

Has my childhood football environment, and each of the overlapping parts of my identity – cultural, religious, class, political, intellectual, psychological, sociological, philosophical and of course tribal – created the conditions for distorted and highly selective lapses of memory and reality? I don’t think so. There is a beautiful game out there that deserves a bigger and better future.