Scottish football learned nothing from Barry Hearn

Barry Hearn gave Scottish football a wake up call - but then we all went back to sleep. Picture: SNS
Barry Hearn gave Scottish football a wake up call - but then we all went back to sleep. Picture: SNS
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Ex-SPL chief Roger Mitchell’s recent comments show Scotland’s biggest problem with the beautiful game remains, writes Craig Fowler.

WE’RE fast coming up on the one-year anniversary of a London sports promoter taking the stage at an SFA convention and hitting the nail so perfectly on the head with regards to Scottish football.

It’s not just the level of football. Two donkeys make a great race. You don’t have to be the best in the world to be entertaining.

Barry Hearn

Barry Hearn wasn’t an expert on the SPFL, but he looked into the seemingly never-ending malaise and easily drew up his own educated conclusions. The Scottish leagues, in terms of player talent, crowd attendances and revenue generated by the clubs, were nowhere near the likes of England, Spain or Italy, but then they were never going to be.

The true problem was that we were all stuck in a vicious cycle of self-pity and self-loathing. We concentrated only on what was wrong with the game up here and refused to champion anything good about it.

‘The Greatest League In The World’ being situated across the border doesn’t help. It’s easy to cast envious glances at a football nation, which less than 30 years ago was barely superior to our own product, attracting the greatest players from around the world, while we are left with something far more humble.

But it shouldn’t matter. That was Hearn’s message and he was living proof such an attitude works. Here was a man who took snooker and darts and grew the popularity of both sports immensely. And, as he pointed out, he’s managed to sell hours worth of live fishing to television companies. Live. Fishing.

“You’ve got to grow. You’ve got to be positive. You can’t expect people to take you seriously if you don’t take yourself seriously. If you live in everyone’s shadow then you never come out of that shadow,” Hearn urged the audience last December.

For a while, for a brief flicker, like a star exploding in a distant unknown universe, there was a slight increase in positivity in the immediate months as Hearn’s words rang in our ears. Then it faded away and the message hasn’t sunk in.

The league finally got its act together enough to finally find a sponsor. Not that you would know it. Even this writer has to be reminded on occasion what the official name of the top flight is (it’s the Ladbrokes Premiership, by the way) since there’s no cohesion on sticking to the brand name. Infuriatingly, some players and managers insist on still calling it the SPL, a title that went out of existence in 2012.

Which brings us up to the present date and the re-emergence of the former chief executive of the aforementioned ‘breakaway’ league, Roger Mitchell. From the distant past he’s brought with him an outlook that is still prevalent in the present. Mainly, Scottish football is not worth the turf it’s played on and we are desperately waiting for Rangers to return to the top flight so everything can be all rosy again.

He wrote in a recent Linked in blog: “Scottish football needs Rangers. They with Celtic represent I’d say 80 per cent of all commercial value around the game. Without the Old Firm, Scottish football would have all the allure of indoor bowling from Coatbridge.”

There is no doubting Scottish football would be stronger with both Rangers and Celtic in the top flight. There would be greater demand for sponsorship, television rights and the European co-efficient would eventually improve. After all, we’re fast approaching 10 years since the last time a team from outside of Glasgow qualified for the group stages of either of European football’s two competitions.

But to say there is no relevance whatsoever outside of either Celtic Park or Ibrox is a huge slap in the face to every other club in the country and their supporters, most of whom have enjoyed Rangers exodus from the top flight, and not just in a Schadenfraude sense.

Since Rangers problems really began to hit home in the opening months of 2012, there have been eight cup finals with seven different winners (Celtic taking one from each tournament). That’s over four years. To find the same number of non-Old Firm cup triumphs in the years previous you have to accumulate all the way back to 1997. We’ve also had St Johnstone and Inverness CT winning the Scottish Cup, the first piece of major silverware in each club’s history.

On the attendances front, almost every major east coast team enjoyed a rise in attendances between 2011-12, Rangers’ last in the top flight, and 2014-15. Aberdeen, Dundee, Hearts (despite being in the second tier) and St Johnstone all enjoyed significant increases, while Dundee United had a minor bump. Only Hibs have suffered a very slight dip, which was bound to happen after relegation. This all occurred despite the threats of “Armageddon” made prior to Rangers entering the fourth tier. Turns out fans prefer certain defeats only four times per year, rather than eight.

There’s enough evidence to argue against the Scottish football “needs” Rangers/Celtic argument and yet pundits, supporters, directors, sponsors etc, continue to dismiss such a notion as completely ludicrous.

Based on the total average attendances of all league clubs, there are 118,431 non-Old Firm supporters in the country. Of course, that’s a number which is inflated by the sizeable travelling support both Rangers and Celtic take with them to each away game, but you’re still looking at a figure around 50 per cent of Scottish football fans who attend games being continually told they are, at best, an irrelevance and, at worst, a hindrance to Celtic or Rangers whenever one of them is humbled in Europe. How can we expect the game to thrive if we’re treating around half the paying customers in such fashion?

It’s terrifying that Mitchell’s comments came from a man who once held such a powerful position within our game, but we can hardly be surprised. There’s now an ingrained parochial view that surrounds Rangers and Celtic, that we are defined by only two clubs, and we need to get away from it. It doesn’t matter if that’s how other countries see us. Besides, that opinion won’t change unless we stop believing it ourselves. And that goes for fans of all clubs. The “Scottish football is terrible” moans are far from limited to one corner of the country.

We need to start appreciating what we are and forgetting what we are not. Scottish football isn’t as good as the English Premier League or La Liga and it never will be. That shouldn’t matter. If you are Scottish and a football fan you should have some sort of bond with the game in this country. Football is at its best when you can be there, in person, to experience all it’s got to give. Be proud of that attachment.

As Hearn said: “It’s not just the level of football. Two donkeys make a great race. You don’t have to be the best in the world to be entertaining. I put on fights that are not good sometimes, but they’re entertaining. On Saturday, I’ve got eight lightweights. None will win the world title, but they’ll all be brilliant fights because they’ll be kids going for it and everyone will go home happy.”

Don’t lament Michael O’Halloran for not being Eden Hazard, don’t wish Ryan Christie was Christian Eriksen, don’t gaze at Osman Sow as he dominates an opposing back-line and pine for something more. These are still great footballers, guys worth watching, capable of doing things on a park only you and I could dream of. They deserve to be celebrated.