Henry McLeish: Scottish football and the road to ruin

This year's 1-0 defeat by Costa Rica at a half-empty Hampden illustrates the perilous state of Scottish football.
This year's 1-0 defeat by Costa Rica at a half-empty Hampden illustrates the perilous state of Scottish football.
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My new book, Scottish Football – Requiem or Renaissance, sets out my life-long passion for the beautiful game, charts the rise and fall of the Scottish game, post war, and argues what steps need to be taken to restore our national pride and fortunes on the international stage, at both club and country level.

This is the first of two articles, both penned appropriately between the opening and closing of our qualifying games for the newly introduced Nations League, and reflect my frustration about why after a golden age, in the 60s, 70s and 80s, our performance, on the international stage, at both club and country levels, has all but collapsed. An extract from the book sums up my concerns:

“Scottish football seems to be caught up in an endless and relentless cycle of diminishing expectations, underachievement and underperformance on and off the field, especially at international level. There is no big ambition, no sense of sustained anger or urgency about the fact that a once spectacularly successful footballing nation has ended up in a precarious and uninspiring place. We seem incapable of doing anything about it. This book rejects the dismal scenario that Scotland is destined to remain a second-rate football nation where the upper levels of World Cups and European Championships are always beyond our reach. Instead the book argues that we should write a new and optimistic chapter in the remarkable history of the game. For that to happen we must ask and answer searching questions about the mindset of the game and look at structures, institutions, the ethos, governance, culture and ambition.

“If Scotland is to build a competitive and sporting edge in club and international football, create a modern spectator sport, contribute to community and society and be part of the Government’s plans for a healthy and fit nation, lessons must be learned. Special, sectional, vested or narrow interests must be confronted in order to build a broader and more sustainable model of what is in the best long-term interests of Scottish football.

“The game must reach out. There is a closed-shop mentality which deprives football of ideas and inspiration and much needed allies. Football has to find its place in Scottish society and reconnect with mainstream thinking about where our new confident and modern Scotland is going. Too big to fail is one opinion, but too important to be left to its own devices is another.”

The governance, the financing and distribution of opportunities within Scottish football are focused on the few not the many and the club game, especially the Scottish Premiership. As a result, the national and international game has been starved of energy, resources, priority, ambition and innovation. The road to this particular ruin is firmly rooted in our failure, despite a major review in 2010 and the setting up of Project Brave to invest in a world-class youth and elite development programme. Young people are the wealth of football nations, but in Scotland, short-termism, protectionism, lack of ambition and limited investment are holding us back. We don’t seem to value our youth the way other more successful countries do.

Scottish football remains delusional about the past. Despite the presence of superior evidence to the contrary, there is still the mistaken belief that, unlike other aspiring small countries, we can continue to ignore the lessons of successful football elsewhere and pay lip service to the finding, nurturing and promoting of homegrown elite talent.

My central thesis is simple and unambiguous. Until Scotland starts to invest serious time, money and energy into the development of young Scots – male and female –we will be destined to play on the distant margins of international football. This at a time when smaller nations like Iceland, Sweden, Denmark and Croatia are enjoying remarkable success and even playing in World Cup finals. Despite every conceivable excuse being deployed to explain away our failure, there should be no refuge for those who would deny reality rather than do anything about it. We have no excuses. We are not victims or prisoners of bad luck. Our footballing failure is not the work of nature like the Earth circling the Sun or the impact of gravity on our tides, or an act of God.

The state of Scottish football is our responsibility. Only we can fix it. Struggling to overcome countries like Israel and Albania, no disrespect intended, is a measure of abject failure. Other countries are progressing but we are regressing. The gap is widening.

As custodians of Scotland’s most important sport, we have become too easily swayed by lazy answers and lame excuses. Who or what are we to believe?


Our game and national side are just unlucky and that we are hard done by, it was a tough qualifying group, if only this or that had happened, if only that early shot had gone in, if we hadn’t been hit by injuries, the manager or the referee is to blame, better luck next time, or worst of all does any of this really matter as surely someday things will fall into place! None of this makes sense. We are simply not good enough and the danger is that in 2038, we may still be bemoaning the fact that we have still not qualified for the European Championships or the World Cup in 40 years.


Are we content, from our history of being a country of passionate supporters of our national side, to accept that the club game is now our overwhelming and absorbing priority and that the Scottish Premiership should control every aspect of the game and dominate the activities of the SFA. Is it right that the club game prospers at the expense of the national game?


Accepting this dismal view of Scotland’s current role on the international stage, are we content to confine to the dustbin of history the sensational achievements of the 60s, 70s and 80s when the Old Firm – Rangers and Celtic – and the New Firm – Aberdeen and Dundee United –were prominent and were winners of major European trophies with some remarkable results? Isn’t our past supposed to inspire our dreams, or are we content to live with memories?


Comparing today with the last 30 years makes grim reading. Setting aside the achievements of Rangers and Celtic appearing in Uefa cup finals in 2003 and 2007, and the fact that on 38 occasions between the 1950s and the 1980s Scottish teams reached at least the quarter-final stages of European competitions, our club performances in Europe over the last 30 years have been miserable, disappointing and uninspiring. Uefa rankings, based on our poor results, now mean we have endless qualifying rounds to endure before our clubs even get to the group stage proper and then history shows we never progress beyond the last 16 in any of the tournaments.


How do we come to our senses and accept the seriousness of our decline? Can we stop pretending that our football DNA has dried up because of the social, cultural and economic changes that children and young people are exposed to and that Iceland is searching for poor hungry kids, who do not have iphones or tablets, playing football on ice covered streets without cars and with their sweaters for goal posts! Of course the world has changed, but why has Scottish football been so uniquely and negatively impacted?

Tomorrow I will look 
at what needs to be