Henry McLeish: Search for success key to football's future

Recent events have once again put Scottish Football under the microscope. Turbulent times have revealed a game, in need of radical reforms, aimed at transforming its governance; accelerating the modernisation of structures and relationships; reconnecting with the world outside football; '¨giving fans their rightful place; '¨reordering football priorities; '¨developing more trust, confidence and democracy within the game; building a bigger ambition; and changing the institutions, culture and the unequal distribution of power and money within the game, which are preventing progress and maintaining strains and tensions between club and country and the SFA and the SPPFL.

Gordon Strachan consoles Leigh Griffiths after the 2-2 draw against Slovenia ended Scotland's hopes of reaching the World Cup finals in Russia this summer.

Scottish football is underperforming and underachieving. This needn’t be the natural order of things.

Instead of a closed, exclusive, defensive and insecure game, we need to make a giant leap into a new future which places pride, passion and the search for success above vested interests, limited horizons and the diminishing expectations which are now, sadly, part and parcel of our national 

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We need to put 
rancour behind us, embrace an optimistic outlook and without apology, be inspired by the sentiments of the famous quote from legend Bill Shankly that, “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much more important than that.”

Optimism and faith in a better future go hand in hand.

There is a point of view which rejects this and argues instead that we should abandon the sentiment, nostalgia and memories of a “bygone era”, be realistic, live in the real world and accept the fact that the success or failure of the national side is becoming less and less important. Through this prism, Scottish football would be seen as living within a limited ambition, shackled by the lack of finance and losing support in a society and nation that has moved on, and is no longer consumed or driven by the remarkable achievements of our past and the possibilities that may lie ahead. This is the politics of despair.

The failure to qualify for the World Cup finals in Russia, the unsuccessful and overhyped attempt to secure the national coach of Northern Ireland for the vacant Scottish manager’s job, the handling of the future of the National Stadium at Hampden Park, the resignation of the SFA chief executive and the depressing fact that we are now 20 years on –June 1998 – from qualifying for European Championships and World Cups, have helped reignite once again a debate on the future of Scottish football.

There are, of course, a huge number of other issues which have figured prominently in the national football debate in recent years, and which increasingly show the 
disconnect between the game and the outside world, including: 
l the lack of serious fan 

l the narrowing and ageing of the fan base

l support for women’s football

l Project Brave-relationships between the SPFL and the SFA

l finance, including oversight, 
ethics, regulation and due diligence

l anti-social behavior 
l the strained relationships with the Scottish government 
l should one or two bodies run the game?
l the adequacy of the league 
l ineffective governance
l stadium facilities

l protection of young people and children in the game.

We are making progress on youth development, but not fast enough. We have made progress with our clubs, measured in larger attendances and stability, but more needs to be done. Finance is a problem and, overall, the game is coping, but more innovation is needed. The lack of any real democracy, effective governance or any serious reaching out beyond Hampden is, however, holding us back

No game is an island. Football has to be seen as a feature of Scottish life with all the relevant systems of oversight, regulation and scrutiny. Being an integral part of the nation, football has now to win the trust of a wider and more sceptical public and be much more accountable to the fans and the wider set of interests that represent a forward looking country. The game remains remote, isolated, and lacks transparency. This is a debilitating 
mindset that must be changed.

Despite the significant progress made, based on the findings of the 2010 SFA review and report, cultural resistance, institutional inertia, a defensive mentality and, curiously, a sense of insecurity, cast a long shadow over Scottish football. The game resents what it regards as interference by outsiders, seems irritated by critical but often constructive comment, and has often developed a circling-of-the-wagons response or a them-and -us mentality when engaging with the world beyond Hampden. In reality, there is a massive amount of latent goodwill and optimism for the game to reinvent itself and win success. There is also a great deal of talent in Scottish football. But walls have to be torn down.

This is the time for a major debate about the future of Scottish football and an opportunity for an in-depth look at every aspect of the game with a view to building an effecting case for change. Critical friends, passionate people and new ideas from outside the game are needed. We need to be mindful of the positive issues of community, mining and social class that have shaped the enduring feelings and passion for the game and the indelible mark this has made on the national psyche of the nation.

It is important to acknowledge the remarkable history of the game, its achievements and record-breaking attendances which today should be viewed as an inspiring reminder of how and why we became a football- loving nation. This is about DNA 
and not just sentiment and 
nostalgia. An in-depth look at the governance of Scottish football is essential, if the culture, institutions, mindset and the attitudes within the game are to be transformed. A new blueprint for the transformation of Scottish football has to address five major questions:

1 How can we achieve a greater degree of scrutiny, oversight and regulation, through a shake-up of governance, generated internally or externally?

2 If the game fails to make changes on its own, to what extent should government get involved?

3 Is one body or two best able to run Scottish football in order to provide focus, coherence, parity of esteem, trust and better relationships between club and country?

4 Is the current league set-up satisfying expectations or does more need to be done?

5 Using a quote from another legend of the game, Jock Stein, ‘without fans who pay at the turnstile, football is nothing. Sometimes we are inclined to forget that’. Is it not time for the fans to be represented at every level of the game?

In 21st century Scotland there is sometimes a tendency to down play ambition and not to get above your station in life. The tall -poppy-syndrome approach often acts as a break on innovation and winning and an opportunity to knock those who have achieved something. With this in mind, let’s remember the comments of another Scottish legend. “At Manchester United we strive for perfection and if we fail we might just have to settle for excellence,” said Sir Matt Busby. There is a much brighter and optimistic future for Scottish football if we can embrace change and think beyond protectionism and limited ambition. Personalities and individual leadership matter and can make a difference in any walk of life, including football. But there is also much evidence to show that creative and adaptable institutions, inspiring and innovative cultures and ambitious thinking, provide a more solid basis upon which success and dreams can be built.

This is the time for a collective acknowledgement that we all bear some responsibility for the present condition of Scottish football. Creating the context for long lasting and sustainable progress is in our hands. Scottish football has choices to make. Change is hard. People will resist because it threatens long- established practices, rewards, traditions and behavior. It is often easier to look the other way.

Let’s acknowledge in 2018 the ultimate wake -up call: the fact that the astonishing success of Iceland has stripped away any excuses we may have about our 20-year absence from the international scene.

Scotland is at a crossroads. We need a renaissance of Scottish 
football, and not further recriminations.

l Henry McLeish is a Scottish Labour Party politician, author and academic who served as the First Minister of Scotland from 2000 until 2001