This has been a sensational few months in Scotland. We have the manoeuvring on the independence referendum, economic worries and wider anxieties about the euro crisis.
Yet, what has captured the headlines has been the state of Scottish football, the implosion of Rangers FC, and their demotion to Division Three. Football matters in Scotland because of tradition, culture and global reach. It also helps that we are the third most fanatical football nation per head in Europe, after Iceland and Cyprus.
The events of this year have been seismic and need to be understood in a wider context. In the last couple of years, three of the biggest institutions in Scotland that have defined much of our public lives – Royal Bank of Scotland, the Labour Party and now Rangers FC – have hit crisis, lost their way and suffered ignominy and humiliation.
What has been called by some “the Scottish spring” of football has consequences well beyond the boundaries of the game. Just to recap for non-football fans, it was only due to the unprecedented gathering of fan power that the football authorities were prevented from keeping a Rangers who went into liquidation in the top-flight Scottish Premier League (SPL); they then stopped Rangers being “parachuted” into Division One rather than Division Three.
This is a historic moment. For time immemorial our society has been run by a network of elites, professional groups and vested interests. The Scottish Parliament and the arrival of the SNP government haven’t done anything major to jeopardise this.
Fascinatingly, football is the first arena in our public life where the fresh, cleansing air of democracy has shown itself. Over the summer, football fans across Scotland have come together, agitated and organised and overturned the time-honoured stitch-up that would have kept a newco Rangers in the SPL. They did this through a variety of forums, from supporters’ trusts and associations to the internet and social media, creating an informal, powerful fans movement.
They have been aided by a few courageous journalists who decided to spend time investigating the affairs of Rangers and questioning the football authorities. However, these people were the exceptions. What was the norm was collusion with the way football and Rangers were being run. This has become known as “succulent lamb journalism” after the habit of numerous scribes who feasted at the table of the big football clubs and David Murray’s Rangers in particular, refusing to risk their access and rights by asking difficult questions.
A generation of football journalists grew up with this attitude while the events of the last few months have illustrated the scale of their self-deception. Time and again they have declared Scottish football needs “a successful Rangers” and that any move to put them into the Third Division would signal “the death of Scottish football”. This sort of attitude, of colluding with power, is one we have seen across society, whether the corruption of one-party Labour local government, or the corporate doublethink of banking and related services.
We have now seen something stupendous and yet already the football authorities are attempting to restore the old order. They are looking at league reconstruction this year to aid getting Rangers back into the SPL as early as possible.
More damning is that they are actively trying to conserve the old, failed ways. Football has become infected by short-term outlook, massive debt and an addiction to Sky TV money, which is related to the unsustainable bubble of the economy. Scottish clubs for the last decade have spent more than they could, binged on expensive second-rate imports, and ignored community and youth development. And yet this is the model the authorities and most of the teams are desperate to keep on the road.
This has similarities to the economic debate post-banking crash. For all the talk of banker levies and making them pay and change, there is a distinct politics of restoration in relation to the economy. If only we can get the banks to lend, it goes, we can encourage economic growth, get the housing market rising, and maintain the scared role of the City of London as the centre of wheeler-dealer making in the world. What links the world of football and the economy is the failed business models of the last few decades, the MBA culture that Neil Doncaster, head of the SPL, and Stewart Regan, head of the SFA, have articulated in the corridors of power of Scottish football. A culture and mindset that our political classes of every hue have bought into.
Little wonder that Henry McLeish, former first minister, talks the insipid language of football as “a brand”, “reputation” and “a product”. It has to be all of those things, but it would be great if we could raise our aspirations, utilise the newfound fan power and be more daring.
This would entail thinking more long-term, investing in youth development and developing the new community and fan-owned models of ownership that are spreading through the game. It would see the Stirling Albions of this world, proudly fan-owned, as more our future than the corporate leviathans of Glasgow Rangers with the unsustainable huge debts that led them to liquidation.
Whatever difficult and painful roads Scottish football faces, and it is going to have quite a few, things will never be the same again, no matter how hard the football authorities and some of the myopic football old guard try to turn back time.
Democracy has finally broken out in a part of Scotland; it is messy, uncontrollable and uncontainable. It will prove to be intoxicating, and we need to celebrate this opening, and spread and encourage this force far and wide across our society. It has been a long time coming, but finally the dam of institutional control and contempt has broken; it shouldn’t be too surprising that it happened on the football field.