Every week I write about Dundee United. I’ve always found writing about my team straight forward. The number of variables and factors affecting a club, like United, always seems small. When things are going wrong you can usually pinpoint one or two factors and, in general, supporters tend to agree on what the problems are.
When trying to examine issues at a national level, things get much, much more complicated but here we are and here I am, writing about Scotland (adding to the huge number of long and meandering post-mortem articles this week).
Supporting your country is a totally different experience in comparison to your weekly travels watching your club side. When dealing with larger fan numbers, local identities and club agendas it creates a complex mix. Everyone wants Scotland to succeed but we all have different ideas as to how that might work, and what ‘success’ actually means for a country like ours. Your national pride is unique, and for many it supersedes club identity.
I now firmly put club before country but growing up I always felt that Scotland were the ultimate. That excitement and passion I once had, now feels like a distant memory. For several years I have experienced a decline in my interest towards the national side and if anyone ever now asks me the question – “Would you rather see Scotland win the World Cup, or…”, I tend to side with the “or” (especially if it involves Dundee United winning silverware). Years ago I would have always answered with Scotland and teenage me would be horrified at how I would now respond. Now, it is the week to week of club football that holds much of my attention.
The thought of trying to identify what has gone wrong for Scotland is a challenge, and it is a task that fills me with a type of fear that I don’t get when writing about my club. I have lost count of the number of different theories and ideas as to why Scotland have become so ‘meh’ and why fans are now beginning to lose interest, if they haven’t already. A yearly national freak-out seems to be standard practice and I am acutely aware that supporters direct their frustrations towards many different areas; some political, some footballing and some based on conspiracies within governing bodies. Many say it is the SFA, many say it is the SPFL. Some say it is the managers, some say it is the players (and a few might even suggest it is the fans themselves). You also have pundits and former footballers who wade into the debate with the most recent, Kris Boyd, being on hand post-match this week to offer up the theory that football has become more middle-class and as such is pushing out many young people in Scotland (and to be fair, there is some merit in what he was trying to say).
Regardless of these differing opinions, one thing is certain – the Scottish National Team have lost their way, badly.
In 1996 I had my first taste of Scotland at a major tournament and, although I was too young to fully take it all in, I watched every game with interest and it was during Euro 96 that my passion for the national team really started. It was also at this time that I developed the emotional thread that probably defines me as a Scotland supporter – “My country are the passionate underdogs; my country needs to fight for the right to prove their worth“. I have always seen Scotland as a nation that has had to work hard to be recognised and without me delving into politics, I think it is this ethos that makes Scotland as a nation, so great. The undercurrent of us realising that we must graft that bit harder than most to prove ourselves is something that makes Scotland such a strong nation culturally and socially. I’ve also always believed that these social attitudes mirror themselves in how we approach sport.
To steal some material from a piece written by Joel Sked in The Scotsman, the identity we have as a footballing nation has been lost along the way and now seems detached from the one I always associated with Scotland and the values Scottish people stand for. A quote in that article attributed to the Hearts assistant, Austin MacPhee, in 2016 sums up the general feel of what I am trying to say – “Scotland need to find a way of maximising itself. I do feel that within Scotland each time we try and re-do youth we maybe go and look at Holland, look at Belgium. We’ve got to go back to what Scottish people are, Scottish culture is, it’s maybe social, patriotic, hard-working, practical, aggressive, impatient. And we’ve maybe got to design and embrace those things into a way for national football to be.“
Growing up as a Scotland fan I realised very early on that we would regularly lose, fail to qualify for tournaments and find bizarre new ways to achieve yet another “glorious failure”. Now? We can’t even seem to do that. Losing is part of following a nation like Scotland but the reason I connected so much with our teams of the past was in large part down to the ability for us to be psychologically and physically competitive. It always felt rare for me to come away from a Scotland match having seen us get absolutely torn apart with a whimper (although that did happen from time to time). I would always look at the pitch and know that even our fairly average players, who had fairly mediocre club careers, would somehow transform when putting on a Scotland shirt regardless of the opposition. We seemed to have settled squads with big characters and players who could elevate their club form rather than use it as a burden. Consistency in squad selections and a solid structure allowed us to maintain that ‘identity’ I am trying to talk about.
Before I move on, I am certainly not advocating that Scotland should turn into a team of cloggers who destroy opposition players from the first whistle. Far from it. The best Scotland teams have always been blessed with a small band of very gifted footballers. However, what we also always had was another core group who may have lacked technique but would carry the team mentally and physically. They would also drive on the ‘gifted’ players to alter their own style to fit in what that passionate, ‘Scottish’ style.
Watching the Russia and Belgium matches I lost count of the number of players who regularly took part in the practice I hate most in modern football. We had lots of players who ‘worked hard’ during the 90 minutes, but the term ‘work hard’ now seems to be more about distance covered and the ability to track your opposite number rather than actually physically engaging with them. At the moment we don’t have that extra bit, that hardened edge, allowing you to combine the chasing about bit with the next, most important part – actually trying to win the ball. I used to read interviews from visiting teams, and they would always talk about the atmosphere, the passion and the very tough game they were expecting from Scotland. When last did we actually fulfil that perceived narrative?
Against Belgium we started at pace, flooding their final third, but the lack of physicality meant that when the game started to calm down we were simply picked apart through technique and the ability to utilise large spaces we left all across the pitch. If we had put down a more physical marker then maybe what would have set the tone for a game management style that I am (maybe wrongly) blissfully reminiscing about – a hardened, tactically strong style that may well have resulted in defeat, but a defeat worth taking. Monday night was a timid capitulation, admittedly against the best side in the world, but it was the type of defeat that for me just makes you want to fall out of love with football. Losing is part of the game, losing without competing never should be.
Returning to the comment from MacPhee about trying to emulate certain nations. This, for me, is the crux of the matter. We do not have the resources, financially and infrastructure wise, to compete with some of the countries he mentioned, yet we try and focus our development on ideals that need an unbelievably high level of commitment. Nations like Germany, who have had their own identity crisis over the last twenty or so years, have spent an astronomical amount of time and money on re-structuring their whole setup. Our own method seems to be to try and replicate some of what they do but on a budget and with a half-hearted approach. This then leaves us behind because we have not fully implemented the next “big thing” in football. I am not having any sort of swipe at our coaches, I know many and they are incredibly committed to their roles (although they do need more funding and for courses to be reduced in price). It is the implementation of an ideal that we may never reach, and one that isn’t ‘us’, that is causing Scotland to suffer.
Rather than look at bigger associations who have unlimited power and money, we should really be looking at similar sized, similar budgeted nations who have a Scotland-esque approach to their own national identity. An obvious, overused, but very strong example of this would be a country like Iceland. A modest budget, a small talent pool and a lack of prestige in club football has not stopped them using their humble, hard-working, passionate national identity to form a plan of attack that has worked wonders over the last 5 or 6 years. Unapologetically they have their brand of football and will stick to that regardless of any changes in style adopted by other nations and leagues. They have channelled all of the good in their social identity into football and the payoff has been a national setup that remains competitive, even against the world’s elite (it also helps that their coaching education is drastically cheaper and very well-funded). Will they always qualify for tournaments? No. Will they cause upsets and take most opposition teams to the edge? Absolutely. Will they engage fans and restore national pride in the process? They already have. Iceland have done this by using their own style, not a poor replica of someone else’s.
Dare I add that countries like Northern Ireland, Wales, The Republic of Ireland, Switzerland, Poland, Austria and the other Scandinavian nations are all in a similar boat? There are other, more extreme examples, like Kosovo. Although yet to establish themselves fully, they are forcing a brand of high-pressure, high-aggression football on others and more often than not they force competitive games with lots of excitement and passion, with little after-thought of who it is they are playing. Is that not what Scotland used to do? Maybe I am twisting my nostalgia to be biased and fit my opinion, but it certainly feels like we used to be like that.
We have the pool of talent to compete and I don’t really but into the notion that our players are not good enough. This is not a piece about bemoaning the lack of quality, although there are obvious areas of concern. It is more about having an ethos that drives forward a more combative style to compliment the talent we do have. I read a tweet the other day (and I apologise for not name checking the person who wrote it) – from what I recall it read something like, “Maybe we need to become a bit more rubbish before coming good again“. I think I buy into that. We need a return to what has worked well in the past and then use the talent we have to find a system that combines style with that robust approach I am advocating. Incidentally, I think that a coach in the mould of Steve Clarke is the right fit for that task.
Look through the average Northern Irish side, Welsh side, or Icelandic side you would honestly say that if it was pure ability being measured then we would be able to win a game of Top Trumps with these nations. Our numbers stack up and the quality of our current ‘must pick’ 6 or 7 is as high as we can hope it to be for a nation like ours. Again it comes down to the implementation of a style that could yield better performances and a style that would fit into the narrative of what I am peddling.
I could go on and on but I don’t want to. Are there simple changes we could make? Possibly, but for me to have a go at that would require another long post rambling on about how I would advocate more consistent squad selection, more regular ‘training camps’ similar to other sports and a focus on trying to make the national setup feel more like a club in the sense that we need to foster a bond between a group of players. I could also talk about the need for an actual pathway from youth level to international level rather than randomly cherry-picking players out of nowhere to fill a gap for a game or two. Other nations have an international conveyor belt and don’t deviate. If the first choice right-back is injured, they move to the 2nd and then 3rd, even if that means moving down the age levels. I’d rather have the regular U21s right-back be given a chance than the SFA doing international equivalent of a Sunday League WhatsApp message to see if anyone has a mate who is available to do a job for 90 minutes.
I don’t think we need a complete revamp and the next phase in Scotland’s development will be to see the fruits of the Performance Schools and the work going on at that level. Again, we have the talent, we now need to find our system, our identity, our plan.
What I actually want, and what this long, long post is trying to say, is a Scotland team that takes to the pitch and just acts a bit more ‘Scottish-y’. I know that football evolves but on an international stage we have seen time and time again that nations, many of them relatively small in football terms, form a style and then try to impose that on the opposition rather than try to imitate a brand of football that might be unattainable. Bigger countries do the same. The German blueprint, implemented many, many years ago now, was to take all the good in German football, all the good in their style and form a dedicated plan around that. They didn’t copy anyone else. So why should we?
We want teams to visit Scotland and know that they are in for a fight and in for a tough game. As a Dundee United and Scotland fan I know fine well that my teams will very rarely win much, but we can at least be a damn sight more competitive, more passionate and more physical.
We also need to badly re-invigorate a battered and bruised fanbase. If we don’t? I think we are in danger of even poorer crowds and even more apathy, which will then filter down to younger fans.
Much of my week was spent stopping and then starting this article, going back and forth in my mind about how bothered I was. In the end I realised that I don’t actually care very much, but the by-product of that is that I am both angry and sad that I don’t.
I want to care again.