It was hilarious, right? England 1 Iceland 2. A disastrous Euro 2016 for the Auld Enemy and an open-goal opportunity for Scots to go over the ball and stick the boot right in. Then there was the glorious infamy of Big Sam and his money-grabbing hands and even bigger pockets.
Not so long ago we’d have been worrying whether any of the Scottish managers in the English top flight were about to fall victim to the latest undercover sting to embroil the vulgarity that has become the English Premier League. But the halcyon days of having eight Scottish managers at the top of that Sky-embellished tree, stamping their tartan footprint all over the Premiership, are no more than a fading memory. Being thankful for small mercies I think they call it.
So we’re no longer creating top-level coaches to go with our lack of top-level players. Our national team is in disarray. Just four games into the World Cup qualification campaign and on the back of a heavy defeat at Wembley, where England hardly had to get out of first gear to win at a canter, it already looks like the Benidorm summer holiday can be booked for 2018 safe in the knowledge that Russia won’t be an alternative. So, really, do we have anything to laugh about?
We will soon be a country that has failed to qualify for a major tournament in 10 attempts and whose reputation is in danger of slipping to the depths of those of San Marino and Malta. Although in fairness, at least those two have improved their performance levels in recent years. Isn’t it time we started getting our own house in order? Numerous think tanks and never-ending dossiers have come and gone with grand ideas, plans and rhetoric. Very few have ever been implemented, right through from Rinus Michels to Henry McLeish, and none ever will until there is a change of emphasis at the SFA and the technical department.
At the moment, self-preservation prevails over development. How else do you explain heads of youth, technical directors and coaches being in cosy, long-term positions within the corridors of power and never, ever being accountable for the country’s lack of progress? We have to change the way we think and somehow get these people in positions of power to step aside or force them out in order to allow our game to progress.
That change of emphasis has to be directed at creating better youth coaches. Largs was magnificent in its day, providing quality first-team coaches who managed at the highest level the world over. Unfortunately, though, it has been to the detriment of our young players. A lack of freedom and technical ability has stifled Scotland’s youth for too long. The SFA technical department has reached a watershed and it has become clear it is no longer developing a pathway for our young talent. We need brighter, more vibrant coaches with new ideas and the ability to bring out more from our international youth teams. And that won’t happen until the ‘self-preservation’ brigade are shoved aside to allow more forward thinking and progressive leaders to emerge.
In 1996, when the national team made its last appearance at a major tournament, our under-21s also qualified for the final stages, the last time they have done so. Why has no one at the top ever made the link that a successful wee team often means a successful big team? It’s like building a house: if you don’t get the foundations right the whole lot comes tumbling down, just as ours has, and we continue to trust those who have been laying those foundations for 20 failed years to do so.
“Where are all the players? No one plays football anymore” is a cry often heard when those in their comfy Recaro chairs bandy about excuses about why we aren’t producing any. It’s one that should be met with derision and contempt. In fact, it’s widely acknowledged that our bloated academy and pro-youth systems have too many players. The fact of the matter is we’re just not progressing them.
Computers and games consoles are to blame, we are continuously told, as kids with the world at their fingertips have no motivation to go out and kick a ball. Really? Do we actually believe that France, Spain, Germany, Belgium, even Serbia or Iceland (who have two of the most progressive youth international programmes on the planet) have banned the X-Box at the border? It’s hilarious to think of Her Majesty’s Custom and Excise, doing their bit by Royal Appointment to the SFA, standing guard at Glasgow Airport, searching bags and padding down potential smugglers to seize their contraband of FIFA17 and Call of Duty in order to get more players through the academy system.
Our academies are being run by academics. Strategists and apologists who think the game should be played on laptops and overhead projectors. They plot out perfect patterns of play with such intensity that their pencils break, yet some have never as much as suffered a broken shin pad playing professionally. They can put on a lovely passing drill or a shooting exercise with cones and mannequins all laid out neatly and precisely, with young players weaving intricate patterns around static markers and shooting high into the net. Unfortunately, with the rest of the world now playing a pressing game, our players have learned only how to receive the ball and pass it to someone in a pink jersey in training, where they have the time to light up an e-cigarette and puff mercilessly before seeing the pass and executing it out of play. And we wonder why our players look like they’re startled rabbits when they receive the ball under pressure at international level and hoof it the way they are facing?
As for knowledge of the game, it’s time our pro-youth coaches lived up to their ‘academics’ title and started teaching our young players the game, rather than just trying to carve those pretty patterns out on the training pitch. Teaching the art of defending, positional sense all over the pitch not just in one position, game and tactical awareness and team shape, all allied to greater technical ability and being able to control and pass the ball under pressure.
But it’s not solely the youth coach’s fault. Most within our pro-youth systems are out of their depth. They are thrust into a position of leadership to fill a jersey and allow the club to rack up performance criteria points and secure an extra couple of grand in funding, just like the players and their teams. They do their bit two nights a week and on a Sunday morning for expenses that would barely cover the cost of the afternoon’s pub session watching Super Sunday.
So the change of emphasis at the top has to be financial as well. They must find more money to allow promising youth coaches and young, hungry ex pros, to be enticed into the game. Send them to Iceland, Belgium and Serbia to find out what they are doing, then allow them to implement the way forward without fear of them taking your job. Let’s see if we can finally break the ‘self-preservation over development’ culture.
Look at our top clubs. They are cluttered with heads of youth and player development who have been in well-paid positions of failure for five, 10 and, in some cases, 15 years while producing fewer top flight players than ever before.
They have put together magnificent plans and strategies and presented them to clubs all over Scotland, imparting their failed systems on everyone else. Strategies that continue to favour self-preservation more than player development. Continually appointing their peers and buddies as coaches. Mentoring them in the same ‘philosophies’ whilst protecting their coveted positions and making sure no one who will ever rock their boat, breathe fresh life into the programme or, God forbid, threaten their lucrative post.
The Dutch, seen by many as the model for developing talent, have reached a point of transition. The much-vaunted 4-3-3 system, which brought them varied amounts of success but undeniably developed footballers, is being considered for the scrapheap. The movers and shakers within the KNVB and the Dutch national coaching programme believe modern formations and systems of play may have overtaken their fluent way of playing. So much so, they are now considering a change of emphasis and formation throughout their full national pathway.
But unfortunately, on the back the disastrous appointment of Mark Wotte as technical director in 2011, we started to implement the Dutch model in our elite coaching performance schools and academies. So, just as our adversaries are realising that the 4-3-3 way may be dated and nearing its sell by date, our academies and international youth teams are developing a way of playing and a system (4-3-3) that is seen by its architects as no longer fit for purpose. We’re playing with a hand that’s almost a busted flush and expecting our players to come up with a full house.
So if Scottish football has become a game of poker, then those in the corridors of power need to stop bluffing and pretending that they’re doing everything they can for the good of the game. We need to go all-in to break the culture of self-preservation that is strangling our game and stopping it from progressing. Indeed, if we continue on the same path, we are in danger of falling even further behind.
It’s also true that you can only play with the hand you’re dealt. But in poker, as in every other business throughout the world, there are ways of manipulating that hand to your benefit and allowing it to grow and improve with a bit of effort and collective thought and application. The very future of Scottish football is at stake. The hierarchy could not have been given a better heads-up than that of our recent results. We owe it to the next generation to raise the stakes, cash in all our chips and drag ourselves out of the mediocrity we have accepted for far too long. It remains to be seen, though, if the suits, and the powerfully-positioned tracksuits will be prepared to fold and fall on their swords to allow a new breed of coaches to take their seat.
All we are asking is that in future years, we at least have a hand when the cards are dealt at the top table.