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It’s all in the mind

The real impediment to Scottish clubs trying to break the Old Firm hegemony is a crisis of confidence.


This article first appeared in Issue 4 which was published in June 2017.

Celtic’s virtually unhindered march to their sixth successive title has again brought into sharp focus the lack of competition in the Scottish top flight. The 32 years since Aberdeen became the last non-Old Firm side to win the league represents the longest period of unbroken success for the Glasgow clubs.

Today’s situation is a far cry from the early 1980s when Alex Ferguson and Jim Mclean ushered in an unprecedented era of democratisation. Through sheer force of character and a serious infusion of self-belief, their teams set about dismantling the aura of Old Firm invincibility.

The tribulations of the decades since those days have had a serious effect on the confidence of the teams who should form the resistance to the Glasgow hegemony. With so many of those clubs having come perilously close to financial ruin when attempting to match the spending power of the Old Firm, their reticence to try and compete is understandable.

Nevertheless, the unquestioning acceptance of the Old Firm’s superiority comes from the false assumption that our game operates in a footballing micro-climate. The party line among the ‘provincial’ clubs is that the disparities in revenue make a sustained title challenge impossible. The reality is that teams from across Europe have been able to overcome similar resource gaps to win their championship; the inconvenient truth is that the real impediment to Scottish clubs is their paucity of ambition.

It is clear that a paradigm shift in the collective psyche is required if the competitive environment required to reinvigorate our game is to become a reality.


Clubs: Develop a culture of ambition

Renowned sport psychologist Dan Abrahams believes the first thing clubs need to address is the unrelentingly conservative message they convey. “The job of those clubs outside of Celtic and Rangers is to strive to develop a culture; a robust language and robust set of behaviours that’s much more focused around an attitude of ‘we can’. I think the underdog approach is short-termism; it’s a protection of the clubs and the manager’s position. Clubs need to leave no stone left unturned to develop players that can compete with Celtic and Rangers. Mangers will argue that they don’t have the players to do that but it’s a chicken and egg. The question is why aren’t the organisations strong enough to create an environment that is geared towards being more competitive. The whole of Scottish football needs to be more aspirational if they want to get back on an even footing.”

Bill Beswick, the sport psychologist credited with playing an integral part in transforming FC Twente from perennial nearly men to winners of the 2010 Eredivise, agrees that clubs need to be much more forthright in stating their ambitions if they are to start eroding the dominance of the Old Firm. Beswick states: “The use of the ‘underdog tactic’ is temporary. If you aim to be champions, you must shape the collective mindset to think like champions all the time – only this leads to the level of belief necessary for sustained success.”


Players: Play the game, not the opponent

Former Aberdeen midfielder Lee Richardson knows at first-hand the scale of the mental barriers Scottish players face when coming up against either of the Old Firm. Richardson, who now runs his own sports psychology business, recalls looking around the Dons dressing room before the 1993 Scottish Cup final against Rangers and seeing normally confident teammates wracked with excessive pre-match anxiety because of their opponents’ reputation.

Richardson is convinced that because the vast majority of current Scottish players will have grown up supporting one of the Glasgow teams during an era of unprecedented dominance, they will have an even greater inferiority complex than that which Richardson observed.

This ingrained belief that the Old Firm have a divine right to success inevitably has an adverse effect on the self-belief of players when facing Rangers or Celtic. The ability of a player to access their peak mental performance is hindered and they take a psychological backwards step into an avoidance state of mind; conversely their Old Firm opponent is emboldened by the reputation of their team and they are able to get on the psychological front foot.

The perceived quality of players the Old Firm have at their disposal also plays a significant role in the minds of their opponents, in what psychologists term the Halo Effect. The consequence being that Old Firm players appear to Scottish opposition players to be stronger, faster and better than they actually are because of decades of mental conditioning.

Sports psychology has the potential to reverse the detrimental effect of these combined biases. A series of individual and group exercises can be implemented to move the focus away from the perceived strength of the Old Firm and onto the processes players need to implement in order to be successful. These methods have been shown to have a marked positive effect on the ability of teams on the continent to overcome these types of inherent inferiority complex.


Administrators: Stimulate and promote competition

Barry Hearn, the irrepressible sports promoter, has on several occasions in the past few years held up the mirror to Scottish football’s powerbrokers in an attempt to reveal to them the ugly truth: it is their own lack of confidence which is holding them back.

Hearn is a man who lives and breathes the power of positive thinking and his assessment of the Scottish football psyche has been damning. Hearn has pointed to an air of despondency and lack of self-belief as the main factors in the top flight being unable to maximize their broadcasting and sponsorship revenues.

Hearn has urged the merits of the league to be talked up at every opportunity, even if there is not much to shout about. His message is resounding: “You’ve got to grow. You’ve got to be positive. You can’t expect people to take you seriously if you don’t take yourself seriously. If you live in everyone’s shadow then you never come out of that shadow.”

A more positive mindset alone may not be enough to bridge the current resource gap; more radical measures such as a return to splitting home gate receipts or a draft system for a better distribution of young players may be required to artificially stimulate competition. However, one thing is certain: without a systematic re-programming of the collective psyche, the Old Firm’s ultimately self-limiting position of domestic power will remain and Scottish football will be left floundering in the shallows of the modern game. 

This article first appeared in Issue 4 which was published in June 2017.

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