Scottish football is in the doldrums right now. That is not to exaggerate – most of the time it’s hardly a bed of roses – but these past few weeks and months have witnessed rumblings both at domestic and international level. Questions have hung in the air, unanswered, for long enough; it is time to press the issue.
Despite Celtic’s reinstatement on a technicality, August saw all Scottish interest in European club competitions come to an end – Rangers, particularly dismally, had two bites of the cherry and still fell. Couple this with prolonged uncertainty about the future shape of the SPL and the difficulty the national team faces yet again in qualifying for the finals of a major tournament and you can see the country is at a low ebb. However, it is doubtful that there is any terminal decline in the works here – at least, no more so than usual.
Teams have rough seasons and it just turns out that this year Scottish clubs have managed to play their way (almost) out of Europe in the qualifying rounds. It happens; somebody has to be eliminated at that stage. Rangers were playing in the UEFA Cup final three years ago in Manchester – they have hardly gone missing. The national team need only look back as far as the qualifier against Czech Republic at Hampden Park for an example of the misfortune (or refereeing decision), that can mean the difference between qualifying and not.
What is less easy to dismiss is the reformation of the SPL and the shadow that the whole debate is casting over the league. The sooner the degenerative, short-term demands of the television companies are reconciled with the more long-term needs of the league the better. The point has been made by many that the Old Firm’s funds are no longer filtering down through the Scottish league system, because they are no longer picking the best Scottish talent but rather looking at cheap foreign imports or middle-of-the-road English Championship players. The effect of this in Scotland is inevitably detrimental.
What is more worrying is the fact that Scottish players are not bedding in well at all when they chance a move south of the border. Both Scott McDonald and the SPL’s all-time record top goalscorer Kris Boyd are currently plodding around England’s second tier; Kenny Miller has shown his limits in several failed cracks at the Premier League; Shaun Maloney will now try again in England’s top flight with Wigan after his 2007 Aston Villa switch never got off the ground. David Goodwillie at Blackburn probably holds the greatest hope, as it stands.
Red cards, injuries and refereeing injustices can all explain away the more immediate superficial concerns of both the club and the national game. What is ever-more exposed now is the need to firm up the foundations of Scottish football so that a few seasons of rough luck or bad buys in the transfer market for the big clubs don’t snowball into a disaster for all concerned.