Once upon a time, an international game between England and Scotland was a really big deal. But it just doesn’t feel that way anymore, does it? And I am writing as an Englishman who loves living in Scotland.
This apathy is partly because both countries rarely entertain. But just as importantly, the rivalry between England and Scotland simply isn’t there now. Some pay it lip service, but it feels like they’re just blowing on dying embers.
It’s ironic really because Scotland is now, in some ways, a very different country to England, perhaps more different than at any time in the post-war era. It has a very strong, positive sense of itself, it is an increasingly open, progressive place. A country which, by and large, feels it is going forwards, not backwards. Here, despite everything there is to be depressed about, it feels like the best days still lie ahead and I’m not sure that is a belief widely held elsewhere.
Many of us who choose to live here look south of the border and increasingly feel removed from the dominant political and social culture and find Scotland, for all its obvious faults, a more tolerant, optimistic and egalitarian place. The EU referendum result only served to underline how far apart thetwo countries are drifting, not just politically, but perhaps even more decisively, culturally. Indeed, it wouldn’t be hard to find a substantial number of people here who feel choices are being made for us that are at odds with what we want as a country. But sadly, the national football team is not part of this new Scottish Enlightenment. In fact, there are a lot of parallels between our two national sides.
Neither seem able to turn in performances greater than the sum of their parts. Scotland are serial failures in qualifying, England in tournaments. For both, results seem to be roughly the same no matter who is in charge. Both countries suffer from the same malaise – a combination of lack of playing fields, lack of good coaches, a youth football culture which sees winning as more important than having fun. Throw in all the other options kids have for entertainment and add a big spoon of obesity courtesy of a mixture of indolence, over-consumption and the failed healthy eating advice of adopting a diet based on carbohydrates, and you end up with a failing national side and a chronic lack of quality players.
Scotland used to produce brilliant footballers on a regular basis, but hasn’t done so for at least 20 years. Who is the best Scottish footballer playing today? It’s hard to say, isn’t it? There are no stand-out talents; there are no Scots in the first-team squads of Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, Spurs and Manchester City. In fact, no member of Gordon Strchan’s current squad is on the books of a top-half Premier League side.
Why not? It’s simple. There are no Scottish players anywhere near good enough to play for the top six.
Most clubs in the Scottish top flight would struggle in the Championship; in fact, most of them would find getting promoted from the third tier of English football quite difficult. But it can be great fun all the same. I watch Hibs and Spartans play and you see direct, physical football. The skill level isn’t high, but the entertainment level often is.
No club apart from Rangers and Celtic has won the top division since 1985 and only 19 seasons since 1890 have ended with someone other than the Old Firm top of the league, so if you’re anyone else, you’re pretty much always playing for third place. Even when Rangers were in the lower divisions, there was never a chance that anyone other than Celtic would win the title. This makes the cups more important, but the league feels kind of dysfunctional as a competition because of the institutional duoply.
Quite why Scotland has stopped producing great players capable of gracing the high echelons of the game is a point of great debate, but there is no one single reason. It’s all quite ironic because even though there is a dearth of top-quality players to watch, Scotland remains football-mad. There are so many clubs for a relatively small country. Some have criticised the insularity of the game and pointed out that the football is overly physical and direct and the ball feared. But this was the case 30 or 40 years ago and it still produced the likes of Kenny Dalglish, John Collins and Eddie Gray. There is no Scot playing that is even close to that level of talent.
As all other UK nations were competing in the Euros, Scotland wasn’t and no-one was surprised, but if Northern Ireland could be successful, why not Scotland? Gordon Strachan probably won’t last a lot longer as manager but there is no outstanding candidate to take over, and no great resource of players left untapped. Managers come and go, but it’s now been 18 years since they qualified for a tournament and the current World Cup qualifying campaign will almost certainly end in failure too. The spiral of decline seems to be self-feeding in the same way it is with England.
However, in one respect, Scotland may have relatively better prospects than England. Because top English clubs are so rich, they mostly just buy talent from all over the world, rather than raise many of their own. Scotland did this in the 90s, and maybe in doing so helped beget the situation we have today. But there’s no money in Scottish football anymore, so clubs simply have to raise their own playing staff from within the club. Because of this, you’d hope in the future there will be no shortage of Scottish-born players and greater opportunity should hopefully unearth better talent. There is no such hope for England, whose clubs are wedded to a different economic model. If anything, the depth of England’s playing resources is likely to dwindle further.
Friday’s game doesn’t hold the same, crossbar-snapping tribal passions as it once did, and that’s a good thing. Then again, it’s hard to get passionate about mediocre teams playing mediocre football.