THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Martin Greig looks at a possible solution to the poor performance of Scottish clubs in international competition

“In this country there are some pretty smart people. But I always ask how the nation which invented the telephone, the television, penicillin and getting drunk till you fall down, possibly think about playing football in the winter?” The words of Arild Stavrum, the Norwegian striker who played for Aberdeen, evoke the spirit of Robert Burns in calling for the ability to see ourselves as others see us. Another season of collective failure by Scottish clubs in Europe has prompted the perennial debate on the merits of summer football. Four of the country’s six representatives, Aberdeen, Motherwell, Falkirk and Hearts, were eliminated from the Europa League in the qualifying rounds.

Aberdeen’s 8-1 aggregate loss to Sigma Olomouc of the Czech Republic was particularly shocking, while Falkirk’s elimination at the hands of Liechtenstein’s FC Vaduz represented another blow for the national game. Celtic, meanwhile, were forced to produce heroics away from home in the second leg of their Champions League qualifier to overcome Dinamo Moscow, after losing 1-0 at home.

The period of underachievement has been long enough for even traditionalists to start to consider change. The argument is simple: many teams that Scottish clubs face in the early rounds – from Scandinavian nations, Russia and the Baltic states – play a summer season. As such, they are fitter and better prepared.

An increasingly influential lobby, including Gordon Smith, the Scottish Football Association’s chief executive, and Rangers manager Walter Smith, believe change is vital if Scottish teams are to cope with UEFA’s early start to Europa League and Champions League qualification. Their calls take on greater resonance in light of the fact that the Scottish champions will not being given direct entry into the
Champions League as of next season.

Ireland is the most recent example of a country which has adapted and flourished. In 2003, they switched their season schedule to March to November and have never looked back. Attendances have risen – with a 20 per cent hike in the 2006-07 season – in tandem with their UEFA coefficient, and standards have improved domestically due to the better condition of pitches. As Scottish clubs topple out of Europe, Irish representatives have been on giant-killing sprees for several years.

The renaissance began in 2004 when Shelbourne beat KR Reykjavik, Hadjuk Split and then drew 0-0 at home with Deportivo La Coruña. In 2006, Derry City overcame IFK Gothenburg, hammered Gretna 5‑1 then held Paris Saint Germain to a 0‑0 draw at home. Last year, St Patrick’s beat Swedish side Elfsborg, who had eliminated Hibs in the previous round. This season, Bohemians were close to putting out Red Bull Salzburg only to lose a goal four minutes from time.

“We are also seeing more players move across to play in England,” added Eoghan Rice, a spokesman for the Football Association of Ireland. “Jay O’Shea made his debut for Birmingham against Manchester United in August after signing from Galway United.”

Rather than the Scandinavian or Irish model, Gordon Smith’s proposal involves starting in August, shutting down for January and February – when 90 per cent of postponements occur – and rolling the season into June. That would mean a shorter summer holiday, but the winter break would regenerate clubs, players, fans and pitches. A counter-argument is that every second summer there is a major tournament, but the Scottish national team have not qualified for over a decade and if they ever do so again then they could work round it, just like all the other countries who play a
summer season.

In the past, some Scottish clubs have voiced resistance to an extended winter break fearing loss of revenue but, as Smith argues, the cash-flow problem would only be a short-term one as you would end up with the same number of games. A possible way around that issue, again as Smith suggests, might involve offering clubs a form of bridging loan. John Boyle, millionaire businessman and Motherwell chairman, actually claims that financial imperatives now provide the biggest reason for change. He says that more fans would turn out on a “balmy summer or spring evening than... when it is snowing and windy” and also points out that people holiday all year round now rather than just in the summer months.

If there is a growing consensus that Scottish football needs to confront change then the question remains: will anything ever be done about it? Walter Smith’s comments contained a caveat. “We talk about these things over a period of years but nothing seems to change. As football managers we get asked a lot of things, but nobody seems to pay attention.”

From WSC 272 October 2009

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