Craig Brown's reign was a pretty joyless one, but the blame for Scotland's plight lies elsewhere, says Ken Gall. And bidding for Euro 2008 will make things worse
The strangely high-pitched booing at the end of Scotland’s wretched World Cup tie against Latvia (courtesy of thousands of primary school children fortunate enough to receive free tickets) marked a slightly surreal end to Craig Brown’s term as national manager. Yet the manner of Brown’s departure was symptomatic of much of his eight years in charge. Once again we had the passionless Hampden occasion, the tie against a Baltic state (entire stretches of his reign appear to have taken place against these countries) and the unmerited victory somehow ground out against palpably more gifted opponents.
Predictably, the Scottish media went into overdrive in the immediate aftermath of the tie, calling for, among other things, the replacement of the faceless SFA bureaucrats deemed responsible for the current malaise, the imposition of quotas to encourage the Old Firm in particular to select more Scottish players and the appointment of a foreign coach to emulate the success, such as it is, of Sven-Goran Eriksson. One might have thought agreement could be reached on one thing – that a drastic change of approach was essential.
Yet the attitudes that made Brown’s job all but impossible were simultaneously reinforced by the SFA’s apparent determination to press ahead with the bid to stage the European Championship in 2008. The plan to spend vast sums of public money on sports stadiums in a country already over-endowed in that area is precisely the wrong decision at the wrong time, and shows that those in charge have failed to learn any lessons from the near-bankruptcy of their own updated Hampden, let alone the fiascos of Wembley and Pickett’s Lock. By choosing the glitz of hosting a major competition over the more mundane work of large-scale youth development, the SFA are ensuring that Brown’s successors – both immediate and long-term – will continue to be faced with a paucity of quality footballers.
Brown’s relationship with Scottish football could never be described as passionate. An astute tactician and an articulate and worldly man (as was clearly seen at the time of the Euro 2000 play-offs against England, when his mature demeanour contrasted starkly with the ravings of Kevin Keegan), his downbeat and cautious realism seems to have transferred itself to the nation’s feelings about its team. Some 13,000 fans travelled to Brussels for the Belgium tie (their enjoyment interrupted only by 90 excruciating minutes of football), but the Tartan Army now seems more like a kind of boozy Rotary Club outing, with the match itself being but one of many organised coach trips.
The usual defence offered on Brown’s behalf is that, given the resources with which he has had to work, his record of qualification for major tournaments is a good one. A fair point, but Scots can only look across the Irish Sea and wonder at a Republic side that is more than a match for the Netherlands and Portugal. While Ireland have one indisputably world-class player and a record at junior level that suggests the systems are in place to produce more, the current team on paper does not look that much better than Scotland’s. Yet Lansdowne Road is invariably full and passionate, the players can raise their games to the required level, important results are obtained home and away. What is Mick McCarthy getting from his players that Craig Brown could not?
Dick Advocaat quickly denied any culpability for the dearth of top-quality Scottish talent, but the Rangers manager was rather more accurate when he described the 2008 bid as “a waste of money”. Clearly, the man who purchased Tore Andre Flo, Andrei Kanchelskis and poor old Marcus Gayle – while ignoring the young, talented and Scottish Kenny Miller – knows what he is talking about on this subject, but for once “the Little General” (copyright Daily Record) had a point.
Prior to the Latvia tie, the SFA announced that bids had been accepted for Hibernian to upgrade their stadium, Aberdeen to replace theirs and the two Dundee clubs to share a new venue in preparation for 2008. The 10,000 or so season ticket holders at Dens and Tannadice may have questioned the lack of consultation on the impending demoliton of their traditional stadiums, but after all they are only the people who permit these clubs to survive. Interestingly, the Scottish Premier League responded to the groundsharing proposal by stating that this was expressly forbidden under SPL rules.
In essence, the bid means that four clubs that have spent millions of pounds on developing stadiums they are unable to fill, are to be subsidised from the public purse to build larger, and soon-to-be emptier, grounds, while clubs such as Falkirk and Inverness Caledonian Thistle – in areas currently devoid of suitable facilities – are ignored. The SFA has boldly stated that hosting the competition would bring in as much as £500 million to the Scottish economy and would “mark the beginning of a decade of prosperity”. Anyone familiar with old Pravda editorials on Soviet Union tractor production will recognise the objectivity of such forecasts.
In truth, the Scottish Executive may find itself under pressure to explain why a sport that receives millions of pounds from television and sponsorship deals needs the help of the taxpayer to host the championship. And MSPs who need reminding of how seemingly tightly budgeted construction projects can quickly get out of hand need look only at the money pit that is their own Holyrood Parliament project.
The strongest competition to Scotland as hosts of Euro 2008 is likely to come from Austria and Switzerland, with the slightly implausible joint Greek-Turkish bid as the outsider. The Nordic countries have also put together a proposal to stage the tournament in venues across Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark.
But here we offer an alternative strategy for the SFA. Draw up a budget for hosting the 2008 tournament, then halve it. Announce that the bid is to be withdrawn, and that half the money is to go back into the public pot for schools, education and transport. Use a fraction of what is left to help clubs such as Morton and Airdrie that are staring into the financial abyss, and pump all the rest into a youth development system based on the French plan – one that has, after all, produced the odd good player in recent times.
Only such lateral thinking will prevent a scenario in which future Scotland managers fail to match even Craig Brown’s modest achievements over the past eight years.
From WSC 178 December 2001. What was happening this month