Qualified failure

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