Vogts of no confidence

After two-and-a-half-years' worth of poor performances, Berti Vogts leaves his post as Scotland manager blaming media and supporter pressure for his failure. Dianne Millen explains why reform is desperately needed in Scottish football

If you listened hard on that icy Moldovan night, you could almost hear the sound of Berti Vogts’ tartan bodywarmer falling off the proverbial shoogly peg as the travelling Tartan Army cordially invited him to go forth and multiply. From then on, the combative German’s one-way ticket from Glasgow Airport was as good as booked, although his emotional “personal statement” on resigning laid the blame not on the fans directly, but on “the unacceptable power of the tabloid press to influence its readership”.

So, after two-and-a-half years, 31 games, eight wins and more bad jokes about Germans than an episode of ’Allo ’Allo, where do we go from here? Given the abysmal results and the man­ner of our defeats, it’s hard to believe that the fans have been brainwashed by pundits. If Berti truly believes that “the opinions that have been expressed by a section of the press are not those of the majority of the Scottish people”, he clearly wasn’t listening in Moldova. While nobody thinks our players are world-beaters, even a group of journeymen can be organised, man-managed and, if necessary, threatened into being a team that at least looks as if the members have met before.

Ultimately, Vogts’ real problem was his inability to communicate his vision to players, fans and media – from his confusing early press conferences to his extraordinary closing rant, he consistently misjudged his audience. Not only did this result in shambolic performances, with players unsure of which position they were playing, it meant he had no supporters when results began to go against him. All too often, Berti’s post-match press conferences were characterised by grumpy refusal to acknowledge legitimate criticism – exemplified by his barely credible insistence after the recent defeat to Norway that “it is not my fault. With all of our players fit, it would be a different team and you have to accept it. We were well organised against Norway and it was a good performance from all of the boys.” Not many who had sat through one of the worst qualifying matches in recent memory were inclined to agree.

Press conferences may be less frustrating in future, but to make progress it is imperative that we continue the debate his tenure has prompted about the state of Scottish football and avoid the temptation to blame him for everything. Many of Vogts’ supporters – including the pundits he despises – have highlighted the absence of truly world-class players. This has been variously attributed to the decline in sporting facilities for children, the growing popularity of computer games and other sedentary leisure pursuits, the Old Firm’s lack of interest in giving young Scots players a game in European competitions, and the shrinking population. To many commentators the game is now in such a mess from top to bottom that no one man could ever be expected to succeed simply through his own individual contribution as manager.

Although this may be overstating the case, serious questions do need to be asked about the infrastructure of the game and the leadership qualities of those in charge. Unlike most businesses, in football the people who appoint unsuccessful managers tend to retain their posts. The painfully protracted and deeply undignified fiasco of Berti’s departure should give momentum to critics – including some MSPs – who are calling for review and reform of Scottish football’s management structures.

In the short term, we must improve the funding and organisation of youth football and demystify decision-making within the Scottish Football Association, who continue to be per­ceived as an out-of-touch, blazer-clad cartel. To meet long-term challenges, however, such a review must involve those who work with young people and who plan and fund Scotland’s leisure infrastructure. This may not directly benefit the next couple of managers, but to achieve sustained success rather than occasional qualification followed by early departure, we must examine how other countries of comparable size maximise their talent pool.

Ultimately, however, Scotland fans must not slide into the negativity that is the country’s melancholic curse, and which Vogts seemed almost to perpetuate. Too often we accepted his continual implicit criticisms of the Scottish game so as to deflect ourselves from recognising that his appointment was a mistake. In preferring players from the murkier edges of the English game to top SPL performers, and in blaming everyone but himself for poor results, Berti sent a clear message about the value he placed on the domestic game and his players, which contradicted his robust defences of “my boys” after every defeat. A glance at the youth teams, and an SPL now forced by finances to give eager and motivated young players a chance, suggests that better times are on their way if only we can get the organisation and leadership right.

From WSC 214 December 2004. What was happening this month