CHRIS MARSHALL attempts to answer the question: “Is this the dawning of a new golden era for Scottish Professional Football League and for Scottish football in general?” The penultimate part of our 18 for 18 series heads north of the border.
That was the crux of the question posed to me when contemplating my contribution towards this series of articles reviewing 2018. I nearly completely dismissed it. Sure, it’s been eventful and a look at this season’s league table gives the impression of a league ever tightening. However, it is Celtic who have won every single major honour in Scotland in the last two and a bit seasons and it’s a Rangers side that is still very much a work in progress who are realistically viewed as the team most likely to break that dominance. Teams such as Hearts, Aberdeen and Kilmarnock have only ever shown fleeting glimpses of providing Scottish football with its very own Leicester City moment.
So where then has this notion of a golden age come from? Am I being too harsh on a game that I have a great deal of affection for? One that I can both heap praise upon and flood with criticism in equal measure? Was 2018 really the start of a brave new world for football in Scotland or do old habits die hard?
The culmination of the 2017/18 season certainly seemed to indicate the latter – ending much the same as the 2016/17 season did – with Celtic top of the league and in possession of both domestic cup trophies. Rangers had again struggled to find the manager and players to match their expectations whilst the resources of sides such as Aberdeen and Hibernian meant that good runs were possible but with neither ever threatening when the games really mattered.
The Rangers story is an often told one; their demotion to the bottom tier of Scottish football a decision that to this day leads to long and tedious debates, however, the undeniable fact is since the August 12, 2012 Rangers primary goal has been to prove once again that they were “Simply the Best”. The latest man charged with that task: Steven Gerrard. Never has a managerial novice generated such hype and expectation with levels of excitement not seen at Ibrox since the arrival of Paul Gascoigne from Italy in the mid-nineties. The appointment of the former Liverpool and England captain, accompanied by a team of highly rated coaches, galvanised the fan base at a time when it was needed most but it’s fair to say it hasn’t been plain sailing with his fledgling managerial career starting with a mix of European excellence and domestic inconsistencies. Whilst they ventured on their longest ever unbeaten run in Europe they have not had to look too hard for troubles domestically. Poor results in the league coupled with a defeat to Aberdeen in the semi-final of the Scottish League Cup showed that there were still old scars to heal. The winning mentality that Rangers’ fans expect to be ingrained as “the way” is a habit that has proven hard to get back into.
Whilst the focus in Scottish football will always be on the Old Firm, the chasing pack have been more than holding up their end of the bargain during the opening salvos of the season with Kilmarnock, Aberdeen and Hearts all having had a say in domestic matters. Perhaps the biggest surprise has been the regeneration of Craig Levein, not only as a manager, but also as one of Scottish football’s most entertaining characters. Whilst the ghost of that 4-6-0 formation in Prague will haunt every Scotland fan until their dying days, domestically Levein has always proven himself to be a more than competent operator. His new “I don’t give a f**k what you think” attitude has seen him become strangely admired by fans across the country with his withering put down of Brendan Rodgers’ complaints about the length of the grass at Tynecastle.
Of course, he’s not universally loved. Hibernian fans instead focus their affections towards their manager Neil Lennon with his Leith based side of the last two seasons widely praised for their attacking style of play. The manager on the other hand continues to be a polarising figure. His touchline antics in particular have continued to be a lightning rod for opinion. From the airplane celebration that followed Hibernain’s late equaliser in their end of season 5-5 draw with Rangers at Easter Road to his baiting of the Tynecastle crowd in the most recent Edinburgh derby. An act that resulted in a coin being thrown in his direction and the Ulsterman going down holding his head. Whether it actually touched him there only he will know for certain.
Everything Neil Lennon is, current Kilmarnock manager Steve Clarke appears not to be. Whilst Lennon is loud, hot-headed and prone to extreme behaviour, Clarke’s measured and almost muted approach to management coupled with a little black book of contacts has seen him rejuvenate Kilmarnock and turn them into one of the best sides in the league; whilst Derek McInnes continues to do a steady if unspectacular job at Aberdeen taking them to the Scottish League Cup final and keeping them in the hunt for Europe after a slow start to the season. Throw Brendan Rodgers into the mix and it’s hard not to hypothesise that the managerial scene in Scotland is perhaps the strongest it has been for some time, not only in terms of ability but also in terms of profile.
Even as you move down the table there is success to be found. St. Johnstone continue to perform admirably under long-serving Tommy Wright and Livingston have proven themselves to be a welcome addition to the top flight even if their rubber-infested artificial pitch has not won as many fans. At the bottom Dundee and St. Mirren have had a fairly disastrous opening half to the 2018/19 season but still just about have Lanarkshire sides Hamilton Accies and Motherwell in their sights. In fact, in general there is credence to the idea that at least on the pitch the competition levels are as strong as they have been for some time.
Unfortunately though, as is always the way within the bubble that Scottish football continues to float in, it’s non playing matters that continue to stir debate. It would be impossible, in this current climate, not to talk about the refereeing standards. It’s an old gripe and one that almost every football fan can relate to, but never has there been a time in my football supporting life where fans are so united in the condemnation of the role the arbitrators of Scottish football play in influencing the outcome of a game.
Multiple errors across numerous games have become a week-on-week occurrence, becoming even more recognisable when the coverage from leagues around the world beamed onto Scottish screens has evolved to include innovations such as goal line technology and VAR. This isn’t the start of a defence of officiating in Scotland, far from it as standards are exceptionally poor at present whether the officials are part-time or not, but more a condemnation of an organisation that talks about the importance of promoting the game whilst at the same time doing nothing to improve the quality of the product. Whether it be offside calls, dubious bookings or a contentious penalty, the prevalence of these errors are now at a level that brings into question not only performances on the pitch but the policies and processes in place that oversee the recruitment, progression and punishment for officials that continue to underperform.
It’s perhaps in the media though where the biggest change has occurred in the Scottish football landscape. Feelings are mixed on which subscription channel provides the better coverage of our national game but in some respects the sometimes laissez faire attitude of Sky and BT has been a refreshing distraction to some of the nonsense coming out of solely Scottish media outlets. Nationally broadcasted radio programmes frequently descend into shouting matches. Journalists use Twitter rumours as fact to create headlines and then follow up these headlines by promoting them on social media and arguing with anyone who dares to call them out on it. It seems that being a contrarian is preferred to being insightful and intelligent.
At a time when Raheem Sterling has felt the need to speak up against the continued targeting of his every move as a result of his ethnicity and background, a similar trend seems to be creeping in with Rangers striker Alfredo Morelos. The Colombian being subjected to a barrage of clichés that follow an eerily similar tone to the one that led to the Manchester City forward finally having enough. Of course, the BBC wouldn’t be able to tell you much about that as they continue to stay away from Ibrox, a move that has caused significant ripples south of the border now that one of their game’s modern day greats is in charge down Govan way.
The Scottish football media scene has been stale for some time. The same faces saying the same thing in the same way. Luckily though there is hope. The underground is becoming the mainstream and fan led media outlets are bringing content to fans that is both engaging and transparent in its allegiances. The independent scene in Scotland driven by freelancers, players, analysts and straight up lovers of the game, much like across the world, continues to grow whilst the old guard seems happy to continue to stagnate.
Stagnation, has also been a long associated watch word for the national side, and it would be impossible to consider the success of a Scottish football season, domestic or otherwise, without taking a look at the latest goings on with the Tartan Army.
After another disappointing qualifying campaign, this time for the World Cup in Russia, the SFA board turned to former boss Alex McLeish in what was universally seen as one of the most uninspiring appointments in recent history. After some disappointing summer friendly results in Latin America, Scotland’s return to competitive action began this year in the inaugural UEFA Nations League with a kind draw landing them in a group alongside Albania and Israel. A strong home win against the Albanians was near wiped out by a horror show in Haifa whilst two heavy home friendly defeats against Belgium and Portugal “B” achieved less than nothing in understanding the squad depth and the rehabilitation of confidence required to break our big tournament drought. Quickly, the knives were being sharpened for the man who had got Scotland so close when faced with France and Italy on the path to Euro 2008.
His progress this time round hasn’t been without its problems. Recent squad selections have been compromised by numerous players announcing themselves unavailable for selection with the likes of Leigh Griffiths, James MacArthur and Matt Ritchie all withdrawing their services under mysterious circumstances whilst Robert Snodgrass went from retired to back in the fold in the space of one afternoon. This player apathy has translated onto the terraces with crowds the lowest they have been in over a decade whilst infighting seems at its highest with players regularly being booed on and off the park and fans becoming increasingly tribal in the defence of their favourite players. In recent times the famous Hampden ‘Roar’ being often nothing more than a whimper and to add a personal spin on things, I hadn’t missed a home game for over ten years but have recently chosen to miss two in the space of a month. Even if they were friendlies, it’s a good indicator of the challenges McLeish has in trying to turn the tide. It says a lot then for the character of the players who have been drafted into the side that Scotland now find themselves in the UEFA Nations League play-offs, a second route to a first major championships in twenty years, with two refreshingly positive performances against the Albanians and Israelis sealing top spot in the group, although concerns remain that Alex McLeish may not be the man for the task in the longer term.
Don’t worry if you are impatient for national team success though as Scotland’s women side have shown considerably more dedication to the cause and, having continued to improve despite the increasingly competitive environment they find themselves in, have seen their efforts rewarded with qualification for a first ever World Cup. Whilst the men’s side has become synonymous with snatching defeat from the jaws of success, the women’s team led by Shelley Kerr managed to do the complete opposite this year holding their nerve by winning 2-1 away to Albania in their final group game whilst nearest rivals Switzerland could only manage a draw. I for one already have flights booked in support of our girls as they enter France 2019 knowing that a tough draw will see them come up against England, Japan and Argentina.
So let’s revisit the opening question: Is this the dawning of a new golden era for the Scottish Professional Football League and for Scottish football in general? The honest answer is, I really don’t know. I’ve followed Scottish football since the day my dad could trust me to not run off to the pie stall but even with those decades of experience I find myself regularly lost for words when trying to sum up its current successes and failures. I suppose in some respects it depends on the prism you decide to view it through. The league seems better but is blighted by poor coverage and officiating whilst as a competition it still feels like the chasing pack have work to do. The men’s national side are in the UEFA Nations League pay-offs but that was viewed as the minimum from a kind draw and there is still a malaise to be shifted that perhaps only big tournament qualification can bring. However, the successes of the women’s national side in qualifying for France 2019 should hopefully bring that big tournament buzz we have all been longing for. 2018 might not have been the dawning of a golden era but I’m optimistic that 2019 will be the year that Scottish football is waiting for. As a Scottish football fan, you have to be.