Gordon Strachan, former Scotland, Celtic and Southampton manager who is now technical director of Dundee FC, made headlines recently when he claimed that Scottish football is being held back by a lack of professionalism.
A fair cop, you might think, given that the country’s 22 professional sides have between them suffered multiple administrations, one liquidation, boardroom hijinks of almost every conceivable kind and, most recently, a voting faux-pas involving an over-zealous email quarantining system. But Strachan’s accusation of a lack of professionalism was, confusingly, not aimed at the country’s professional sides at all, but rather at the 20 part-time clubs who make up the rest of the SPFL.
“If you want to be a professional club, show it. Have full-time employees, have full-time players, have an academy, do the whole lot. Just don’t play at being a football team and expect us to look after you” Strachan told the BBC. “Nobody’s going to kill a football club but find your level that you play at. Find the level your finances are putting you. Don’t tell me you’re a professional club when you’re paying people part-time 80 quid a week and nobody turns up to your football matches.”
What is most bizarre about Strachan’s comments is that they appear to be attacking a wrong that has not been committed; none of Scotland’s part-time clubs is claiming to be anything other than part-time. Whilst they may play in the Scottish Professional Football League, this is a misnomer arising as a result of the merger of the SFL and SPL. It is an apparent desire to find an abbreviation that encapsulated both sets of initials, not any great demand by the wee teams to misrepresent themselves as professional. A few clubs may have flip-flopped between full and part-time over the years (Ayr United, Raith Rovers, Airdrie) or operated blended models, but the majority of the part-time teams have consistently had that status for as long as anyone can remember.
Similarly, Strachan’s charge to the part-time teams to “find your level” makes even less sense, given that they appear to have been doing precisely that for decades. That level is generally SPFL League One and below (although Arbroath’s excellent 5th place finish in last season’s Scottish Championship, just 5 points behind Dundee, is proof that well run part-time teams can aim higher). With the pyramid system now starting to fully kick in, the opportunities for ambitious non-league clubs to replace the stragglers of the SPFL herd means that level-finding will accelerate over the next decade or so.
There is also no evidence that the presence of these sides in the league structure, and indeed their very existence, is harming the clubs higher up the chain. Looking at Strachan’s native Edinburgh as an example. Edinburgh City’s elevation to the SPFL’s ranks had no discernible negative effect on the attendances of the city’s full-time clubs: Hearts’ attendances remained almost identical to the previous season, whilst Hibs saw a significant rise in numbers. Perhaps Strachan is worried that the TV money pie is being spread too thin, but the SPFL’s part-time teams are largely self-sufficient. The prize money that trickles down to Leagues One and Two is generally in the five-figure range and represents mere scraps compared to the sums being given to the top-flight clubs.
Strachan is not alone in seeking to lay the blame for Scottish football’s woes at the door of its part-time teams, of course. Hearts supremo Anne Budge once stated that “42 senior clubs is too many for Scotland” and opined that “about half that number” would be appropriate.
The ‘too many clubs’ argument has been raging since time immemorial, and many fans would agree with Budge and Strachan that a cull of SPFL teams is needed. Fans of Scotland’s bigger clubs used to a diet of crowds well into the thousands, modern facilities and, in some cases, European football, do not see the relevance of the part-time teams floating around at the bottom of the tank. What’s the point, goes the argument, in a team that can never dream of reaching the Premiership, or of winning a national trophy? Why don’t those fans reassign themselves to their nearest professional club and give that outfit’s attendances a boost? There is also a cringe factor, fans of Celtic feeling embarrassed that their side, who they justifiably rate as one of the biggest in Europe, must go from midweek tussles against the likes of Barcelona to sharing a league structure with little old Brechin at the weekend.
Where this logic flounders, however, is that all thriving footballing nations have a mixture of large and small sides, of full-time, part-time and amateur populating their footballing biosphere. In larger nations, the part-timers are still present, but will naturally find themselves lower down the pyramid, because there will be more full-time clubs in their way. It stands to reason, therefore, that the part-time clubs will be nearer to the top of the pile in Scotland (population 5.5 million) than in England (population 56.3 million.) Scottish football’s unhelpful obsession with comparing itself to English football ensures that some within our game will always rail against that fact. Scotland is not a large country, and our football will never again be able to compete on an even keel with more populated countries such as England, Germany and Spain. Instead, we should recognise the huge successes of Scottish football within the demographic framework in which it operates. To do anything else is to surrender to Wee Man Syndrome on a national scale, railing against our country’s diminutive size and wishing we were a bit more like big brother England.
Strachan, who spent much of his playing and managerial career down south, was at it again in his recent interview, stating that 40 or 50% of SPFL clubs would not survive in the English National League. This statement is probably true, but it is also entirely irrelevant. Given the tenfold population disparity, England’s 96 league clubs roughly equate to Scotland’s top 9.6 clubs (let’s round it up to 10 for good measure). Therefore, if Strachan insists on comparing our leagues to those down south then the appropriate barometer for success should not be whether the bottom 50% of SPFL clubs would survive at the highest level of English non-league (spoiler alert, some of them probably wouldn’t), but whether clubs 11 and 12 in our system (Hamilton Accies and Heart of Midlothian) would.
Looking at average attendances (one of the best barometers for a club’s size and spending power) in England’s Vanarama National League last season. It is abundantly clear that both would do so comfortably. The highest average attendance was at Notts County, where an average of 5,210 punters turned out to watch a club that historically competed at a higher level. Mid-range in the attendance table were Eastleigh at 1,826 and Aldershot at 1,817, whilst Boreham Wood prop up the table with an average attendance of just 753. The most recent equivalent figures for Accies (so often derided in Scotland as being poorly supported) show an average home crowd of 2,829 in the 2018/19 season – which would place them near the top of the National League standings. Hearts, meanwhile, would blow everyone at that level out of the water with their 17,564 average.
Looking one league further down at Vanarama North and South, where attendances range from a low of 328 (Hungerford Town) to a high of 2,705 (York City), it seems likely that many of Scotland’s part-time SPFL clubs would find themselves nestled somewhere around this level. Again, this is something to be celebrated, not derided, when the tenfold population disparity is taken into account.
So what if our lower leagues look a bit like English non-league? Put simply, Scotland’s League One will never be as big or as well supported as England’s League One – the vast difference in sizes of the two nations ensures that. To ignore that fact and try to match England toe-to-toe will always be a mistake. Instead, we should revel in a thriving and well supported Scottish football scene that is able to sustain not only the best supported per capita top-flight in Europe (with 0.21% of the population supporting our top-flight clubs on any given matchday, as compared to 0.07% in England’s Premier League) but also a semi-pro lower league scene that punches well above its weight.
This is not to say that Strachan’s views here are entirely without merit. Some of his criticisms would be fair, and even helpful if levelled at Dundee’s peers in the full-time game. Falkirk, for example, faced a barrage of criticism in 2017 when they announced that they were axing their much-admired youth academy (which had produced players such as Rangers’ Scott Arfield and Millwall’s Murray Wallace) to focus funds on sealing a top-flight return. This decision now looks staggeringly short-sighted as the Bairns face up to a potential second season amongst the part-timers of League One. Strachan was also right to claim that the product and spectacle of Scottish football could be made better if done “properly”. However, the technical director of a club which has been in administration twice this millennium telling other clubs that they will not “look after” them feels a little tone-deaf, to say the least.
Scottish football is far from perfect. Strachan is right about that, but he is wrong to lay the blame for its flaws at the door of our hard-working part-time clubs, who are mostly doing their bit. As a nation, we need to get over our collective Wee Man Syndrome and accept that we are and always will be a small country. Once you get your head around that, you start to see a footballing biosphere that is well-supported at various levels and punches above its weight in a number of metrics, with part-time clubs just as integral to that scene as their fully professional counterparts. It is to be hoped that the full-time teams will eventually avert their gaze from the one finger pointing away from them, and consider the four pointing their way. Only then will our game see the improvement that Strachan (in common with all fans of Scottish football) so passionately desires.