The People’s Game Still? The State of Scottish Football
April 11th 2012
This is an appropriate time to survey the state of Scottish football. Celtic have just been crowned champions and Rangers are in administration awaiting the next stage of that saga. It is the week before the Scottish Cup semi-finals, and that other important part of the Scots football tradition and fabric, the Scottish Junior Cup semi-finals.
In this piece and subsequent articles, I want to put the current state of our game in a historical context. I will examine changing patterns of competition, dominance, change and rivalry and in particular take the long view from the beginning of the Scottish game, look at the post-war era and the distinctive periods it contained, and at the nature of Scottish football attendances.
In covering such a broad sweep I will attempt to bring to the fore salient facts and patterns which are often overlooked in the pressure cooker, instantaneous reporting of much of our mainstream media. And in conclusion I offer some thoughts on how the game is portrayed and some observations about how the game gets out of its current position.
Reasons to Be Cheerful Possibly!
Many people say that the Scottish game is in a dire state and going nowhere fast. That Scottish football is only about Celtic and Rangers. That the Old Firm are all that matters to TV authorities. That they strangle the Scots game and in turn are strangled by it from competing in Europe. That our league is now a joke; our teams regularly humiliated in Europe; and the national team struggling to live up to the days of its former glories.
There is an alternative picture. The Scottish game at the top is in a sorry way, but in places, in the lower leagues and in junior football, there are signs of health, in the passion, commitment and joy which the game brings to so many people across Scotland. It is just too easy and too Scottish to be completely black and white and repeat as a mantra ‘we are all doomed’. The game is in crisis at the level of the Scottish Premier League but that isn’t all there is to the game.
An alternative picture, a counterblast to the current wave of defeatism would stress:
- Scotland has at club level reached nine European finals; France for example have appeared in thirteen finals (where Scotland has won on three occasions to two for the French).
- The national team has succeeded through the qualifying stages for the World Cup nine times (once not appearing in 1950); and did so five times in a row – something England has yet to achieve.
- Scotland is the only European country to have two cities where two teams have reached European Cup semi-finals: Glasgow and Dundee. This puts these cities in a select European elite and on a par with Madrid and Milan. London managed it but only recently, while Manchester and Liverpool still haven’t.
- Scots are one of the most football mad places on the earth with one estimate of our league attendances per head making us the third most fervent football fans in Europe – after Iceland and Cyprus (1).
- Glasgow is a city defined by football. It is the only city in the UK which has three stadiums of over 50,000 capacity: Parkhead, Ibrox and Hampden. Only one other European city can claim the same: football mad Istanbul.
Many of these fine points are beginning to recede into the past. Scotland’s World Cup five in a row was 1974-90. Rangers reached their European Cup semi-final in 1960, Celtic their first in 1967 and last in 1974; Dundee and Dundee United reached their semi-finals in 1963 and 1984. And then there are the negatives. Glasgow is alone in the UK in having three 50,000 plus football stadiums (unlike say London a city more than ten times its size) because Celtic and Rangers refuse to play their cup finals on their rivals pitch, so thus we have Hampden along with Parkhead and Ibrox.
The City of the Glorious Game
The history of the Scottish game is a fascinating one. The rise of football in Scotland, the influence of Scottish players and managers across the world from Victorian times, along with the famous ‘Scotch professors’ who created the modern passing game is filled with history and emotion.
The pivotal contribution to the game made by Queen’s Park Football Club on the Southside of Glasgow is something to which the Scottish game and international football owes a huge debt. This is captured in Scottish singer-songwriter Michael Marra’s tribute to the club, ‘The Wise Old Men of Mount Florida’:
The wise old men of Mount Florida knew
If the game was to flourish some changes were due
When the science of football emerged from the dark
It was due in the main to the men of Queen’s Park
Crossbars and corners
Free kicks and throw-ins
The scientific game. (2)
This was connected to the rise of economic power and wealth in Scotland in the late 19th century, the growth of the metropolis that was industrial Glasgow and the West of Scotland, and its interconnection via transport links. The rise of football was also linked to the rise of the Scots in the civil service, army and Empire, and it is interesting that Scots history has yet to explore the link between football and Empire, with both Tom Devine’s and Michael Fry’s studies of the Scots and Empire, not mentioning football once (3).
To paraphrase another phrase, football made Glasgow and Glasgow made football. George MacDonald Fraser described the uniqueness of the city and its love of the game:
The native highlanders, the Englishmen, and the lowlanders played football on Saturday afternoons and talked about it on Saturday evenings, but the Glaswegians, men apart in this as in most things, played, slept, ate, drank and lived it seven days a week. (4)
To what extent then has Scottish football just been about the Old Firm and a pile of insignificant also-rans, the so-called ‘provincial clubs’? I decided to compile a complete league table of all Scottish major domestic competitions from the outset of the game. I did so because I could not find such a table in any of the football books or websites, and because I thought it would yield some interesting findings.
The table below covers the main Scottish League championship (Division One to 1974-75, Premier Division then League), Scottish Cup and League Cup, along with the main European trophies (excluding the Super Cup). Where teams are tied on the same number of trophies I have adopted a higher ranking for the league, followed by the Scottish Cup and then League Cup.
The findings are fascinating. A total of 25 clubs have one piece of silverware; 20 of those clubs are still in the senior game; five are not: Third Lanark, Vale of Leven, Renton, Airdrie and St. Bernard’s. That means that 22 of Scotland’s current senior clubs have never experienced winning major silverware including two clubs in today’s SPL: St. Johnstone and Inverness Caley Thistle. Since the first Scottish Cup of 1873-74 Celtic and Rangers have won 207.5 out of 309 trophies: 67.1%. That means 101.5 trophies have been won by non-Old Firm clubs: 32.9%.
Scottish All-Time League of Success
|Scottish Cups||League Cups||Euro Cups||Total||%|
|5. QUEEN’S PARK||–||10||–||–||10||3.2|
|8. DUNDEE UTD||1||2||2||–||5||1.6|
|11. EAST FIFE||–||1||3||–||4||1.3|
|12. THIRD LANARK||1||2||–||–||3||1.0|
|13. ST MIRREN||–||3||–||–||3||1.0|
|13. VALE OF LEVEN||–||3||–||–||3||1.0|
|20. PARTICK THISTLE||–||1||1||–||2||0.6|
|21. ST BERNARD’S||–||1||–||–||1||0.3|
|24. RAITH ROVERS||–||–||1||–||1||0.3|
Source: Figures collated from Evening Times The Wee Red Book 2011-12; BBC News; Scottish League Championship and League Cup to 2012; Scottish Cup to 2011.
On first impressions this doesn’t seem too bad a distribution considering the unbalanced nature of the game. Take a look further: Celtic and Rangers have won 83.9% of all league championships (96.5 out of 115), 54.4% Scottish Cups (68 out of 125) and 62.1% League Cups (41 out of 66). We should take note of the oft-made claim that Rangers hold the world record for the most league championships: which is regularly put at 54. In fact the correct total is 53.5 – the other half title belonging rightly to Dumbarton who jointly won the first ever title with Rangers!
In only two seasons since we have had three domestic trophies have either Celtic or Rangers failed to win one trophy between them. Those non-Old Firm clean sweeps are seasons 1951-52 and 1954-55 when in the first Hibs won the league, Motherwell the Scottish Cup and Dundee the League Cup and the second when Aberdeen won the league, Clyde the Scottish Cup and Hearts the League Cup.
The dominance of the Old Firm was not always thus. It took until the 19th Scottish Cup in 1891-92 for one of the two Glasgow teams, Celtic, to win the Scottish Cup. The Scottish league was established in 1890-91 and professionalism was not introduced until 1893 when the SFA bowed to what was the inevitable. This decision marked the final closure on Queen’s Park’s dominance of the first two decades of the Scottish game and the strengthening of the power of Celtic and Rangers. As Bob Crampsey wrote in his history of Queen’s Park:
Queen’s also saw and warned that the certain effect of a moneyed game within Scotland would be to tip the scales far too heavily in favour of the big city clubs. As long as those intangible things called honour and prestige were all that were at stake then a local lad might just as well play for his village or small town with which he at least had an affinity. Pay him, and he would sell his sword to the highest bidder. (5)
This was to be the experience of the game from that point on, but even with these prevailing forces, as we explore tomorrow, the dominance of ‘the Old Firm’ wasn’t always as overbearing as it is today.
1. Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, Why England Lose: And other curious phenomena explained, Harper Sport 2010.
2. Michael Marra, ‘The Wise Old Men of Mount Florida’, on Stolen Stationery, Eclectic Records 1991.
3. Tom Devine, Scotland’s Empire 1600-1815, Harper Collins 2003; Michael Fry, The Scottish Empire, Birlinn 2001.
4. George MacDonald Fraser, The General Danced at Dawn, Macmillan 1972.
5. Bob Crampsey, The Game for the Game’s Sake: The History of Queen’s Park Football Club 1867-1967, Queen’s Park Football Club 1967.