A message from rugby union resonated in Scottish football. Geoff Cooke, then coach of the British & Irish Lions, gave a lecture in 1993 at which Craig Brown was in attendance.
“Geoff pointed out that you could go down a route of spending millions on youth development but if your national team, your flagship team, wasn’t doing well then you were wasting your money,” the former Scotland manager recalls. “The same could apply to an individual; can you imagine trying to promote tennis in Scotland without Andy Murray?”
The message Brown took on board 23 years ago is especially salient now. That is not just because as Scotland slumped to a 3-0 defeat by France in a friendly in Metz on Saturday evening the two second-half chants from the Tartan Army related to Murray’s appearance in the French Open final the following day.
If Scottish disappointment at not qualifying for major football tournaments has long since been reduced to a shrug, then Euro 2016 still has cause to be wounding. The increase to 24 teams was insufficient to secure Scottish involvement. Near neighbours who were once on the outside looking in are in tournament mode as the Scots endure a watching role. Aside from Willie Collum, a referee, that is.
The reason for Scotland’s slide into footballing oblivion is widely debated. When the going was relatively good, a mixture of negligence, arrogance, short-termism and mismanagement was never likely to leave positive legacies.
The silver lining being clung to relates to the potential for a much-improved domestic scene next season. The arrival of Brendan Rodgers at Celtic and imminent return of the Old Firm fixture has ramped up excitement. Both matters rather belie a bigger picture but a general drift in attention from international to club matters has been evident.
Gordon Strachan has his obvious failings as the latest individual to occupy the post of national team manager, but nobody should be deluded enough to believe Scotland has a rightful place anywhere near the top table of international football. The difficult aspect this time? Neither do Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Albania or Iceland. This hasn’t been lost on Strachan, who will not attend matches in France on the basis it may prove too painful to watch so many others enjoying a party that he couldn’t successfully negotiate a path towards.
Brown was the last manager to lead Scotland on to such a stage, in 1998. By the time he could not secure qualification for the 2002 World Cup, Brown felt “ashamed and embarrassed” when resigning. “We had just been so used to qualifying,” he added.
“I would maybe have thought twice about going if I had the ability to contemplate what was going to happen during all these intervening years but at the time that [gap without qualification] would have been inconceivable to me.
“There was an intolerance then towards not qualifying. There’s more forgiveness now, which I am pleased about because it takes resource into account.”
Brown has witnessed Scotland’s toils with dismay. “I was involved in five tournaments from Mexico 86 onwards,” he says. “Back home you had Scotland flags flying out of cars and tenement windows, pubs selling more drink than ever before, kids running around in Scotland jerseys. There was a real enthusiasm in the nation.
“Now there is the danger of disengagement. Kids instead run around in Barcelona and Real Madrid shirts. It has gone from real football feelgood factor around major tournaments to a football depression.”
Economics are also pertinent here. The Scottish Football Association has been denied revenue from nine tournaments and counting. It is no coincidence the game has suffered on account of a lack of proper investment in facilities and personnel.
Scotland remains a football-obsessed country. We also live in tribal times. And yet, the time-honoured vociferous backing of any opponent to England in finals has diminished in recent years. There are two legitimate explanations for that: slight embarrassment that the best a Scotland supporter could do is shout against a neighbour elevated to a different footballing planet; and the establishment of essentially a more rounded and cosmopolitan nation. We are no longer living in Thatcherite times where “The English” were openly detested at every Scottish turn.
Facts and figures back this up. A survey conducted by Sporting Index concluded 21% of Scottish football followers would support England in the upcoming weeks, a higher figure than the “anyone but England” brigade. Perhaps more tellingly, 34% said they felt no need to support any team in essentially blanking out what should be a marquee event. Visibly, Scottish bars are not making particularly strong marketing efforts for this tournament.
The scale of Scottish celebration when – or if – a tournament return is secured will be quite something to behold. For those who don’t opt to switch off entirely, the next month may prove the most harrowing penance of all.
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