Football: Scottish clubs' decline and stall

Once the scourge of Europe, teams from north of the border are this week having to pre-qualify against sides from football's margins. Phil Shaw reports
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Glaswegian hands raised the European Cup in May, as they did exactly 30 years earlier. If the moment failed to provoke joy or jealousy in the city it was because Paul Lambert was showing it to the followers of Borussia Dortmund rather than those of Celtic, Rangers or any other Scottish club.

The success enjoyed by Lambert, who was regarded as a useful but unremarkable midfielder during spells with St Mirren and Motherwell, contrasted sharply with the performance of Scotland's entrants in the three Continental competitions.

Rangers, for all their domestic dominance, carried into the Champions' League all the clout and cunning of a playground bully thrown in with Evander Holyfield. Drawn with an ailing Ajax and the French and Swiss champions, they mustered a solitary win amid five defeats.

In the Uefa Cup, Celtic scraped past Slovakian opposition but were outclassed by Hamburg. Aberdeen saw off Barry, though only by 6-4 overall, as well as a Lithuanian outfit, only to be embarrassed by Denmark's Brondby. Hearts fell in the preliminary round of the Cup-Winners' Cup.

This collective failure, which compounded mediocre results for most of the 1990s, has resulted in Scotland's standard bearers being lumped in with the representatives of Andorra and Azerbaijan, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein when the qualifying stages get underway tomorrow.

Worse still, Rangers must for the first time win two preliminary ties, the second a tall order against Gothenburg, to reach the lucrative group phase of the Champions' League.

Some view the situation as a realistic reflection of the status of clubs in a nation of four million. Yet the national team regularly expose such arguments as unduly pessimistic. Under the progressive stewardship of Craig Brown, they are again in with a strong chance of going to the World Cup finals and lie 24th in Fifa's world rankings.

History, too, shows that Scotland can do better. Apart from Celtic's triumph in '67, Rangers took the Cup-Winners' Cup five years later. Dundee, Dunfermline and Kilmarnock reached European semi-finals in the 1960s. Aberdeen overcame Real Madrid to lift the Cup-Winners' Cup 15 years ago, since when Dundee United's gallant failure in the Uefa Cup of '87 has provided the only final appearance.

Rangers' sweet double over Leeds five years later is as close as Scotland has come to distinction in the interim. Moreover, when the Ibrox side drew at Marseilles, where victory could well have put them in the final, 11 of the 13 players used by Walter Smith were Scots.

Well before then, though, a consensus had grown that there were simply not enough home-grown players of the requisite quality. When Celtic conquered Europe with a team of players all born within 30 miles of Parkhead, there was an overflowing pool of natural talent.

For various reasons - among them the proliferation of alternative leisure pursuits and the demise of the street games which fostered the skills of many a ball artist - it has steadily dried up. Some critics, ignoring the fact that country has done well at youth and Under-21 level, blame the Scottish FA.

The greater responsibility surely lies with the clubs. Rangers, who could have been a shining example along the lines of Ajax, have placed no obvious emphasis on youth development. Locked into a quick-fix mentality, whereby beating Celtic to the League was all that mattered, the nine-in-a-row champions have opted for buying ready-made first-teamers.

As a symbol of blinkered attitudes, the training pitch over which Rangers laid tarmac to create extra parking space takes some beating.

The set-up of the Scottish Premier Division also militates against technical excellence. It is a source of frustration to Brown - who encourages an altogether more composed approach with Scotland - that his players often battle through three fiercely attritional games every eight days in the weeks leading up to a crucial international.

Nor have changes in the European transfer system, post-Bosman, been conducive to progress. Lambert, for example, would have cost Celtic a seven-figure sum had they pursued their interest. Dortmund, who acquired his services free, could afford to gamble on him, as they did again last month with Aberdeen's Scott Booth.

The Continental drift has not been one-way. Worryingly for Brown, Rangers have recruited eight foreigners, including five from Italy. While fans may be playing Spot the Scot against Gotu in the Faroe Islands tomorrow, the influx is a belated acknowledgement that their club must become a major force in Europe to justify the massive outlay of the past decade.

Significantly, Smith also has a new coach, Tommy Moller Nielsen. The son of the man who made Denmark European champions, his task must be to introduce a less frenzied style.

As the Catholics (albeit Italian) were taking over Ibrox, Celtic were appointing a manager who once wore the Orange of King Billy's homeland. Wim Jansen should open with a win against the Cardiff part-timers, Inter CableTel, though the true test, as with Rangers, lies further ahead.

Craig Brown welcomes the Old Firm's bold appointments. Sadly he is not alone in wondering if anything will change; whether a public steeped in the aggression and tribalism of Scottish football will stand for the "European" way.

A proud history...

European Cup

Hibernian 1955-56

semi-final Stade de Rheims 1-2

Rangers 1959-60

semi-final Eintracht Frankfurt 7-9

Celtic 1966-67

winners Internazionale 2-1

1969-70

runners-up Feyenoord 1-2

1973-74

semi-final Athletico Madrid 0-2

Rangers 1992-93

quarter-final group stage

W2 D4 L0 position: second

Fairs/Uefa Cup

Hibernian 1960-61

semi-final Roma 5-11

Dundee 1967-68

semi-final Leeds Utd 1-2

Dundee Utd 1986-87

runners-up Gothenburg 1-2

European Cup-Winners'

Cup

Rangers 1960-61

runners-up Fiorentina 1-4

Celtic 1963-64

semi-final MTK Budapest 3-4

Rangers 1966-67

runners-up Bayern Munich 0-1

Aberdeen 1982-83

winners Real Madrid 2-1 (aet)

1996-97

CHAMPIONS' LEAGUE:

Rangers W1 D0 L5

UEFA CUP

Celtic First round Hamburg 0-4 (agg)

Aberdeen Second rd Brondby 0-2

EUROPEAN CUP-WINNERS' CUP

Hearts Prelim rd Red Star Belgrade 1-1 (lost on away goals)

1995-96

EC: Rangers CL W0 D3 L3

UC: Motherwell

Prelim rd MyPa 47 3-3 (away goals)

Raith Rovers

Second rd Bayern Munich 1-4

ECWC: Celtic

Second rd Paris St Germain 0-4

1994-95

EC: Rangers

Prelim rd AEK Athens 0-3

UC: Motherwell

First rd Borussia Dortmund 0-3

Aberdeen

Prelim rd Skonto Riga 1-1 (away goals)

ECWC: Dundee United

First rd Tatran Presov 4-5

1993-94

EC: Rangers

Prelim rd Levski Sofia 4-4 (away goals)

UC: Hearts First rd Real Madrid 2-4

Celtic Second rd Sporting Lisbon 1-2

Dundee Utd First rd Brondby 3-3

(away goals)

ECWC: Aberdeen Second rd Torino 3-5

1992-93

EC: Rangers QF group stage W2 D4 L0

UC: Celtic Second rd Bor Dortmund 1-3

Hibs First rd Anderlecht 3-3 (away goals)

Hearts Second rd Standard Liege 0-2

ECWC: Airdrie First rd Sparta Prague 1-3

1991-92

EC: Rangers First rd Sparta Prague 0-2

UC: Aberdeen

First rd B 1903 Copenhagen 0-3

Celtic Second rd Neuchatel Xamax 2-5

ECWC: Motherwell First rd Katowice 3-3

(away goals)

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