As Aston Villa, Newcastle, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea play second-round European ties this week, the talk north of the border is of football in crisis. Fans, managers and players - stuck on the European sidelines for the first time in 35 seasons - say that defeats last month for Rangers, Dundee United and Aberdeen by teams from Greece, Slovakia and Latvia confirm that the Scottish game has slumped to an all-time low.
The sense of gloom has prompted a re-examination of the sport among senior managers and Scottish Football Association officials. They are frustrated that 27 years after the triumphant days of Scottish football, when Celtic became the first British side to win the European Cup, teams now appear to be unable to overcome the weakest continental opponents.
Craig Brown, the national team manager, said: 'Scotland has an impressive footballing history. We have produced two of the game's great managers - Sir Matt Busby and Bill Shankly - and we qualified for five World Cups in a row from 1974 to 1990. But in recent years standards have fallen sharply.
'We are no longer producing superstars - the Kenny Dalglishes, Graeme Sounesses, Gordon Strachans and Steve Nicols of the future. If you tried to put a value on our Premier Division players today, you would see that the best are worth around pounds 2m, compared with pounds 5m for Ryan Giggs and pounds 3m for many other players in the English and European leagues. Looked at in those terms we are poor relations and that is frustrating.'
Managers who have tasted success in Europe agree, but they say that talk of a crisis is premature. They point to Rangers' successful run in the European Champions' League two years ago when the Ibrox side came within 90 minutes of the final, and say one bad season does not spell disaster. Willie Miller, captain of the 1983 European Cup-Winners' Cup victors, Aberdeen, and now their manager, said: 'Two years ago we were shouting from the rooftops how good our game was. It does not go from that stage to this in such a short time. Yes, this year has been unfortunate. But our club sides will be back in Europe next season.'
Miller was one of 10 Premier Division managers questioned in a recent newspaper investigation into the state of Scottish football. Asked why the national game was in decline, some blamed the overwhelming dominance of Rangers, who have topped the Premier Division for the last six seasons.
Others highlighted an influx of foreign players which, they said, had stifled home-grown talent. Most agreed, however, that if Scottish sides are to compete successfully in Europe in coming years, coaches and players need to transform the traditional Scottish style of play.
Tommy Burns, Celtic's new manager, explained. 'Our club sides tend to be dour, fast, rugged and competitive. Players have great team spirit but they lack ingenuity. If we are going to compete with sides in the great footballing nations we will have to increase our skills level and slow the pace of the game a bit. We have to overhaul our footballing culture.'
Managers and coaches could encourage new ways of playing among existing professionals but, Burns said, increased public investment was needed to create environments in which youngsters could develop their technique. 'We in Scotland have failed to invest in football,' he explained. 'Unlike England, we don't have a national soccer school, nor any indoor pitches where young players can practise their skills during the winter months when many outdoor training grounds are unfit for play.
'Other European countries, in particular the Scandanavian nations which used to be something of a footballing joke, have not been so short-sighted. They have poured millions of pounds into the game in recent years developing just such facilities. And look at the results. In the past two years, Denmark have won the European Championship, Sweden came third in the World Cup and Norway, unlike Scotland, qualified for USA 94.'
SFA officials are pinning their hopes for the future on new investment and a youth development programme which, they say, will create a new skills base.
The association has published coaching guidelines to encourage seven-a-side games for children under 12, with smaller pitches and goals, in an effort to foster more patient, skilful play. At the same time, 22 recently-appointed community development officers are working to promote the 'new football' in schools and colleges.
'Kids today have a huge choice of leisure activities,' Ross Mathie, development officer at the SFA said. 'We have to invest in football to ensure that it can compete with other sports and rival attractions like computers and videos. That means setting up attractive indoor training centres which can be used all year round. There, we can teach them the skills they will need to become tomorrow's professionals - the people who will guarantee Scotland a place at the highest level of European and international competition in the next century. We cannot afford to fail.'
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