We're not bonny any more

In Scotland, football used to be a way of life. Now the crowds are tiny, clubs face bankruptcy and the national team can't win. Tim Luckhurst asks if a Hall of Fame can revive a proud tradition
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Engraved on the heart of every patriotic Scottish football supporter is a moment of sweet, enduring rapture. It happened 37 years ago, but fans who were not born until decades later are familiar with the grainy, monochrome film played at every opportunity by Scottish broadcasters.

Engraved on the heart of every patriotic Scottish football supporter is a moment of sweet, enduring rapture. It happened 37 years ago, but fans who were not born until decades later are familiar with the grainy, monochrome film played at every opportunity by Scottish broadcasters.

It shows the late Rangers and Scotland star "Slim" Jim Baxter playing keepy-uppy on the hallowed turf of Wembley during Scotland's 1967 victory over England, then world champions. Scotland won 3-2, and his team-mates had encouraged Baxter to go for more goals. He preferred to "take the piss out of them" instead.

Last week, Baxter's name was among those proposed for inclusion in the new Scottish Football Hall of Fame launched at Hampden National Stadium in Glasgow. But amid the fond nostalgia at such occasions, Baxter's contemporary, the Manchester United and national legend Denis Law, regretted that Scotland no longer produces players of remotely comparable standard. Standing alongside his former team-mate, the Rangers winger Willie Henderson, Law explained: "The difference between when Willie and I came into the Scotland team as young lads is that we were surrounded by top-class, experienced players."

Later that night, Scotland lost 3-0 to Hungary in front of a dismal crowd that was incapable of generating any atmosphere in Hampden's cavernous 50,000-seat arena. Henderson wasn't there. Before the match he said: "I won't go because I know I won't be entertained. They tell me there will be around 20,000 at Hampden, but we used to get that number of people locked out when we played in the 1960s." The actual attendance was just 15,933.

Small wonder. Scotland's national side, which nearly held Brazil to a draw in the opening match of the 1998 World Cup, recorded a 2-2 draw with the Faroe Isles during their unsuccessful bid to qualify for Euro 2004. They were, at one point, 2-0 down to a team of part-timers including a schoolteacher and a fisherman. Scotland failed to reach the 2002 World Cup. The national side has not won a friendly match at Hampden since 1996. In February, they were thrashed in Cardiff by Wales, a result that took humiliation to a nadir only matched at Hampden last week when the Scotland defender Steven Pressley cannoned the ball off his goalkeeper, David Marshall, and into his own net, gifting the mediocre Hungarians a thoroughly merited third goal.

The chorus of "We're shite and we know we are" has begun to be heard on the lips of the legendary Tartan Army. With the 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign about to start, calls for the resignation of Scotland's hapless German manager, Berti Vogts, have grown ever louder.

One supporter, 30-year-old Bruce Tennant, has filed an appeal to the Public Petitions Committee of the Scottish Parliament pleading with the legislators to sack Vogts. His employers, the Scottish Football Association, are standing by him. They have a reason: Vogts may be objectively useless, but he is not unique in that. The description matches much of Scottish football.

Finance is a big part of the problem. Among the 12 clubs in the Scottish Premier League, only a couple are really solvent. The accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers compile an annual audit of the SPL. They forecast combined losses of £55m in the 2004/05 season and predict that Scotland's top football clubs will end the season with cumulative debts of £190m.

Three SPL clubs - Dundee, Livingston and Motherwell - spent portions of last season in administration. They were all forced to dismiss players and to slash wage bills in order to survive. Dunfermline Athletic imposed the same savage surgery to avoid administration. Fans of the Edinburgh side Heart of Midlothian are at war with the club's directors over advanced plans to sell their historic city-centre ground, Tynecastle, for £22m to the property developers Cala Management.

The depth of Hearts' financial crisis is revealed by the nature of their proposed alternative premises. The team will play on a rented pitch at Murrayfield, Scotland's national rugby stadium. Average home attendances of fewer than 15,000 will be dwarfed in the huge arena. But Hearts have little choice; they are £17m in debt and under grave pressure from their bankers.

This application of normal business criteria has come as a shock to the SPL teams. For decades, many have lived wildly beyond their means in a desperate attempt to compete with the Glasgow "Old Firm" giants, Celtic and Rangers. The statistics compiled by PricewaterhouseCoopers reveal how unrealistic that is. Of the SPL clubs' total annual revenue of £150m, £110m is generated by the Old Firm pair. The 10 other clubs have to get by on an average of just £4m per club. Last season, several had wage bills well in excess of their entire gross income.

These wage bills were incurred to hire and pay expensive foreign players, many at the end of their careers. That stuffed the wallets of a few fading stars, but made no discernible difference to the dismally uncompetitive nature of SPL football.

Since the early Eighties, no club outside the Old Firm has won the top league. This is a two-horse race in which the gap between the second- and third-placed teams is routinely enormous. Crowds at Celtic and Rangers home games are huge. They have something to fight for. Other teams attract smaller attendances than games in the English League One (the third tier), and even those paltry crowds are diminishing.

This summer, every SPL club except the champions, Celtic, has reported falling demand for season tickets. This has given the banks additional reason to worry. Their long-held view that football clubs should be permitted debts that no other business would be allowed to carry is being urgently revised. It was based on the belief that success generates new revenue, as well as on the fear of offending a multitude of fans.

Now, success looks a very remote prospect - and the multitudes are smaller than ever. Empty stands are common at SPL games. Fans huddle on one side of the pitch, leaving the other bare. Crowds of 6,000 or 8,000 watch contests between teams which, 30 years ago, drew 30,000 to stand shoulder to shoulder on open terraces.

The extent of Scottish football's fall from grace is illustrated by the television coverage it attracts. A lucrative deal with Sky ended several seasons back, to be replaced by local coverage on BBC Scotland. This season, that has been replaced by a four-year subscription viewing agreement with the Irish satellite broadcaster Setanta.

The SPL says it chose the Setanta package on the basis that subscription viewing is less likely to affect attendances at live matches than the free-to-air coverage of the BBC. The reality is that it had no better offer. SPL football is only of interest to viewers outside Scotland when Celtic or Rangers are playing, and their appearances in the European competitions are covered by existing broadcast agreements.

The merry loathing of the "auld enemy" that used to unite Scottish fans and made Jim Baxter's Wembley antics so popular has been augmented by an agonised debate conducted on websites and phone-ins and in newspapers throughout Scotland. Football fans from Dumfries to Dingwall discuss why there are so few excellent Scottish players; why clubs are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy; how many clubs will have to die before the rot stops; and why the most entertaining football in Scotland is played not in the SPL but in the officially inferior Bell's Scottish First Division?

Many fans admit that they prefer to watch Arsenal, Manchester United or Chelsea rather than any of the fare on offer in the SPL. A few brave souls have begun to wear English club shirts in public. At schools, boys often support one or other of the Old Firm and an English team. One bizarre aspect of this is that very few Scots play at the top level in England. The days when Manchester United and Arsenal were Scottish enclaves are long gone. Scotland's young hopes Darren Fletcher and James McFadden play for Manchester United and Everton respectively. Beyond them are a few ageing also-rans.

Speaking at Hampden last week, Willie Henderson was blunt. "We have gone down a road in this country that has taken skill and flair out of our football. The Scottish public love their football as much as any other country, but they're not turning up any more as they don't like what they see."

Henderson sees no grounds for optimism in the short term. "It's going to be a long haul. I can't see us beating Italy or Norway in the World Cup qualifying campaign, so we have to look to the next World Cup in 2010. That's how long I think it will take."

The Scottish Executive seems to agree. In March, ministers announced a formal review of the national game, described as the most comprehensive ever, and pledged to spend £30m developing grassroots football over the next decade. But devolved ministers decided against direct subsidy to the financially-crippled SPL clubs. They have no greater confidence than the banks that once-great names can be restored to the health they enjoyed when teams fielded talented local lads and working men reserved their Saturdays for live football.

The Executive's strategy is to revitalise participation in football. It is astonishing, given the affection with which the game has traditionally been regarded, but Scotland has the lowest number of players as a percentage of its population of any country in Europe. Just 3.6 per cent of young Scots actually play the game, less than half the participation rate in similar-sized countries such as Norway and the Netherlands. Boys who once dreamt of being Jim Baxter, Denis Law or Kenny Dalglish now play PlayStation instead.

Many fans blame Celtic and Rangers. They point to the fact that the two Old Firm giants now field teams made up almost entirely of foreign imports, and lament the glory days of 1967, when Celtic's legendary Lisbon Lions won the European Cup with an entirely Scottish side. Denis Law says: "In my time, the Scotland squad was made up of Old Firm players and a couple of guys each from, say, Manchester United, Liverpool, Leeds, Arsenal and Chelsea. Look at it now - Rangers and Celtic have hardly any Scots, and Fletcher is the only one making it at a big English club." Worse, supporters say, is that the Old Firm's dominance has encouraged other teams to abandon the development of local talent in favour of the false allure of imported players.

It has become common to hear the view that Celtic and Rangers are so much better funded than any of their rivals that their very presence in Scotland distorts the market and makes genuine competition impossible. The Old Firm should go and compete against their equals in England, it is said, leaving Scotland to enjoy the excitement of poorly but equally funded sides mostly made up of Scottish players.

But that will not happen - and anyway, the problem is much bigger than such a simple solution allows. In England, a game once supported by teeming masses of industrial labourers has been successfully reinvented as a spectacle funded by corporate entertainment and television millions. Scotland tried to imitate that solution, but failed. The SPL simply does not generate the excitement to justify it.

To revitalise its national game, Scotland will have to go back to basics, as the terms of the executive's review implies. From the Scottish lower divisions, hints are already emerging that this might work. Clubs such as Hamilton Academicals, Airdrie United, Partick Thistle, Ross County and Clyde do employ young Scottish players. They do not pay them enormous wages, but they produce exciting matches and a genuinely open race for the First Division title. These clubs are supported by their fans, not by television money.

The present executive-led review is the second in 10 years. The last one, initiated by the ruling Scottish Football Association, was comprehensively rejected when it had the good sense to blame bureaucratic inertia at the SFA itself for many of the problems. If the same thing is allowed to happen again, a nation that once rejoiced in its ability to humiliate England's World Cup heroes faces a dismal prospect.

The mediocrity that has brought devolved politics into disrepute has been replicated on football pitches. Without urgent reform, the names in the Scottish Football Hall of Fame are unlikely to include many aged below 50, and that film of Jim Baxter will have to satisfy the national pride of a generation that is hardly aware that black and white television ever existed.