Scottish reel to game in crisis

Simon O'Hagan talks to the man charged with a revival of interest
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WE HAVE heard a lot about grass-roots sport lately, thanks to the threatened upheaval in rugby league and what might have been the disappearance of the likes of Featherstone and Castleford. But you would be hard pushed to find a more poignantly humble encounter than that which saw Meadowbank Thistle beat Stenhousemuir 1-0 in a Scottish League Second Division match of woeful quality on Friday night.

Scottish football is in crisis - from the negation of skill at schoolboy level to the sterility of a Premier Division once again so dominated by Rangers as to destroy all interest in it. Somewhere between the two, not offering very much more hope for the future, comes Meadowbank v Stenhousemuir.

If you study football attendance figures, you may have noticed that the drawing power of matches in the bottom two divisions of the Scottish League is roughly equivalent to that of Speaker's Corner on a wet Sunday morning. Most clubs struggle to attract more than 1,000. For some, below 500 is the norm. But at Meadowbank, the Edinburgh club that has had to live in the shadow of Hearts and Hibs, they have given up scraping the barrel. A mere 144 turned out for the home match against Berwick Rangers eight days ago.

For Stenhousemuir they got 473. But that was slightly different, and not just because their visitors are followed everywhere by a small, horn- tooting band of Norwegians. This was Meadowbank's last home match at the Meadowbank Stadium - built for the 1970 Commonwealth Games, but rented by the football club ever since they gained admission to the League in 1974.

More important, it was the last home match in which Meadowbank would be called Meadowbank. Next season they become Livingston FC, after the new town in West Lothian, 16 miles away, where the local council agreed to build them a stadium provided the club changed its name. In the eyes of most supporters, therefore, Meadowbank will cease to exist. Naturally they blame the chairman, a building contractor called Bill Hunter, for selling out. Equally naturally, Mr Hunter says he had no choice and clings pasionately to the belief that Livingston FC can go on to great things.

A few hours earlier it had been possible to witness another footballing ritual, that of Celtic and Rangers pawing the ground in the build-up to today's Old Firm match at Hampden. But though the scale of events was bigger than that of the saga involving Meadowbank, the effect was hardly any more uplifting.

Historically, the rivalry between Rangers and Celtic is fiercer than any in football. And it remains strong enough for Tommy Burns, the Celtic manager, to have remarked that "you could put the two sets of kit on the field and people would still watch". Whether this is really an endorsement of the fixture is a moot point.

But while sectarian passions will again be stirred this afternoon, the match is as close to meaningless as the occasion will allow, for all that Celtic, back on an even financial keel after the crisis of last year, are turning Parkhead into what promises to be an even better stadium than Ibrox, and are even now looking to buy the players that will help create a team to befit it and mount a long overdue challenge to the mighty Rangers.

Wealth that almost every other Scottish club can only dream of continues to set Rangers apart, ensuring that their seventh successive title was effectively decided by the turn of the year. But as one player put it, "what may be good for Rangers may not be good for the game".

For just as matches like Meadowbank v Stenhousemuir defy all laws of viability, and the power of Rangers makes a mockery of what is supposed to be a competitive sport, so Scottish football appears less at a crossroads than at a dead end. If it is to progress in any meaningful way, it has to start reversing back down more than a century of history and branch off in a new direction - and that is the view of the man charged with sorting it out, Ernie Walker.

That the game has profound problems has been acknowledged not just by many who follow it - even Rangers supporters are tiring of their team getting too easy a ride - but by the Scottish Football Association itself. Last month the SFA announced it had commissioned a three-year independent inquiry into the structure and standards of football in Scotland, of unprecedented depth and range.

Walker, a former SFA secretary, is to head what he is calling Scottish Football's Independent Review Commission. And as one of UEFA's senior delegates, Walker is perhaps the most experienced football administrator, domestically and internationally, in Britain. But even he sounds daunted by the task ahead of him. "How do you change the culture of a nation?" he asks.

The dearth of skill has played a big part in bringing matters to a head. Jim McLean, the manager of Dundee United in their mid-80s glory days, says Scotland does not have a single world-class player at the moment. "Our football's just not entertaining any more." Walker says there is a mistrust of coaching, rooted in a romantic notion of the past, when greatness was apparently instinctive. "People think coaching's got something to do with negative tactics. But coaching is teaching, like teaching someone to play the piano."

Although Walker's remit does not cover the Scottish League, there is a consensus that the League structure itself is a big factor. It is 20 years since Scotland got rid of its old two-division system and created a Premier division of 10 clubs, and this season, for the first time, it created a third division, making four altogether of 10 clubs each.

The original idea was that there were not enough good teams to make a top division of 20 or so clubs competitive. But now that very competitiveness, which the League still points to approvingly, is undermining the quality. With promotion or relegation an issue in almost every match, the fear factor has placed the emphasis on speed and stamina, and limited the scope for experimentation or the introduction of younger players.

Joe McLaughlin has been around a bit, both north and south of the border. The 34-year-old central defender started his career with Morton, then had six years at Chelsea, followed by spells at Charlton and Watford before he returned to Scotland and Falkirk in 1992. "The first thing I noticed was the pace. In England you get more of a build-up. Midfield players wanted to come and receive the ball. Not too many up here will. We've got a very skilful midfield player here, Brian Rice [once of Nottingham Forest]. But there are games when he never sees the ball. Even he's suffered up here, and now he is being freed at the end of the season. It saddens you when you see that. That's where whole system breaks down." It might be a while before it gets put back together again.