What has Scottish football ever done for us?


Greg Johnson takes Scotland’s contributions to world football to task…

Last weekend the Scottish Premier League season finally got underway following a tumultuous summer north of the border. Today, the resuscitated remains of Glasgow Rangers FC will travel to Peterhead, beginning a new life in Third Division football.

Their enforced absence from the SPL gives clubs outside the Old Firm a chance to compete for glory, for the next three years at least. However, any such successes will, for many, come with the mental footnote that Glasgow’s duopoly has been shattered through developments off the pitch rather than on it. Some even believe that the triple relegation of the Light Blues could well spell the beginning of the end for professional football in Scotland. Ibrox managerial legend Walter Smith proclaimed, without bias of course, that Scottish football would soon slip to level of the The League of Ireland without the presence of Rangers in the top-flight.

South of the border, the macabre sniggers of derision from England’s more pompous footballing quarters are difficult to hide. “Look at the dull, primitive and attritional football; their laughable two-horse competition” they snark, and not without reason. Scotland is staring down the barrel of reduced TV money following the justifiable punishment of Rangers, such is the dysfunctional state of the game in the north. Had their transgressions not been penalised, Scottish football would have instead faced a crisis of integrity, with clubs seemingly free to live beyond their means through tax evasion and unsustainable debt, without legal reprisal.

Regardless of how ugly a corpse may be, we’re told not to speak ill of the dead, yet with its poverty of attractive attacking football, quality player and lack of any real sense of competition, many of the more obstinate followers of the beautiful game have come to ask: what has Scottish football ever done for us?

The passing game

England being undone by the superior sophistications of a foreign power is far from a modern phenomenon. The Scots were the first to subvert the supposed dominance of the three lions back in 1870’s, at the dawn of association football.

The narrow orthodoxy of the English game revolved around highly physical solo dribbles by strong, imposing individuals – not too dissimilar to the rampaging charges of a modern-day Rugby back. In contrast, Scotland’s footballers augmented the dribbling game with revolutionary off the ball movement and intricate passing. It was the birth of the passing game, also known as the combination game or, tellingly, “the Scottish style”.

Queens Park were the innovators-in-chief of the new approach. As the leading Scottish club of the time they took responsibility for organising the national side, transferring their novel methods onto the burgeoning international scene. More on that later.

It could be argued that the development of a passing game was an inevitable, natural progression but Scotland’s influence on the game of football today is undeniable. The Scottish way inspired such legendary coaching pioneers as Jimmy Hogan and Fred Pentland, who were as deeply affected by the short systemic passing of the Scots as their fellow countrymen would be decades later in 1953 as the Magical Magyars destroyed England 6-3 at Wembley. That Hungary’s famous Golden Team were educated on the teachings and ideas of Hogan, who had left the obdurate ignorance of English football in search of players eager to replicate and develop a Scottish-style of play, is testament to the far-reaching impact of those halcyon days of the passing, combination game.

Its doubtful football would have developed in the same manner that it has without those early Scottish thinkers and their radically differing perception of the game. Without the passing game, the “Scottish style”, football may never have been graced by the delights of tiki-taka, pass and move, totaalvoetbal and South American freedom and flair. Preston (the original invincibles), Sunderland, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal were just some of the English clubs who found success importing Scottish players and their methods, creating a chain of influence that stretches on to the great teams of the beautiful game, such as Honved, Real Madrid, Barcelona, AC Milan, Ajax and beyond.

For a potted history of the passing game, you can read more at Life’s A Pitch.

Inspirational, great players

Scottish footballers were at one time players of mystique, blessed with rare qualities and idiosyncratic gifts. They were the first exotic foreign purchases in English football, crossing the border in the late 19th century as technical and tactical specialists dubbed “the Scotch Professors” such was their learned reputation for intelligence, skill and wit.

A Scottish forward line was once a fearful proposition for any defender, known as they were for quick feet and even quicker brains. “Jinksy”, the now common footballing parlance, was coined to describe the style of Celtic’s European Cup winning winger, Jimmy Johnstone, who was celebrated for his ability to beat several man on the dribble with skill and superior balance. Unique one-offs, contradictory eccentrics and quirky geniuses are the leading lights of this distinctive footballing culture.

The roll of honour for Scotland’s greatest players is analogous to the nation’s list of critically acclaimed music makers. Both groups regularly fail to receive the attention their work and pedigree duly deserves. There’s a sense that many of Scotland’s best footballers, like many of Scotland’s best bands, are alternative greats rather than A-list mainstream heroes like Pele and Cruyff. Instead, they’re more often listed alongside the Garrincha’s and Di Stefano’s of this world – top-tier players who are somehow always relegated as after thoughts when such lists are drawn up.

Many of the greatest Scottish players were indeed flawed, which often made their abilities shine ever brighter, as if their abundance of talent was a glorious overcompensation for their various shortcomings. Such players seem to lack one or more of the essential elements that received football wisdom tells us is vital for greatness; Dalglish was painfully slow, Denis Law was mediocre outside of six-yards, and Alan Hansen was toothless in front of the opposition’s goal. These supposed imperfections simply made each player’s legend more compelling and iconic.

Maverick free spirits still exist in Scottish football, but they lack the impact they once had. If Dalglish, Law, Hansen and co can be compared to Boards of Canada, Arab Strap and Mogwai then Charlie Adam is Biffy Clyro; lacking ideas when removed from the freedom and obscurity of their initial underground successes. Rather than allow him to excel, his money move to Liverpool instead exposed Adam’s greatest flaw – his physical fitness – limiting him as a football athlete. Without the ability to make his own space or keep up with the intensity around him, his outlandish set of skills instead looked pedestrian and impotent.

Still, Adam’s continued presence in the Premiership enriches the game. In his better moments he is an improbable and enjoyable anachronism, harking back to a time before pressing, tactical pedantry and the brutalised conditioning of today’s professionalism. At times he can be a reminder of the peculiar, personal brilliance that once made Scottish footballers so highly regarded but could it be that such greatness is yet to be a thing of the past? A lack of “physical literacy” in the Scottish education system has been blamed for the poor fitness and condition of many young Scots. If they were properly prepared and given the opportunity to develop their physical fitness and cognitive skills vital for football – spatial awareness, coordination and visualisation – would we then see the likes of Adam able to deploy their special talents under the unilateral pressures of the modern, athletic football?

Manager class

Bill Shankly, Matt Busby and Jock Stein are three of the most revered names in British and world football. Icons of Liverpool FC, Manchester United and Celtic respectively, they took their clubs to unprecedented heights and remain managerial yardsticks against which the greatest gaffers are compared.

Unlike the broken lineage of Scotland’s great players however, the production line of top-class coaches and managers north of the border endures into the present and beyond.

The Inverclyde national sports training centre at Largs, Ayershire has become one the most respected coaching academies and managerial finishing schools in the world. Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho and Walter Smith, Andreas Villas-Boas are all former scholars of Largs, having gained their coaching qualifications while studying there. A rather Spartan facility, the focus at Largs is wholly on knowledge and education, with regular visits by speakers such as Guus Hiddink, Roy Hodgson and Arrigo Saachi. Jose Mourinho has even taken to recommending the institution to his fellow Portuguese.

Over recent years, Scottish managers have dominated the Premier League with the venerable Ferguson joined by fellow Largs alumni David Moyes, Owen Coyle and Alex McLeish, and Paul Lambert, Steve Keen, Kenny Dalglish and Steve Clarke, who has been given his first chance at management with West Bromwich Albion.

It has been argued that the current supremacy of Spanish football, and Germnay’s stylish international resurgence, is due not to some miraculous talent pool and great players but by the commitment to coaching in both countries. Spain boasts 23,995 coaches with UEFA A, B or Pro badges while Germany is home to 34,790 – compare those figures to England’s paltry 2,769. At the time of writing, figures for Scotland’s coaching fraternity could not be sourced.

Alan Pardew recently remarked that Scotland is no place for a young player to develop. Perhaps with the adequate coaching resources and focus, the Scottish game could once again produce and hone excellent young players. They’ll need to if the national game is to rise again, and with centres such as Inverclyde, top-level coaching role models and a post-Olympic commitment to funding physical education, progress may yet be achieved. In the mean time, England could do well to use Largs as an inspiration for their educational programmes at St. Georges Park.

International football

As the initial codifiers of association football, it’s often assumeed that England were the first nation to form an international football team. They share that honour however with Scotland, who by default of their shared history, competitive heritage and being second country to embrace the game lined up against The Auld Enemy for the world’s first international football match. The game finished 0-0.

Scotland also co-founded the pioneering British Home Championship tournament, meeting with the English, Welsh and Irish football associations in Manchester in December 1882 to standardise the game’s laws. Up until then the slight rule variations of the home team were used during international meets. The Scots won the first four championships between 1883 and 1887.

They may not have pushed on with the concept – the French lead the way with FIFA and the World Cup – but these early exchanges with England and the Home Nations helped to mature and expand the game as each nation traded ideas and approaches. As already mentioned, the early passing game was promoted through internationals, with Scotland’s 5-1 demolition of England in 1882 a highlighting the style and potency of the approach.

If you look at the football world title like a boxing belt, as the Unofficial Football World Championship does, passed on by match ups between champions and challengers, then Scotland are the most successful national side in the sport’s history. They have held the unofficial title for a record 13,003 days having played 103 title defences, 86 of which were successful. These numbers have been tallied up through 20 separate title reigns, a record only bettered by England’s 21. While ultimately pointless, unrecognised as it is by competitors or governing bodies, it still highlights Scotland’s importance and influence over international football in general.


During the 2010/11 season, Scotland boasted the highest percentage of match going citizens in Europe, with 1.61% of the Scottish population attending live football matches. Compare this to the percentages in England (0.7%), Spain (0.61%) and Germany, home of the venerated supporters and atmosphere of the Bundesliga (just 0.47%). While the money may not be there north of the border, football can still rightfully be labelled as Scotland’s national sport.

The future of Scottish football looks uncertain but not necessarily doomed. Rangers’ relegation asks questions of the game’s organisation but also offers opportunities for reform. Perhaps Scotland must take sensible steps that harm their competitiveness in the short-term to enjoy immense benefits in the future – cutting costs to achieve financial security, focusing on youth development, creating more coaches and making the best of the resources available.

Jock Stein’s immortal European Cup triumph with a Celtic team of local Glaswegians still stands as a unique achievement in European football and a high water mark in the Scottish game. It shouldn’t be suggested that such feats may be achievable any time soon, but there’s also no reason why such talent no longer exists or why managers can’t innovate tactically to create a team greater than the sum of its parts. Celtic’s Lisbon Lions smashed the invincible cynicism of Catenaccio with beautiful, fluid attacking football – intelligent, youthful players switching positions and pulling the Italians to pieces with unpredictable plays. Stein’s over lapping fullbacks traded places with forwards in a game plan that pre-empted Total Football with a style years ahead of its time.

Scotland must look to the future with positivity, both in terms of their game’s reforms and their football. Times will be hard and optimism will be needed but the Scots, the great nation of invention, grit and stoicism, can rise again with the proviso of realistic expectations and investment.

What do you think of Scottish football’s past, present and future?


Originally published on Greg’s previous football blog, Some Goals Are Bigger Than Others.