24 November 2015

Scotland needs to transform how it thinks about football - on and off the park

by Jordan Campbell | Guest Contributor

You wouldn't know it, but Scotland was once a proud footballing nation. 

Boasting a Premier League of indistinguishable quality to that of our English counterparts and producing players capable of performing on the continent was nothing out of the ordinary, it was to be expected. After listening to some of the rhetoric this week however, it's hard to believe it was ever the case.

Scotland may be viewed as England's poor relatives nowadays, but bloated finances and astronomical TV deals dictates that. Producing complete footballers and successful teams will always be within our own hands though.

That's why I was enthused earlier in the week when Gordon Strachan announced he was going to be central to the country's latest attempts to transform our national game's fortunes. I may disagree with some of his selection choices when it comes to his managing but he undoubtedly has a burning passion for football along with thought-provoking views which, although are rooted fundamentally in traditionalist values, have evolved enough to embrace the sport's progress.

His involvement in Scottish football transcends contrasting eras in a variety of ways, which in my opinion, can only be a positive as he can offer an inside view on both cultures.

Gordon Waddell of the Sunday Mail put Stewart Regan under the spotlight at the weekend, questioning him on what areas need addressed. As the national game’s chief governor he was expected to come up with solutions. His answer? Invite Iceland over to teach us how to do it.

This is not intended to come across as snobbery towards Iceland due to them being an even smaller nation than ourselves. But when we’re relying on a country of 300,000 people who are without a single professional club side then I think we need to re-assess where we get our inspiration from. Yes, they have a good side and their infrastructure is better than ours but an idiot could have told you we need all-weather pitches. Where’s the clamour to mimic Northern Ireland and Wales who topped their groups? Is it purely because there is more of a mysticism about Iceland?

This copycat approach seems to be the accepted healing process in Scotland now. Another failed qualifying campaign is met with a post-mortem which identifies no weaknesses in our system, just the need to try and replicate the most fashionable nation at the time. It just so happens that this time it is a Scandinavian country with little footballing heritage.

Previously it was Spain and Germany. We even brought in Dutchman Mark Wotte as Performance Director at the SFA to revolutionise the game at one stage, but the results of his changes, if they come to fruition, will only be visible in the coming years – but the Under 19s squad’s 4-0 win over the Republic of Ireland is promising.

This is the problem with Scottish football. We constantly find ourselves behind the curve and, by the time we have even caught up with the times, the world has moved on once again and we’re left scratching our heads looking to see who the latest craze is. That’s why we need to have our own blueprint, tailor-made to our climate and which encompasses our strengths.

By all means lift some things which you think would suit and improve our game here, just don’t an attempt to replicate the set-up of a foreign country. One aspect of Iceland’s infrastructure that puts our nation to shame is the number of all-weather facilities they have.

Scotland has a mere three full-size indoor pitches while Iceland has seven. It’s not just the number that’s the problem though, it’s the accessibility. There are plenty of 3/4G and five-a-side pitches but the price of renting them is extortionate. We should be encouraging kids to use the facilities by making them free for all those under-16.

Football moves in cycles whether that be tactically, as we see with the prevalence of the 4-2-3-1 currently, or physically, like Barcelona’s diminutive geniuses during the Guardiola period. These periods of dominance don’t last, but there are certain footballing attributes which our players struggle with which consistently cut our nation adrift of the elite: game management and tactical awareness.

Both of these things breed a winning mentality which, sadly, has been conspicuous in its absence for over a decade. Scotland would have qualified for Euro 2016 if the team had enough players who knew how to control certain in-game situations but they panic as soon as they are in a winning position – we see it as a burden rather than an advantage.

While I believe these are predominantly innate qualities, borrowing the ‘marginal gains’ philosophy of David Brailsford, the man who masterminded Team Sky’s success, is an approach which, if implemented from an early age, could produce players of a footballing intellect that can rival the great readers of the game from Spain and Germany and the like. That to me is the biggest gulf: we just don’t understand the game well enough.

That might sound strange when you look at the great managers the country has produced over the years, but in most cases their superior tactical knowledge was not down to having played with the best players during a stellar career.

It seems in Scotland that a decent CV as a professional footballer is a pre-requisite to gain entry straight into management. Whether that is down to dinosaurs in the boardrooms who believe you have to have played at the top level to ‘know the game’ or whether it is down to the cost of coaching badges is purely hypothetical. It would appear however, that when you look at the number of Pro/A License coaches and the standard of their country’s football there is a clear correlation: Higher quantity & quality of coaching = better footballers.

…if only it was that simple.

There has been a preference to prioritise the physical qualities of youngsters above their technical ability here in Scotland, even if this tendency has been eroded slightly in recent years. La Masia, Barcelona’s once famed academy, spoke about how their scouts are instructed to look for kids who possess the best decision making skills – knowing when to pass rather than shoot, when to drop rather than press etc.

David Moyes, recently sacked by Real Sociedad, was secretly criticised by members of his squad (overwhelmingly Spanish) for what they said was a lack of attention to detail when it came to tactics. In Scotland I find that the majority of players would rather pass and shoot into an empty net from 30-yards out rather than work on team shape. There is generally just a lack of appetite for tactical work.

It is all about creating a culture which challenges you yet is still enjoyable, and which is ultimately conducive to producing a well-rounded player and person. Southampton, who have produced the likes of Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Luke Shaw in the last decade, have a host-family for their players and make sure that their attainment is up to scratch; otherwise they won’t be allowed to train. Celtic have a school where they send most of their youth players to but it means they don’t receive a full teaching curriculum.

As someone who spent the best part of four years at a youth academy in Scotland I can only echo the sentiments of Barry Ferguson’s brilliantly accurate assessment in the Daily Record. He talks of his days as a kid growing up when his days were consumed by football and football alone. Before school, during school, after school, until it was dark he would have a ball at his feet. Now, he feels academies have sucked the fun out of football and that kids are more interested in social media and consoles.

This also ties in with the worries Strachan conveyed in Graham Hunter’s Big Interview where he stated the reason for the decline in the number of technically gifted Scottish players was due to the number of touches of the football they have during their development.

One of the simple, back-to-basics solutions he suggested was encouraging kids to repeatedly kick a ball off the wall with both feet. It may not seem popular in this current climate of football-hipsters but it certainly worked for him and his generation. Call it a Dortmund Cage (which when stripped down, is essentially a fancier version) and it’ll be the best thing since sliced bread!

Ferguson also acknowledged that he feels players are over-coached. A strange concept initially, but when you see some of the patterns of play (11-a-side situation) that are taught from the age of nine (who play seven-a-side) you can begin to understand why so many kids fall out of love with the game once entering the pro-youth goldfish bowl as they are left watching a coach put on a session which showcases themselves but only has the kids touching the ball once every minute or two.

Too much pressure is put on them to earn a new contract and they are made to sweat outside a conference room in the stadium while the Head of Youth and coaches deliberate over whether they should be kept on for another year.

Phil Neville, Valencia’s newly-appointed assistant coach, said that the set-up in Spain was much more relaxed. Their apprentices (I prefer the older phrases) were allowed to miss training now and again if they had too much homework and are encouraged to partake in other sports to broaden their horizons. ‘We’ve taken things too far in Britain was his frank appraisal’.

Although it has since changed thankfully, during my time in the system it was forbidden to play for my school team (you just played anyway), or any football actually, apart from the three nights of training per week – which included sports science where you’re taught how to run like robots with your arms and legs at right-angles.

There was even a stage where I was pulled up in front of the whole team purely because the coach found out I was playing for the Rangers Elite centre on a Sunday night at Murray Park. Even though the facilities were better and the standard of players and coaching were good too it was frowned upon. This leads to clubs valuing players as assets as they are scared of them being poached, which ultimately results in the player playing less football than they would have if they weren’t part of the pro-youth set-up.

This is exactly why the school football system needs revitalised and realigned so that it is the fulcrum of any success we have going forward.

Boys clubs need to be given more respect instead of having their best players cherry-picked at will without any compensation. One way to solve this problem would be to do away with the academy structure all together but I don’t think the nuclear option is justified whatsoever – it just needs heavily tweaked in areas.

I would propose that professional clubs can only sign youngsters from the age of 14 upwards. That would allow kids to play as much football as possible in their formative years while it would enable them to mature enough emotionally to handle the weight of expectation which arises from making the transition to pro-youth.

Henry McLeish’s Review of Scottish Football brought up a lot of interesting topics. Most of his recommendations have been put in place to a certain extent, but the structure of youth academies is my biggest bugbear. Just this week, two brothers - former Rangers youths - currently living in the USA as part of a soccer scholarship spoke of the stark differences between Scotland and the US.

In Scotland we give players at youth academies the ultimatum of either leaving school in fourth year to sign full-time if they want to make it professionally or giving up on their dream in order to fulfil their academic potential. Meanwhile across the pond, they are able to play for their college team while studying for a full-fledged degree. You would’ve thought Scotland could’ve came up with a way to incorporate both by now.

In my opinion radical change is needed across the board – starting from the top. For Scottish football to progress Regan and Doncaster must be replaced with people who have the ambition and the marketing knowledge able to propel the country back into relevance.

Barry Hearn addressed the game’s big-wigs a year ago now and told us we didn’t sell our ‘product’ nearly enough. What have we done since, apart from secure a league sponsor? The fact we went without one for so long is an absolute disgrace, but I understand it must be hard to sell a product when the biggest attraction – the Old Firm – is not included in the bundle.

Extending the league from 12 to 16 would be the first change I would make. Playing each team home and away just once instead of the current status-quo which makes it possible - thanks to the farcical split – to play a team away from home three times out of four would reduce the familiarity which undoubtedly sets in amongst supporters and may boost ticket sales. However that would mean losing out on the cash cow of the Old Firm twice which is highly unlikely to be voted for.

It would also allow for a revamp of the League Cup which could see summer football trialled – Jonny McFarlane’s Daily Record Blog suggested a group stage format which I agree would be an exciting prospect. While hopefully providing a boost in the number of punters through the turnstile, the proposed earlier start would give our teams who are competing on the European stage a better chance of qualifying as their match fitness would be much sharper.

Scotland needs to transform how it thinks about football. That’s not just on the park, it’s off it as well. If we’re to improve our fortunes on it then there has to be a united effort where clubs’ needs aren’t placed ahead of the greater good. 

The past doesn’t suggest that will be likely but for the sake of the game some heads need banged together to move the country forward from the stagnant, point-scoring, sorry state it’s in just now.