Claiming back Scottish football for the people

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
12 Apr 2013

There are many important issues in public life right now, but for a large number of people here in Scotland the future of football, our national game, is no small matter. It's not just about sport, it's also about people, communities, hopes and dreams, culture and values. Put bluntly, who does (and who should) own a sport loved by hundreds of thousands? Whose interests are being served by the way it is presently being run?

Next week we will get to see those questions in action. The Scottish Premier League (SPL), the elite division (though 'elite' may be a relative term when one looks at the multi-millionaires down south!) will be voting on a range of resolutions concerning the achievement of a new league structure, unified governance and the distribution of income. Then the Scottish Football League (SFL), comprising the 30 teams below the top tier, will have to pick up what comes down to them. Already, this pattern begins to tell the story of how Scottish football governance is shaped and why it needs to change.

An unequal game

For years, thinking and decision-making in football north of the border has been massively over-determined by the dominance of two teams, Celtic and Rangers (the so-called ‘Old Firm’), who account for around half of all its followers as well as the lions' share of its resources. The other senior clubs, let alone the juniors (non-league), are different varieties of minnow by comparison.

The huge, growing economic disparity this situation has created has been solidified and worsened by absurd inflationary pressure from high fees and wages in England, the hegemony of uni-directional television money, the damaging impact of the SPL breakaway on the rest of senior football, and lack of investment in youth and development. It has contributed to a situation where the sport in Scotland continues to be in decline.

Rising prices, the stunting of genuine competition, the boredom of playing the same teams all the time, lack of publicity for the SFL (whose teams get virtually no mainstream TV coverage), stagnation of on-field standards, and an ingrained culture of pessimism fed from the top: these are among the factors that have led to a continued decline in attendances at live games.

Getting back to the people's game

At present Scotland still retains one of the highest per capita football attendance levels in Europe, and fans passing through the turnstiles continue to stump up around 60 per cent of the game's income. But with a population of 5 million and football clubs who find themselves part of an inflationary industry trying to negotiate a recessionary climate, it is vital that things start to move in a positive direction once more. The inheritance that has kept the game’s head above water in recent years is being rapidly eroded.

Quite simply, Scottish football needs to get ordinary people back in the stands and into the boardrooms. It needs to re-engage youth, to raise the profile of the sport, to push for much more supporter / community ownership, and to boost the morale of what is and should be “the people's game” – not the part-time plaything of flighty private investors, TV moguls, inbred governing interests, and leaders who are too remote from the grassroots.

Combine those challenges with the recommendations in the McLeish report [1] commissioned by the Scottish Football Association, the results of the National Football Survey [2], and the growth in fan involvement and consciousness (Annan Athletic, Clyde, East Stirling, Stirling Albion and Dundee are all fan owned senior sides; Clydebank, Gretna 2008 and Clachnacuddin are non-senior fan owned; Motherwell and St Mirren are working towards fan ownership) and you have a significant agenda for change.

To achieve this we need a ‘Claim of Right’ for Scottish football [3]; a declaration of the sovereignty of ordinary supporters and communities over the game they created and (despite it all) continue to love. What we have instead is a lot of infighting, short-termism, austerity thinking and politicking within governing bodies where those popular interests go unrepresented and only fitfully 'consulted'. Which brings us back to next week’s decisions.

Reform and reconstruction

The most contentious issue on the table – or, at least, the one drawing most comment – pertains to league structure. It sounds arcane, but in some ways it is axial. Fans want larger divisions, because they offer greater sporting interest, variety and opportunity to progress. Every single supporter survey, including one sponsored recently by the governing bodies themselves, has demonstrated this. It is hardly a matter of debate. But it is routinely ignored. Yet the supporters, let us not forget, are those who provide the funding basis for the entire game, directly and indirectly. What other business could possibly hope to flourish by systematically ignoring its customers? But that is what happens in the world of fantasy football – which is, in fact, the world of actual football in terms of the way it is organised and owned right now.

Nor is it true that ‘there is no alternative’. A 16-team top division, 10-team intermediate division and 16-team third division model (with a viable pyramid below that) was finally proposed by the SFL some weeks ago. While not perfect, this meets the basic wishes of most supporters. In fact it is quite similar to the detailed fans' plan first put out by Supporters Direct Scotland (SDS) earlier last year, and then developed and published [4] by FansFirst Scotland. This plan set out how a 16-16-10 structure could be made to work both practically and financially in the longer term. Yet this and other alternatives were pushed off the table of the governing bodies, on grounds that critics believe to be far too narrow and unimaginative in their assumptions – including the extraordinary notion that games with less pressure where it is possible to experiment, try out young players and go for attractive, attacking football are "meaningless".

The only option being considered right now is a 12-12-18 setup with a Heath-Robinson 'three leagues of eight split' delivery system for the first two divisions, which many know to be profoundly flawed, and which may give way to further fracture below if rumours about Rangers’ demands prove true. The supporters' trust at my own club, Dumbarton, are now promoting an Open Letter [5] explaining why, from a supporters' perspective, the present proposal is the wrong move, and how going for reconstruction in 2014/15 rather than next season would aid a better-informed, better-resourced decision.

There are other vital issues under consideration, too. If a sensibly unified league governing body can be achieved, that would be a positive step forward – provided it does not simply end up being a takeover of the SFL by the SPL in another guise. In this respect, the voting rights and constitution agreed next week will be crucial. There are grounds for concern about what may emerge from the 11-1 SPL voting structure and a three-year lock-down on change in the rules (among other problems). Those with the largest interests seem not to recognise that their long-term health actually depends upon the health of the whole game, and are therefore keen to keep the chips on their side of the table irrespective of wider considerations.

Likewise with the financial settlement. A through-distribution model for resource-sharing is what is needed for Scottish football overall, it is now widely accepted. That is a very important gain. But a much more radical financial redistribution is required to revive genuine sporting competitiveness. While we should not spurn steps in the right direction, a critical eye towards the way the cake is being cut is always needed.

Rethinking the bigger picture

In the larger picture, the Scottish game needs to learn to live within its means – which may mean more, not fewer, clubs going part-time in the first instance. Resources have to be maintained and developed – principally by achieving a more varied, competitive and reasonably-priced matchday experience to attract attendance related income (and tempt broadcasters to a wider palette). The measure of success has to be the sustainability of clubs that represent an achievable scale of operation and performance in a small, enterprising country – rather than considering the billionaire-driven English Premier League the benchmark. Above all, the Old Firm of Celtic and Rangers, as long as they remain part of the Scottish football, need to be treated as a ‘bonus’ rather than as the unconditional basis for the game’s overall business model.

At present this is not the way the leading determinants of the game in Scotland are looking at things at all. To change the climate of thinking and bring real renovation to football in this country, proper supporter representation at all levels of the sport is needed, together with a large expansion of community ownership and engagement. Indeed, what Scotland and the other nations of these islands need is the 51% supporter ownership rule from Germany.

Meanwhile, it is likely that what is arrived at in the coming weeks remains well short of the mark. If that is so, the crisis facing football in Scotland is likely to continue to gnaw away at its roots and branches. Only a widespread outbreak of democracy, accountability, transparency, creativity, participation and new economic / governance thinking can change that. Otherwise we will end up dealing with a (probably messy) process of managed decline.

What fans, supporter groups and community organisations needs to realise is that the alternative is not someone or somewhere else – it's us and our allies.

References:

[1] Scottish Football Association: The McLeish Report.

[2] SFA, SFL, SPL, Supporters Direct Scotland: The National Football Survey.

[3] FansFirst Scotland: A Claim of Right for Scottish Football.

[4] FansFirst Scotland: The FansFirst Plan.

[5] Dumbarton Supporters Trust: An Open Letter on Scottish League Reconstruction.

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He is also an associate of the policy and campaign group, FansFirst Scotland, and a board member of the Sonstrust, the not-for-profit supporters’ provident society at Dumbarton FC, itself part of Supporters Direct Scotland.

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