A new year is upon us and it’s time to take a look at the current state of Scottish football (“Must we?” I hear you say). Yes, the Scottish Football Report Card, Season 14/15 is due in. Below you’ll find irresistible evidence that our game continues to be on the up. Granted, Scottish football remains capable of throwing up some of the most outrageous and shambolic stramashes you’re likely to see in world football (just who will own Glasgow Rangers by this time next week for instance?), but I would take Season 14/15 over Season 04/05 any day.
Season 04/05 was an Annus Horribilis (horrible year, not manky bahookie) for anyone other than supporters of the Old Firm. Rangers won the league, one point ahead of Celtic, but with a 32-point lead over the third-placed team, Hibernian. Yes, I did just say a 32-point lead. In the Cups, Celtic took the Scottish Cup, and you’ve guessed it, Rangers took the League Cup. Dull. As. Dishwater.
On the National front, we were entertained by such highlights as 4-1 and 3-0 home defeats by Sweden and Hungary respectively, and a thrilling 0-0 draw away to Belarus. Needless to say, we were soon to be labelled with the acronym DNQ in relation to World Cup 2006, and the comedy genius that was Herr Vogts was on his way.
Yes, give me Season 14/15 every time. Here’s why:
1. We have an entertaining – i.e. competitive – top league. Nobody, even in January 2015 as Aberdeen sit with a four point lead in the SPFL, is going to predict that Celtic aren’t going to win the league. They will. But the fact that league championship glory is more likely to come to them as the result of a last day one-nil victory away to Hamilton than a canter to victory in early March shows how interesting the league is this year. At the time of writing, four teams other than Celtic have topped the league at one point or another – Aberdeen, Dundee United, Hamilton and Inverness – and most of them are likely to keep up with the pace by remaining within a few points of the leader for most of the season. Anyone can beat anyone. Oh how long we’ve waited for that. Mind you, Celtic have been mince.
2. The Cups are anyone’s guess. I made a bit of a thing last year about how many teams have won or competed in the final of the two major Scottish cups over the last decade. This seems set to continue in 14-15. In the League Cup any of Aberdeen, Dundee United, Celtic or Rangers will have a genuine belief that they can win it. The Scottish Cup remains wide open.
3. The Championship is fascinating. We all knew that, with Rangers, Hearts, and Hibs in the same league, fighting for one automatic promotion place and one promotion via the play-offs, it was going to be interesting. But no-one could have predicted just how brilliant Hearts would be, nor how uninspiring Rangers would be. Big crowds, exciting games with some quality football on show and everything to play for: it offers a glimpse of what our top division could be. And with two of the ‘big three’ teams likely to be promoted, the prospect of the Scottish Premiership in Season 15/16 is already very intriguing. I just hope the Saints are still there by then
4. We continue to produce good young players. There seems to be a veritable conveyor belt of good young players coming through the system, all the way from Junior football to lower league football, the Premiership and on to the English Championship and Premiership. Of the few players I mentioned in this section of last year’s report, Andrew Robertson has successfully moved to Hull FC, Ryan Gauld has moved to Sporting Lisbon, Stevie May to Sheffield Wednesday and both Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong are the subject of bids by Celtic and are attracting the interest of several clubs in the English Premiership. This year, the illustrative list of good young players is even longer. I predict that the following players (current team in parenthesis) will, by this time next year, have moved up to be playing in the English Premiership, have moved to the English Championship or be regularly breaking into the first team of the clubs they are already with:
Kenny MacLean (St Mirren), Jack Harper (Real Madrid), Ryan Jack (Aberdeen), Ali Crawford (Hamilton Accies), Graeme Shinnie (Inverness CT), Charlie Telfer (Dundee Utd), Johnny Russell and Craig Forsyth (both Derby County), Jordan Rhodes (Blackburn Rovers), Lewis McLeod (Brentford), Jason Cummings (Hibs), Ryan Fraser (Bournemouth) and most of the Hearts squad (again).
5. If there was a balance of payments, Scottish Football would be in credit: We are exporting footballers and not importing as many non-Scottish footballers. There are 68 Scottish footballers in the first team squads of English Premiership and Championship teams, with 21 of these in the Premiership and a further 12 playing for Championship teams who are in the play-off positions at time of writing (even before the Transfer Window has closed). This is a 12% increase since last season. I love statistics, me. We may be going through a bit of a fallow period with our export of Scottish Managers (a year ago a total of 25% of all Managers in the SPFL, English Premiership and Championship were Scottish), but the production line for export is about to do a Johnnie Walker Blue Label. Alex Neil has just moved to manage Norwich. Also coming to a big football club near you in the near future, could be: Jackie McNamara, Derek McInnes, Robbie Neilson, Paul Hartley and yes, even Ally McCoist. All of this may or may not be a good thing for our domestic league, but it’s certainly good for Scottish Football as a whole.
6. The future of the Scottish National Team is rosy: This is partly because we’re producing so many players, and because they’re going on to play at a high level. But you’ve got to credit Gordon Strachan and the current players with a lot too. In the Euro 2016 GROUP OF DEATH, Scotland have narrowly lost away to the World Champions Germany, very nearly beaten Poland away, and ground out vital home wins against Georgia and Ireland. We are joint second in our qualifying group, and all is to play for. The only question is, will Gordon Strachan be knighted, beatified or both if he takes us to France 2016?
7. No-one can take away our outstanding football heritage. I said (exactly) this last year, but it’s worth repeating. Of the 207 national teams who are affiliated to FIFA, Scotland is 21st on the all-time World Cup appearances list. Not bad, and even better if you consider that our population is smaller than every team above us on the list bar one (Uruguay). On one of our appearances, according to FIFA, Archie Gemmill (a Paisley Buddie by the way) scored the second-best goal in World Cup history. More importantly we’re jointly responsible (with England) for inventing international football, the first such international fixture having been played in Partick on 30th November 1872. The following year, the Scottish Cup kicked off, and remains the oldest national football trophy in the world. Plus, any nation that could come up with club teams with names like Hamilton Academical, Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Heart of Midlothian, Hibernian, Raith Rovers, St Mirren, Spartans, Whitehill Welfare, Celtic, Rangers, Airdrieonians, and of course, Queen of the South, has automatically qualified for a special place in the football pantheon.
So, I implore you, don’t listen to the doomsayers (“We’re aw dooooomed!”), those soothsayers of woe who predicted meltdown when Rangers were relegated, or who remain poised to proclaim their fore-knowledge of the National team’s inevitable failure at the last hurdle and wholly expect us to get gubbed by Gibraltar: Scottish Football is alive and kicking. Come back Berti Vogts, all is forgotten.