The Scottish Football Report Card, Season 14-15

Maloney

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.

Hearts goal

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 Mclean

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.

Till a’ the Seas Gang Dry

She was born at 11 o’clock at night, in the Royal Hospital, just off the Falls Road in Belfast. My wee girl. No moment has ever caught my breath so much, been such an overwhelming emotional surge, as when the Nurse passed Eve to me.

A few years later, and I’m standing in another Royal Hospital maternity ward. This time, it’s Sunderland. And this time I’m being passed my gorgeous wee boy. Not a new experience now, but no less breath-taking. Joseph. The wee Mackem with a Scottish daddy, an English mummy and a Norn Irish big sister. The quintessential British family.

Recently I realised that this wasn’t a first for my family. True, on my mum’s side, we can trace our Scottish ancestry back through Henderson’s and Mackintosh’s, through Glasgow and Renfrewshire, all the way back to a little village on the northern tip of Harris in the 1700s.
But my dad was born in Birkenhead. His mammy was a wee lassie from Dumfries, and his daddy a Scouser. It was only a couple of months ago I learned for the first time that the Grandad I never met (he died when my dad was two) was also born in Belfast, to Scottish parents. Incredible.

Why should we fight for Scotland to remain part of this United Kingdom? Sure, we can talk about the risks to independence – the implications of Currency Union, the costs and uncertainties to establishing a new country, the long-term prospects for oil etc – but that’s not why I’m fighting to save the Union. I’ve no doubt that, in the long-term, Scotland could do just fine as an independent country, even if social justice would be the casualty in the short-term.

I’m fighting for the Union because we’re family. Sometimes, granted, we’re a bit of a dysfunctional family. But which family isn’t from time to time? I’m fighting for the Union because this wee island that we live on in the North Atlantic means we’re stuck with each other anyway. I’m fighting for the Union because for over 300 years it’s been a glorious experiment in the removal of national borders, and yet somehow managed to enable all of us to retain our distinctiveness. I’m fighting for this Union because I don’t want a trip back to a 19th Century past in which the Nation-State is the paradigm for how we live in community. I’m fighting for the Union because without it Scotland and England and Wales and Northern Ireland would have been competing with each other for centuries, and not co-operating.

Please Stay Scotland

There aren’t many of us who don’t have family from another part of the UK. And that’s not a product of globalisation or upward social mobility: it’s been the case for generations. The Union has broken down barriers between us, and still enabled us to be who we are. It’s Union that is the future, not division.

But we do need a different kind of Union. The shared spaces which have knitted us together – particularly the political ones – need to be reformed and refreshed. We need more subsidiarity: decision-making at a local level. We need an elected second chamber in Westminster. We need a written Constitution. We need a new electoral system, a version of proportional representation that removes the binary choices of First Past the Post. We need greater autonomy for the nations and regions, including in England. In short, we need a Federal state.

And, so long as there is a No vote on Thursday, I will be forever grateful for the Independence Referendum debate for the new energy and engagement it has injected into the democratic coma which all of us had slipped into. It’s true to say that the UK will never be the same again. Let’s take this energy and invest it in reforming our political system, renewing our bonds, getting to know each other again. But let’s do it working from a principle of Unity, not one of each to their own. Let’s remember that we really can be greater than the sum of our parts.

Because, like a lot of families, even although we don’t say it that often, we really do love each other. And I love you Scotland. You gave me birth, gave me education, gave me that stubborn streak that’s served me so well, helped me not to take myself too seriously, and gave me that accent that is a conversation starter the world over.

And I’m not ashamed to say that I love the rest of the Union too. Every part. You’ve nurtured my kids, given me work, taught me who I am as a man. I’m so thankful that I’ve been privileged to spend my life all over the UK – Glasgow, Belfast, Sunderland, London and more.

One of my favourite poets, Robert Burns, sums up my feelings in so many ways. In To a Mouse, Burns, speaking as the Ploughman who’s just turned a mouse out of its nest says:

I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion,
Has broken nature’s social union,
An justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, Earth-born companion,
An fellow mortal!

It’s a stanza which for me sums up our need to live well with all, to build a world that bestows honour upon the vulnerable, and reminds us of both our shared humanity and our capacity to mess things up. We would do well to remember the words of Burns, whatever the result on Thursday.

Lets Stay Together Trafalgar Sq

In a classic track, the band Faithless capture the feeling when a relationship has gone sour. On Monday night I stood with thousands of other people from all around the Union at the Let’s Stay Together rally in Trafalgar Square as we sought to demonstrate our love for Scotland. If I may be permitted to speak for them, as well as myself, these are the words I would send to my fellow Scots, and in particular those planning to vote Yes:

You’re packing your bags like people in the movies do, all severe, not saying a word.
And I’m sitting down here just watching you and I’m thinking, where has all the love gone, where’s it all gone to? Don’t leave.
You know it’s never been easy to love someone like me.
Trying to find who am I, and what you need me to do? Don’t leave.
Where did all the love go? Where’s the love gone to? Don’t leave.
You got me hurting. Don’t leave.
You know it’s never been easy to love someone like me. Don’t leave.
Don’t know how to write a love song. Don’t leave.
You know it’s never been easy to love someone like me. Don’t leave.

And it’s not too late for this Union of ours. We can start again. If it’s possible to completely deconstruct the Union through Scottish independence and build a harmonious future, then it’s even more achievable to renew and re-build this Union which has made us who we are.

Perhaps I’ll leave my last words on my feelings for both Scotland and the Union to Burns:

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve’s like a melodie
That’s sweetly played in tune

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I:
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry

The Politics of Otherness

 

“It is now long ago that I learned this lesson from General Armstrong, and resolved that I would permit no man, no matter what his colour might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him. With God’s help, I believe that I have completely rid myself of any ill feeling toward the Southern white man for any wrong that he may have inflicted upon my race. I am made to feel just as happy now when I am rendering service to Southern white men as to when the service is rendered to a member of my own race. I pity from the bottom of my heart any individual who is so unfortunate as to get into the habit of holding race prejudice.”

Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery, 1900

Tourtoirac is a beautiful wee place, if in a kind of ramshackle way. Its intriguing maisons and petit chateau have a grandeur which, if somewhat faded, nevertheless retain a charm which deliver the sort of mystique that I was looking for on a maiden family holiday to France. Throw in a meandering river running through the centre of the village and the chance to buy fresh bread every morning from the bona fide boulangerie opposite the medieval Abbey, and you could say that I was happy with my holiday choice.

It’s the kind of place that seems untouched by the world. But not just by the apparent absence of satellite dishes and Dom Jolly-esque mobile phone etiquette; it gives the impression that the world has always passed it by. There is no urgency in Tourtoirac, and that is something I was very glad to experience.

And yet there is one very visible reminder that the paysage francais has not always been the sleepy, presiding reality in this Dordogne village. Situated beside the Post Office, opposite the village square, is an obelisk-shaped war memorial adorned in French flags, the state of which clearly shows the place of importance that it holds amongst the local population.

Tourtoirac War Memorial cropped

Around the base of the monument dozens of names of local men killed during the First World War are listed, grouped around an engraving which proclaims: ‘Tourtoirac, to her children killed for their country 1914-1918’. On the same level, but on a different panel is a smaller, but still lengthy, list of local men killed in their turn during La Deuxieme Guerre Mondiale.

In a sense, this monument and its rude interruption into my family holiday should not be a surprise. It stands to reason that most towns and villages in France, much like those in the area that I grew up in Scotland, have war memorials to those lost in the two conflicts which were played out largely in Western Europe, and largely in France. But I nevertheless felt a dissonance to the surroundings which I was enjoying and the peace that I was experiencing.

A plaque on the upper part of the obelisk particularly caught my eye. On that plaque are listed five names. The names have a decidedly Jewish tint – Kohn, Aaron, Samuel – and the testimony which accompanies them is chilling: Assassines par Les Nazis (assassinated by the Nazis), Le 1er Avril 1944.

Tourtoirac Jewish names cropped

I have visited a concentration camp. Yet this plaque particularly shook me. Since encountering the Tourtoirac War Memorial, I’ve found it difficult to forget. It may be that I’m feeling nostalgia for my grandparents and their experience of the Second World War, at a time when we as a family are marking the first anniversary of my Gran’s death, a particularly poignant loss for us as the last surviving member of my family from that generation.

However I think that my awareness of war, violence and hatred, and the dissonance to that peaceful place, was particularly heightened because of what was – and is still – going on around the world even as I was reading the names on that monument.

This year alone we have seen vicious civil wars taking place in eastern Ukraine, Syria and Iraq. We’ve seen hundreds of young girls abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria. We’ve seen Iraq fall apart in a sectarian blood-bath. And that was before the horrors of ISIS and the so-called Islamic State began to be visited upon much of that country. We’ve seen civil unrest in Missouri as yet another young African-American man is shot dead by the police. And, of course, we’ve witnessed the continuation of the ancient conflict in Israel-Palestine with thousands killed, maimed and displaced, predominantly in Gaza.

These conflicts bear witness to the triumph of fear and of scapegoating. They exemplify the politics of division, and the worldview which says; you can’t be part of this community unless you look like us, talk like us, think like us. It is, and always has been the politicisation of the Other: whether the Jew, the Russian, the Kafir, the Palestinian, the African-American – the list is endless and changes depending on where you’re standing.

Where have all the big ideas gone? The ideas which transcend identity – religious, national or racial? Many of the 20th Century’s big ideas, like Fascism or Communism, soon revealed their true colours. They were equally as hostile to the Other, and as equally prone towards using violence to achieve their ends. The Tourtoirac War Memorial shows that much.

Yet I can’t help noticing that the ideals around which we organise our world today are those which either idolise profit-making or seek to define us by the lowest common denominators. We seem to be left with either the Market or the Tradition. Important though these are, they leave me feeling cold as ideologies around which we will build our world. They lack vision, purpose, and often even a narrative. They represent the politics of survival, nothing more.

It may seem like a stretch to mention the Scottish Independence Referendum in a blog in which I’ve also mentioned Boko Haram. However – in a fundamentally much more benign form, of course – these are the terms on which even this debate is being conducted. Most of the key arguments on both sides are being made via appeals to Tradition/Identity (whether, Scottish or British) and the Market (i.e. which settlement will leave Scotland better off financially). This amounts to a great deal of heat and not a lot of light.

What inspires me are the possibilities that we have in this world to transcend otherness whilst recognising our differences; to find our shared humanity when it’s tempting to simply use labels to demean; to work for a whole that is greater than the sum of our parts; to aim for solidarity when it’s easier to divide.

In a word, Unity.

What’s in a Name?

This is a big year for the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland. After the preceding 306 years of union, 2014 presents the most serious challenge to the constitutional arrangements of the four nations which make up the UK, with the Scottish Independence Referendum on September 18th.

For some, it’s time to give up on what they see as an anachronistic quirk of the modern world, a hangover more suited to 1914 than 2014.

But in the UK I still see the possibility of something unique, exciting and worthwhile: in short, something I want to keep. Here’s why:

Unity brings Strength: As someone who regards himself as being on the ideological left, I’m firmly aware of the immediate impression that the word ‘Strength’ can give. Citing the UK’s membership of the United Nations Security Council or our position as an influential member within the European Union as reasons to maintain the Union, let alone the fact that we have the world’s eighth largest economy and fourth largest military spending, are derided by many as exactly the kind of 20th Century hubris that an independent Scotland could well do without.

It’s true that power politics is a too-common norm in our world and that there’s not enough empowerment downwards. If the consequence of the UK holding the power that we do is more decisions like the invasion of Iraq, then you can count me out too.

But the truth is also that power has always made the world go round. In all nations and in all eras, from the Phoenician Empire, to the Roman Empire, to the Khmer Empire, to the Spanish and British Empires, from American hegemony to the future Chinese dominance, the possession of power seems to be nine-tenths of the law when it comes to shaping the world that we live in. The question for us is not whether strong countries dominate the way the world works – we can see from the Crimea to the South China Sea that they obviously do.

There is only really one important question relating to our power and that is, how shall we use it? Because the potential of the UK’s combined economic, military, diplomatic and cultural power to be a positive force in the world is just phenomenal. The invasion of Iraq was a mistake; but what about the job our military did to stop a brutal war criminal and his militia raping and pillaging Sierra Leone? Tied-Aid was a mistake; but what about us having the second-largest international development budget in the world? 19th Century cultural imperialism was a mistake; but what about the way we hosted the Olympics in 2012?

It’s only with the collective strength that we achieve in the UK that we can make this positive difference in the world. The strength that we have in the United Kingdom can be a massive benefit not only to us, but to the rest of the world. All that matters are the choices that we make about how to use it.

Unity brings Solidarity: I am a great admirer of Co-operatives, Trade Unions and Credit Unions. These voluntary movements have for well over one hundred years sought to strengthen communities and individuals through the power of the collective. Each of them enable the pooling of resources in order to provide increased security to particularly the poorest and most vulnerable in society through using collective bargaining power in the areas of trading, employment and financial services. When part of the community falls on hard times, or faces the injustice of inequality, the rest of the collective can step in to ease their difficulties.

These institutions are all manifestations of a unity and solidarity that have been and can be reflected in the United Kingdom. Whatever stance you take on the economic viability of an independent Scotland, one thing that’s clear is that pooling our resources on this island makes it possible that areas of greater deprivation – wherever they are – can be supported by areas of greater affluence. Of course, the aim of a socially just United Kingdom should be to level out such inequality in the first place. And it’s clear that we have a long way to go in this regard.

However our ability to do so in the future comes exactly from the possibility of re-directing resources from one part of a larger pot to another. This may be possible to some degree within an independent Scotland, but not to the same degree that it’s possible within the world’s eighth largest economy. As I write, I can hear the howls of the Yes Campaign, pointing out the growing inequality that we’ve seen in the UK over the last 30 years. And they are right – we have to some degree squandered the opportunity for social justice that we have in the UK. But the solution to this missed opportunity is simply political will. Again, it’s not the resources – our wealth – we have that are the problem; it’s how we use it to make our country more equal that matters. And the economy of scale that the UK gives us makes the possibilities much more exciting, offering a solidarity that I believe we should aspire to.

Unity brings Hope: As a fundamental principle, union is always a better aspiration than disunity. Yes, the type of union that is created matters. The United States of America contains some gross economic inequalities. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had at its heart an ideology which flattened individual conscience and social freedoms. The European Union can at times have a tendency to require conformity and suppress diversity by seeking to engender a not-always-apparent common European story.

Yet there is something wonderful that happens when human beings overcome our natural inclinations to reject difference or even fear the other, and pursue connectedness. We’ve not got everything right in the United Kingdom; very far from it. But I truly love the fact that, in our difference – national, ethnic, linguistic, religious, regional, ideological – we have stuck with each other on this island, even when it would have been easier to give up and retrench into the familiar.

We live in in the most exciting country on earth: a truly multi-national state which has a respect for the other that, having travelled to about 40 countries of the world to date, I’ve yet to see bettered. This is not to say you can’t find bigotry or racism on these islands. But in truth we are a very tolerant nation. That comes from over 300 years of practice.

It’s this idea of hope in the possibilities of unity on this island that, above all else, makes me want to fight to keep the UK, rather than press the eject button.

The Scottish Football Report Card

2013 probably won’t be remembered as a signature year for Scottish football. Following a poor start in their qualifying group, the national team – and therefore the Tartan Army – were consigned to yet another big tournament absence, this time missing the holiest of holies: a World Cup in Brazil.

Meanwhile, at club level, all four of Scotland’s representatives in European cup competitions had been eliminated by Christmas, three of them by early October. There were a few hidings on the way too, with Hibernian’s 0-7 home defeat to Malmo a particular stand out.

To pick another low-light, the on-going Board merry-go-round surrounding who controls Glasgow Rangers continues to bring disrepute to a club which is still, after all, a genuine British football institution. So, all in all, not a vintage year.

And yet if there’s one thing in world history that Scotland can claim to have made a significant contribution to – and in truth there are many – it’s the most popular sport on earth. As we draw near to a new footballing year, here are ten reasons why Scottish football fans should be both proud and excited about our contribution to the beautiful game in 2013.

  1. We still have the best elite Managers in the British game. Until early December over a quarter of all the Managers in the English Premiership, Championship and Scottish Premiership were Scottish. It says a lot that this is actually a decrease in the ratios of recent seasons. Even still – again until December – the most common country of origin for an English Premiership Manager was held equally by England and Scotland (four each). In fact, it took the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, the most successful manager in world club football, to make it a tie. With the sackings of Steve Clark at West Brom and Malky Mackay at Cardiff (which most commentators think was the harshly ironic denouement of their earlier success), the number has dropped. But who’s to say that – with the conveyor belt of managerial career progression from Scottish Premiership to Championship and beyond – that these vacancies won’t be filled by Scotsmen?

2.    We’re probably the most football daft country in the world (at least in the Northern Hemisphere).

In season 2012/13, Scotland had the 12th highest average attendance at live football matches out of 49 UEFA countries. However, every one of the countries above us has a significantly higher population, making us the European country with the highest attendance of live football matches per head of population. Our national broadcast and print media are as likely to lead with a football story as anything else and, should we qualify for an international tournament, it’s likely that half the country will empty. When it comes to fitba’, wha’s like us?

3.    Our game is genuinely home-grown. In days gone by, even the smaller clubs sought to keep up with the joneses by importing talent from across the world – not all of it any better than what was on offer in Scotland. But now, 57% of the players plying their trade in the Scottish Premiership are eligible to play in the dark blue. To put that in perspective, only 46% of players in the English Premier League can hope for a call up to Roy Hodgson’s squad. The ratio is brought down by Celtic, but most other clubs start each game with about eight players who are eligible to play for Scotland. This leads me to the next reason to be happy:

4.    We’re starting to produce quality young players again. The Scottish media and footballing establishment have been guilty over the years of regularly proclaiming an up and coming young Scottish footballer to be the new Baggio, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho or Messi.  All too often these tags have either acted like millstones around the neck of the player in question or have just been wildly inaccurate. But I sense the lack of hype around the current crop of emerging Scottish players is a good thing: the abundance of young, expressive and technically-competent players at Scottish clubs is no longer an exception worth a hyperbolic newspaper headline. Players like Ryan Gauld, Stuart Armstrong, Gary Mackay-Steven and Andrew Robertson at Dundee United, Stevie May at St Johnstone, Peter Pawlett at Aberdeen, James Forrest at Celtic, Alex Harris at Hibernian, Jason Naismith at St Mirren and at least half of the Hearts squad are, amongst many others, evidence of young, talented Scottish footballers getting a chance to shine. Not all of them will make it, but at last they’re getting the chance to try.

5.    We’re the holders of the Victory Shield for the first time in 15 years. Perhaps it’s not the most obvious reason to be cheerful. But when Calvin Miller scored the winner against England at Starks Park in November he became the first Scotland under-16 player to score the tournament winning goal since 1998. Having not won the Victory Shield since then, this is surely a sign of progress. The fact that 1998 was the last time the senior Scotland team appeared in an international tournament is surely worth noting too.

6.    We’re a football-exporting nation again. So far this season, fifteen Scotland-eligible players have played in the English Premiership, the world’s top league. This may not seem a lot, until you compare it to about six seasons ago when Darren Fletcher was the only Scotland player who was playing in the EPL. The scouts are coming back to take a look at what our league is producing. The path may more often be from Scottish Premiership to English Championship (there are 45 Scottish players currently playing there) and then up to the EPL, but the point is the river is flowing again. This could be viewed as a good or a bad thing for the game in Scotland, but it does show that our game has improved.

7.    Celtic will win the league, but everything else is unpredictable. We all know that Celtic will win the league. And when Rangers return to the top flight it will be a two horse race once again. But then that’s the case in Spain, Holland and Germany too. In England – although this year’s title race is as open as it’s been for a while – only four teams have won the league since the turn of the century, and that’s in a league which is twice the size of the Scottish league. So, low odds on the likely Championship Winners are not limited to Scottish bookies. But everything else in Scottish football is competitive. When St Mirren won the league cup in March (I had to mention that), they became the sixth different club to win it in the last ten years. In the Scottish Cup, there have been four different winners (and eight different finalists) in the last five years. Second and third places in the league have included eight different clubs since season 2000-2001. In the second tier, absolutely any team can win it each year. So, there’s excitement in the old terrier yet.

8.    Our woman’s national team are a sensation. The Scotland Women’s team has won all four of its World Cup qualifiers to date, scoring twenty goals and conceding only two in reply. They sit top of their group and are in the top twenty ranked nations for women’s football for the first time. Additionally, the under-17 team have qualified for the European Championships. Enough said.

9.    Our men’s national team is on the up. Sure, we’ve not qualified. Again. Sure, we were glorious failures in qualifying. Again. But something new is happening since Gordon Strachan took over. It’s not just special wins home and away to Croatia (who are going to the World Cup), and away to Macedonia. It’s the style and confidence we’ve shown, including in the narrow loss to England, a game much of which we dominated. We’re now ranked 34th in the world by FIFA and, although they’re an imperfect gauge of success, they do indicate an upwards trend from our ignominious lows of the past. It may have been said before, but it really does seem like a new dawn is slowly breaking.

10.   No-one can take away our outstanding football heritage. Of the 207 national teams who are affiliated to FIFA, Scotland is 22nd on the all-time World Cup appearances list. Not bad, and even better if you consider that again 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, Celtic, Rangers, Airdrieonians, and of course, Queen of the South, has automatically qualified for a special place in the football pantheon.

So, as you head into 2014 as a supporter of one of these teams or another, be sure to hold your head high in the knowledge that there are few footballing nations to match us.

P.S. Did you know that 47 of the players to be capped for the U.S.A. national team were born in Scotland? Exactly.

Musings from the Island Line

Riding the Hong Kong Metro Island Line train on a Saturday morning in full kilt and associated Highland paraphernalia was certainly one way to get noticed. Ordinarily, the incongruity of being a six-foot, three- inch tall white guy in a skirt amongst a throng of generally-shorter Chinese commuters would be enough to make me feel like I was standing out from the crowd. But it was the terribly polite, subtle-yet-noticeable way in which my fellow travellers took selfies with me on their iPhones that really made me feel like I was doing the Tuesday morning School-run in a mankini.

Never have I felt more self-conscious in my identity as a Scotsman abroad. Despite the fact that the travel involved in my day job gives me call to perform the role of ‘conspicuous foreigner’ amongst the otherwise tranquil daily routine of Ethiopians, Argentineans, Cambodians and Ugandans, my journey on the MTR (Sheung Wan direction) occupies a category of its own.

And yet it was a good feeling: good to be identified as a Scotsman abroad (No’ Awa’ Tae’ Bide Awa’ and all that); good to be associated again with the generally-positive views of Scots and interest in Scotland which I often encounter on my travels. It seems that, even in a former colonial toe-hold like Hong Kong, we Scots somehow manage to get a pass on the negative legacy of the British Empire – the nasty bits – and are instead awarded epithets like ‘plucky’, ‘industrious’ or just ‘drunk’.

Since the Hong Kong wedding (there was a reason I was riding the MTR in full regalia), I’ve been musing on the parallels between the status of Hong Kong in China and the status of Scotland in Great Britain. Without wanting to overstretch the analogy, it seems that both represent distinct cultures (in the case of Scotland, a nation) which are to all intents and purposes – economic, historic, social, linguistic, political – grafted onto the larger culture against which they are juxtaposed.

Yet in one key aspect Hong Kongers and Scots seem to diverge: namely their views towards their respective constitutional settlements. Hong Kongers are culturally Chinese by majority, yet since the1997 handover have tended to see full political union within China as less than expedient. Scots meanwhile are culturally Scottish by majority, yet since devolution in 1999 have tended to see retaining full political union with the other nations in the United Kingdom as preferable.

So why do most Scots seem in poll after poll to hold their identity as Scots in happy tension with their British passports? It boils down to the difference between Nationalism and Patriotism.

Nationalism is a sectional interest defining nations in exclusive and regressive terms: we are us because we are not them. It’s a dangerous foundation on which to base a political project. And we have seen this in the way that the Scottish National Party and the Vote Yes Campaign have articulated their vision for Scotland’s future.

Their core message is essentially a version of libertarian individualism. The Nationalist myth tells us that it’s the means to the end which are most important: secure self-determination and all else will fall into place. Nationalism is the cure, and Independence is the pill.

Patriotism is different. A Patriot loves her country. She is proud of it, wants to represent her fellow countrymen and their values well, is assured of her identity, is generous in its definition and is outward-looking. She wants her nation to be recognised in the world, but her Patriotism does not dictate her view on the particular constitutional settlement by which her nation is governed.

I believe that many Scots feel like they should vote Yes because they are essentially Patriotic. They are drawn to the grand claims and romantic language which Nationalism uses. But I have a message for my fellow Scots: it’s ok to vote No. You won’t lose your identity, and you’re no less a Scot than those who plan to vote Yes. Moreover, it’s a fundamentally wise decision to choose to maintain our Union with Wales, England and Northern Ireland. And here’s why.

Observers of American politics will be familiar with an axiomatic phrase which was drummed into the Democratic Party campaign team who were fighting to win the Presidential election for Bill Clinton in 1992. It’s this phrase – slightly-adjusted – that those of us who believe in the Union must keep in mind: it’s not the economy stupid.

Because the decision about what country we’ll be citizens of in the near future, of how we will share this small group of islands in the Atlantic Ocean, is too important to be decided by simply following the money.

Yet the economic issue seems to dominate the debate time and again. Will Scotland be better off financially in or out of the Union? I’ve seen statistics which seem to answer the question in both the affirmative and the negative. And I tend to think we would be slightly worse off financially in an independent Scotland. But even if we could speak with certainty on the economic impact of Independence, we should still avoid the economic argument in defence of the No vote. If I know one thing it’s this: never rile a Scotsman by telling him that he isn’t capable of doing something under his own steam.

And there are other ways to measure the value of the Union. Our shared language, in all its glorious forms, enables us to go anywhere in the United Kingdom and be understood. Our shared values mean that a Glaswegian has more in common with a Liverpudlian than a Parisian. Our shared history, at least over the last 300 years, means that we have a common story. Our shared geography means that we cannot simply ignore the reality that we share a small island (look at it on an atlas) with limited resources in a rapidly globalising world. We need to pool the resources for the benefit of all in these islands.

In particular, our shared relationships mean we are more than just neighbours, and in this respect I declare an interest. I am a Scot, married to an Englishwoman, with a daughter who was born in Belfast and a son who was born in Sunderland. This pattern repeats itself ad infinitum across our island. And it’s not a recent phenomenon either. My grandfather was also born in Belfast, to Scottish parents. He grew up in Southampton, settled in Liverpool and married a Scot. We are a family on this island – literal and metaphorical – and despite SNP claims that independence wouldn’t undermine this, I believe it would introduce a massive psychological and emotional wedge between us, an inevitable drifting-apart which benefits no-one. Independence is not a house move, it is a divorce, and I worry about what would happen to the kids.

How do these claims differ from the Nationalism which calls the Scots family to create a Nation-State? First, the United Kingdom is not a nation. It’s a voluntary arrangement of shared government between multiple nations. There is no such thing as the British Nation, but there is a British State. The UK eschews the narrow reductionism of nation and embraces an expansive vision of union. The irony of the SNP argument is that they want Scotland to secede from the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in order to join the European Union as an independent nation! This is a massive blind spot in their reasoning. When the world is requiring increasing integration the SNP are seeking disintegration.

And don’t be fooled by the rationale which claims independence can be a tartan ejector seat from Tory government. It’s not a coincidence that the SNP have risen to power in Scotland under first a Blairite British Government and then a Conservative-led coalition in Westminster. Scots as a whole tend to be traditionally orientated towards left-leaning politics. However, trying to solve the problem of the drift to the Right in British politics through the method of Scottish independence is using a sledge hammer to crack a nut. We’ve got to believe that a new engagement in politics by the electorate can actually make a difference to who’s in charge and what their policies will be. It’s voter apathy that’s been the real harbinger of Tory Doom, not political activism, and claiming that the only way to save UK politics is through the disassembly of UK politics is a skewed logic indeed.

So if you’re a patriot living in Scotland, if you want the British family to flourish in all its diversity, if you value unity and integration over narrow Nationalism, if you want all of us who share this island to become greater than the sum of our parts, and if you’ve got a vote in next year’s referendum, please, do us all a favour and vote No.