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.