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How Scottish football could be saved by learning lessons from rugby and cricket



Within a few decades, Scots emigres were taking the game to all corners of the globe and helping to establish some of its greatest clubs and organise their national structures.

Yet, a dissonance exists in Scotland’s influence on world football and its paltry on-field achievements. In almost 100 years of international competition Scotland has never qualified for the latter stages of these tournaments. In the last four decades our club sides’ efforts in European competition have been embarrassing for a nation in which football is virtually a religion.

Earlier this month, another landmark Scottish contribution to football’s development occurred. It came with the publication of a book which has already been greeted across the world as one of the most important treatises ever to have been written about the future direction of world football. It’s called Sport’s Perfect Storm and is written by Roger Mitchell, a Glaswegian chartered accountant and former CEO of the Scottish Premier League.

In it, he suggests that football, as we know it, has come to a crossroads and that its entire future depends on which route the game’s legislators take.  Significantly, despite international acclaim for his analyses and solutions, no one from the banjo-playing backwaters of Scottish football has solicited his advice or input.

“I’m not interested in personal validation or profile,” he told me last week, “I simply think that the challenges facing world football are even more profound for the game in Scotland.” Since he left here in 2006 he’s become a compelling voice globally in sport investment, helping new companies and start-ups to invest in sport and introduce them to administrators and marketing directors.

He now lives on the shores of Lake Como with his wife and family, but his passion for Scottish football burns fiercely. Mr Mitchell also believes football can help the physical, emotional and intellectual development of our young people and reverse trends which have seen them retreat into metaverse voids where human interaction has all but ceased.

“The real task for smart people who care about our game is this: how do we take this asset, football, and use it to coax young people away from their lonely, little virtual existences rooted in iPhones, virtual reality goggles and Artificial Intelligence?

“The only pursuit that can bring them back into the real world and speaking to each other again is football. It’s the only thing that will save our kids disappearing down electronic black holes for good. And that’s as true for Coatbridge as Como.”

He was astonished to discover recently that a majority of young people find dates on electronic sites. So even romance, that most basic and urgent human interaction, has been sub-contracted to globalist third-parties.

He cites the film and music industries where instant, no-risk success is demanded. “Simple Minds only started making money after their fifth album. Today they’d have been ditched after one. In Hollywood all the money is spent on global superhero franchises, there’s no longer room for quirky tales like Local Hero.

He believes that football though, possesses charisms lacking in film and music. These are rooted in an emotional and spiritual appeal that’s embedded in families and communities and handed down through generations. And yet, aspects of his book seem to veer in the direction of corporatism and embracing big capital.   

I point out that only once in the last 27 years has a side from outwith Europe’s four big leagues – England, Germany, Spain and Italy – won the Champions League. The element of competition, its most fundamental appeal, is disappearing. The Champions League has now been reduced to a glamour pre-season tournament sponsored by one of a few mega-corporations.

He disagrees. “My son is 22 and a knowledgeable football fan. He and his chums are obsessed by the technical side of the game. They love the Champions League knock-out stages where all the top teams arrive on the stage at the same time and the games become compelling showcasing the game at its most beautiful and powerful.”

But isn’t this just football for connoisseurs, for tourists, I ask. “Perhaps, but this current young generation doesn’t consume football the way we used to,” he replies. Nor do they consume long-form journalism. I write a longish article as a weekly blog about some of these issues. My kids aren’t remotely interested in it. 

“They find it difficult to watch an entire 90-minute game live. This is because the magnetism of the smartphone is astonishing. The algorithms are so smart that they come and fetch them and take them off to see other stuff. When my son and his pals see players making a few bad passes they say: ‘I’m not hanging around if this is the quality’.

“Football has been financed for 30 years by selling live footage of 90 minutes. I’d say now that this product is not desired by the current generation. And once you recognise that, you say “Oh f**k” and you come up with a book title of ‘Sport’s Perfect Storm’.”

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I still believe though, that top-level football is in danger of eating itself by reducing the element of uncertainty and jeopardy in favour of pre-arranged outcomes. If what Mr Mitchell says is true – that millennials with short attention spans aren’t interested in anything below the level of the Champions League quarter-finals – then what’s to stop the corporate sponsors reducing the game to three periods of 20 minutes. In cricket, this is already happening where the rise of smash-them-up T20 cricket is fast replacing Test cricket and killing the County game.

He’s relaxed about this. “Our generation is sleeping at the wheel. One day they’ll wake up and the game won’t be there. They should be asking – as cricket administrators asked – what shibboleths can we ditch; what sacred cows do we need to kill?”

The Herald: Roger Mitchell suggests Scottish football needs to adaptRoger Mitchell suggests Scottish football needs to adapt

His book has had what he describes as “an overwhelming” global reception. He can lift the phone to any international administrator and discuss these issues. And he’d like to be having these conversations with the people who run men’s and women’s football in Scotland.

Our generation is sleeping at the wheel. One day they’ll wake up and the game won’t be there.

I suggest that we may be on the verge of creating two different codes of football. This happened with rugby in 1895 when Rugby League football was introduced over the issue of professionalism. Working-class northern clubs fielded miners and millworkers who needed compensation for taking time off work, whereas the southern clubs had independent means and could afford to maintain the amateur aesthetic. In time, rule changes such as ditching the line-out and reducing the number of players were introduced.

“I think we’re approaching that place now,” Roger Mitchell says. “The sooner we recognise we have two products then the game might be saved. FIFA and UEFA have absolute power, but can they resist their sponsors’ demands to change the game’s dynamics to appeal to their target audience of young people who specialise in memes and user-generated content during, and immediately after, games? This is where the juice is.

“In Scotland we’re still debating 16-team leagues and how we distribute the money. Nowhere do they mention how the product actually works and how to develop it to capture this generation. It’s still largely an environment that doesn’t embrace women and young children.”

He loves watching Manchester City because of the aesthetics in their play and how Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden are technical magicians. I loathe Manchester City though, not least for the fact of them being a factory club built entirely on the wealth of a multi-billionaire oil sheik.

When a club such as this can purchase the best players on the planet games become restricted to a half-sized pitch and a sterile series of training-ground triangles.

“Perhaps we do need two different football jurisdictions,” he says. “We effectively have two versions of the game which have no connections to each other. One is global and the other local. But they’re governed by the same bodies who don’t know how to reconcile them. If they don’t find a solution to this then football will indeed eat itself.

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