It happened again.
Progres Niederkorn and Trakai join Malmo, Vaduz, Lincoln Red Imps, Kaunas, Maribor, Birkirkara, Artmedia Bratislava and Sigma Olomuc to name a few in the constantly growing list of teams that have humiliated Scottish sides in European competition. Rangers most recent defeat was perhaps the most spectacular though. Blowing a lead to a team that had previously only scored one goal in Europe, in the 1980s no less. The fact there actually had to be a debate as of to whether this was indeed a Scottish club’s worst ever result is telling. So, why does it keep happening? Why is it that year after year we’re left with our head in our hands as one of our top teams crashes out to another minnow? The answer is pretty complicated.
Firstly, “we’re just not good enough” isn’t an argument. For the majority of these catastrophic results, the Scottish teams involved should’ve went through relatively easily. Their opponents may have been a quarter or halfway through their seasons, or they may have had unfamiliar temperatures to deal with in one leg of the tie – but they should have gotten through.
It is not arrogance and it is not being dismissive of the opponent to suggest this. Over two legs St Johnstone should be getting the better of Trakai and Hearts should be getting the better of Birkirkara – they certainly shouldn’t be losing at home to them. Both are bigger clubs than their opponents, have much bigger fanbases, more money and subsequently better players.
Upsets happen all over world football, of course they do, and the game would be extremely dull if the bigger teams won all the time. Scottish teams fall victim to these “upsets” more than anyone else though.
You know who else routinely shit the bed against opposition they really should be beating? The Scottish National Team. Macedonia, Lithuania, The Faroe Islands, Georgia etc all still give Scotland fans nightmares. We still have this tag of being able to pull out performances and results against the likes of France, Germany, Italy and England but totally crumble when there’s any onus on us to actually to win the game.
We barely get results against the big-hitters these days, but that tag has existed since the turn of the century and is still there. Meanwhile Northern Ireland remain almost unbeatable, Wales enjoy the most successful period in their national team’s history and The Republic, Iceland and Hungary have all been to tournaments more recently than us.
The national team is a different kettle of fish and you actually need a manager than can get the best out of his pool of players like Michael O’Neill, but the point I’m trying to make is there is a mentality issue which crosses over to club competition.
When the draw is made and a team nobody has ever heard of awaits whichever Scottish team is unfortunate enough to have qualified for Europe that season, the chatter is generally about who they’ll be facing after that. How good can Luxembourg’s 4th best team be, do they even have football in Kazakhstan? We dismiss them. This is usually where Scottish teams make a rip-roaring arse of themselves. They can’t cope. There’s expectation on them to swot these “farmers and carpet-fitters” aside like they’re the Harlem Globetrotters of football and they can’t do it.
The teams they’re playing are fired up, this the biggest game of their season, sometimes the biggest in their respective clubs history and they’re raring to go. Meanwhile, Scottish clubs treat it like a pre-season exercise and can’t match the intensity or the drive their opponents do. The underdogs have nothing to lose – whereas the Sottish side faces humiliation and media scrutiny for months to come if they slip up. That’s exactly the same as the national team.
Aberdeen beating Groningen and disposing of Rijeka away from home, St Johnstone dumping out Rosenborg, Celtic stopping what looked to be an unstoppable Manchester City team. The pressure was not on the Scottish teams to get the results here, but they motivated themselves and went toe to toe with difficult opposition. Scottish footballers, Scottish teams and pressure do not go well together at all – our 2-2 draw with England the summer a wonderful example of such. When the Scottish team is expected to boss proceedings and take command, they can’t, and haven’t been able to do so for years. That is a serious mentality issue.
The recruitment of players in Scotland also leaves a lot to be desired. The majority of players them come from England, Ireland and occasionally overseas. There’s not many successful imports operating in the SPFL though. St Johnstone’s conquers Trakai had a very handy Brazilian running the show in the first leg causing them all sorts of bother.
Every season, pundits and players are surprised by some of the players they come up against in teams from Malta and Lithuania. Even the lowest of European leagues manage to unearth players from across the globe to play for them – a lot of which I’m willing to bet could do reasonably well in Scotland. The majority of footballers in these backwater leagues will be dreadful, but there’s some gems there that year after year give Scottish teams bother. The UK’s work permit rules make it a bit more difficult to recruit some of these guys, but we shouldn’t dismiss them and their leagues as much as we do.
Recruitment in Scotland is often uninspiring and you get the thought not much thought has gone in to some of the players clubs bring in. We shouldn’t be handing out contracts to anyone with a foreign name though (I’m looking at you, Rangers) but it would not hurt to look further afield sometimes. The players our teams do currently have though, should be good enough to get past the teams that routinely put them out.
I could go on all day about coaching in Scotland. The lack of facilities, the lack of access many youngsters have to proper football coaching as well as a complete lack of interest from the government for the national sport. I’ll keep this short though. We are not coaching players properly. We haven’t done so for decades. How far behind technically our players are to other nations is quite frankly staggering at times.
Many were surprised at how well FC Trakai played against St Johnstone, Tommy Wight even coming out and stating how much better technically the Lithuanians were. Some attributed it to them being halfway through their season and St Johnstone still being sluggish, but this happens every year. Diddy teams turn up and pundits and managers seem surprised they can actually play football, and play it reasonably well. Of course they can, these nations are getting better while we’re standing totally still, maybe even regressing. Macedonia won their European Championship Under-21 qualifying group ahead of France and Scotland – something that would be unthinkable even a few years ago. Iceland finished third in the group behind France, Scotland were second last.
I don’t know enough about football in these countries to pinpoint exactly what they’re doing differently and the success hasn’t quite transitioned over to club level yet, but they are producing players they were not before. Money has meant the gap between the game’s elite and everyone else has grown significantly, but the smaller nations are getting closer together. Ties at both club and international level which were once seen as walkovers for one team are now competitive affairs. Everyone else seems to be going forward, and we’re not going anywhere.
How do you fix all this then? How do you get rid of a deep phycological barrier and totally transform the way players are recruited and coached in Scotland? Quite frankly, I don’t know. It isn’t my job to find out. What won’t help however is Summer Football, Colt Teams, Project Brave, League Reconstruction, The Atlantic League or one set of fixtures every season being played on the moon. All of those proposals are as ridiculous as each other and none will solve the problems we currently have.
It is not Armageddon, it is not a crisis. Domestic football in Scotland is by and large fine and the national team has shown some small signs of improvement, but there has to be discussions about what we could be doing better. Starting the season in March is not the answer, but I’m beginning to think that’s all those in charge can come up with.
By Evan McFarlane (@EvanMcFarlane)