Editor’s note: This article was published on Feb 14. Since then, the SFA has appointed Alex McLeish as Scotland Manager.
Scottish Football is in a state of flux. At the time of writing there is no Manager, no Chief Executive, and no real idea or agreement from those remaining in charge as to the correct way forward. It is by no means a lost cause, however. Nor should Scotland feel sorry for itself – footballing superpowers such as Italy find themselves in a similar position. But what is going on at the Scottish Football Association (SFA), what are the next possible steps and what barriers stand in the way?
A Familiar Story for Scottish Football
The failure to qualify for yet another World Cup, led to the parting of ways of the SFA and the former manager, Gordon Strachan. In searching for a new manager, the SFA took an all-eggs-in-one-basket approach. The gambit failed when Michael O’Neill refused the organisation’s overtures, leading the to vacating of the position of Chief Executive. No Manager to lead the team, no Chief Executive to lead the organisation, and apparently no blueprint or vision for anyone new to fit in or take the reins.
The search for a new manager has hit a muddled and confused juncture since O’Neill turned down the job – but in all honesty, leaving his own country for a job with a (recently) less successful organisation, for less money as well, never seemed like a true go-er. This is all notwithstanding, is was blinkered misplaced certainty, and possibly even arrogance, that led the SFA down this road in the first place.
Since that point, numerous young, up-and-coming managers have thrown their hats into the ring. More experienced names like Alex McLeish have been touted as possible saviours and there has even been a U-turn on Malky Mackay – the current performance director previously discounted (and hardly a man with a glowing CV, from both a footballing and “personal” perspective). There are issues with hiring any or all of these options. McLeish would provide a steady hand, but only a short term fix before retirement or a bigger job comes along (McLeish had his head turned by the giant that is Birmingham City when previously in the job). Younger managers are clearly at a stage where they would surely see the role a stepping stone – and likely leave as soon as Rangers, Celtic or even Birmingham City come calling. That is if they do not follow recent managerial track records and sink. Even with a dual, mentor-mentee type arrangement the same risks would present themselves. Essentially, whether successful or not, Scotland could be in a similar position in a few years, looking for a new manager and a new way forward.
There clearly needs to be a strategic vision in place therefore. Set out by the man or woman at the top – if or when they are hired. A vision that establishes a structure to firstly trigger some success but also set in place an organisation which does not fall into turmoil if a single component or person vacates their role. The current model, while it has been in place for years, and as had some historical success, is clearly not fit for purpose.
The German Blueprint
In footballing terms Scotland need a holistic football structure. The most famous recent examples of this can be found in Germany – a football superpower with a much heralded structure and organisation invented through necessity after a dismal showing at Euro 2000. Around the same time that Germany were formulating their proposed model, a smaller and far less successful footballing nation, the minnows that were Iceland, were setting out on their own path.
The German model, in a very brief and in no way detailed nutshell, established a system whereby all top clubs were required to establish Academies within their clubs if they wished to play at the top level. This required investment and did meet some resistance, but the leadership at the top was insistent enough to establish buy in from all sides. At the same time, a related blueprint for youth development in Germany was set up which again required buy in. Fast forward to 2014, and Germany are winning the World Cup with a deep squad, playing fluid, attacking and attractive football. The squad is mainly populated by talented young players, all of whom are playing at the very top level of club football, having come through the youth ranks at clubs in Germany. They have all played alongside each other for years at various German National age groups as well and are well known and trusted by their Manager – Joachim Loew, a man who has little or no track record in club football but who is ingrained in the German National Football Model.
Can Scotland follow this model? The concept of unanimous buy in from all clubs to establish Youth Academies is a far flung dream for Scotland. Even now, finances are such that many top teams have vastly scaled back their youth set ups – indeed, even much heralded football academies like that at Forth Valley have recently wound up. The concept of getting all clubs to sign up to a model like that in Germany is in reality far-fetched, and perhaps somewhat unrealistic at this point in time without substantial investment from clubs or indeed in or from the SFA or outside bodies.
Furthermore, the concept of sacrificing for the greater good is also something which we need to be honest about. At present Celtic have more or less a monopoly on Scottish Football (a previous duopoly until Rangers went bust). Now why would Celtic, or Rangers should they build themselves back up, risk their position at the top of the tree, with a high probability of success and trophies every year for the “greater good”? Shareholders and fans simply wouldn’t buy it, notwithstanding the moral advantages. Self interest from clubs will always rule here.
Beyond Self-interest: The Icelandic Model
So what of the Icelandic model? On a basic level, educated and qualified coaches and top quality facilities, at a staggeringly high proportion per head of the population, mean that youngsters all have access to exemplary levels of training. An education and sport system is also in place which ensures that kids of all ages and abilities can access these top level, UEFA A or B level coaches, as well as state of the art indoor football pitches to mitigate against the adverse weather issues faced by their location in the North Atlantic.
Roughly 15 years before Iceland made the knockout stages at Euro 2016 and a couple of years later made the Finals of Russia 2018, the KSI was putting in place their coaching and education system. A population of 300,000, with almost 1000 highly qualified coaches and some 7 full sized indoor pitches (Scotland has 4), this small island nation now appears streets ahead of Scotland, both on the tangible “qualification” level as well as the broader youth development side.
Can Scotland take any lessons from Iceland? Again, investment would be needed from somewhere – coaches are highly qualified but are also paid by parents and clubs for their time and expertise. Similarly, communities and clubs fund the facilities also (with a bit of sponsorship thrown is as well of course). Coaches not affiliated with top clubs in Scotland are unlikely to have UEFA A or B coaching badges, with a cost of £2-3000 for these.
With regard to facilities, there has been a recent upturn in their provision in recent years which is a plus point, however again these rely on investment from outside sources. To date, no club side has invested in any such facility, never mind allowing its use to communities for free. Again, self interest and finances in Scotland dictate that even the Icelandic model, a football development model from a country which up until a couple of years ago Scotland would have considered itself superior to, seems out of reach at the present time.
Iceland’s first team were managed by a mentor-mentee arrangement with the experienced Swede, Lars Lagerback leading the way. He vacated his post, but such was the structure and system in place, his mentee Heimir Hallgrimsson (a dentist by trade) was able to step in and continue the good work already carried out.
Encouraging buy-in from Scottish clubs
The Scottish system has to change. The SFA needs strong leadership and an agreed, focussed vision to take not just the Men’s National team but the whole of Scottish Football forward. Examples are available of where different systems have worked and been implemented, Scotland must find its own way but can take inspiration from the achievements of others.
A method for achieving buy in from all clubs must be found, something that is rewarding for everyone – even if success is not immediate, if it can be proven that a few years down the line clubs will have an increased number of highly skilled young players. Such players could stay at the clubs that developed them, or be sold on for a profit, leading to further reinvestment.
Investment and sponsorship is needed, this is where the Chief Executive would earn their corn – attracting investors to the table to buy into an organic, successful vision or blueprint for success before selling this structure to prospective managers. These managers must fit the vision, not just provide a short term fix or enough inspiration and organisation to scrape a playoff place before vacating the role.
There will of course be further bumps and failures in the road but without an established and clear strategy Scotland will continue to find itself in this perpetual cycle of failure, turmoil and confusion.