Scottish football holds itself back with constant comparisons to England

Scottish football holds itself back with constant comparisons to England

By Stefan Bienkowski

Trolls are often best ignored. They tend to feast off attention and even when a good Samaritan comes along to set them straight it doesn’t take long before they realise that reasoning and common sense rarely take much effect.


We can all probably name a few. If you’re an avid user of Twitter or online forums then you’ll have a shortlist of names that routinely darken the door to your weekly or even daily catch up on what’s going on around the globe. And in some cases, these trolls even pop up in the real, physical world and seem almost unavoidable.


The most recent example of this was Joey Barton. Ex-footballers have a habit of talking in cliches and offering insight a mile wide and an inch thick, but in certain cases, they can also seek an audience with outlandish comments. And in the case of the talkSPORT talking head, there may even be suggestions that such remarks and comments seek to compensate for a playing career that never truly reached the heights it had once promised.


Often wondered while working in Scotland if this is partially why many Scots are ambivalent about their country’s football. Not many nations around the world have to listen to pundits in a different football nation talking disparagingly like this.

— Derek Rae (@RaeComm) March 19, 2018


We’d rather not dwell on what Barton said about Scottish football. You’ve almost certainly already watched or listened to his clumsy, inaccurate tirade about our national game and if you haven’t a quick google or Twitter search shouldn’t take too long. No, what really intrigues and depresses in equal measure was the response to it.


Naturally, football fans of all colours and creeds from across Scotland flocked to the source and berated Barton. Most highlighted his short-lived tenure at Rangers as evidence that his own struggles in Scottish football negate his criticisms, before all-out war broke out between English and Scottish fans arguing over resources, empty stands and whether or not Celtic, Rangers or just about any Scottish club would break in to the Premier League’s top four if they had billions to play with.


Unfortunately, despite the honest intentions, this was all entirely pointless. And in many ways sums up the huge problem that Scottish football has faced since day one and still struggles with in 2018: we always compare ourselves to England.


Of course, it’s almost inevitable in the current environment. TalkSPORT, the company Barton works for, is broadcast across the United Kingdom’s radio waves, meaning it doesn’t stop at Carlisle and suddenly changes its perspective. Like the BBC 5live, these broadcasters serve a British Isles-wide audience but are very much focused on English football.



Similarly, our TV companies are set up in a similar manner. Despite the outstanding work done by the Scottish teams at BT Sports and Sky Sports – and the huge amount of money they pump into the Scottish game – they too are dictated to by London’s need to cover English football first and foremost. Even Scotland’s two largest newspapers – the Scottish Sun and Daily Record – can’t help but pepper their football sections with articles about the Premier League.


Indeed, Scottish football must be the only national league in Europe – or perhaps the world – that has its own games broadcasted to it by companies based in another country that are naturally more inclined to focus on their own, bigger markets. And as such Scottish and English football are wedded together in this disparaging arrangement.


There are of course some outliers to this. BBC Scotland and Clyde 1 cover Scottish football with rich, adoring exclusivity and rarely find themselves harping on about Manchester United or Arsene Wenger. Yet it’s worth noting that these pockets of coverage that are insulated from coverage of the English game are indeed exactly that: rare exceptions.


This isn’t a rant about the media makeup of Scottish football. At least, it shouldn’t be. Instead, it ought to highlight a moment that underlines our nation’s inclination to compare ourselves to a far larger neighbour. This isn’t a critique of England, but rather Scotland’s historical, ill-advised outlook at the world.


Scottish football will never be as big as English football. It simply can’t. And despite notable moments throughout our history that have seen us pip English teams to European Cups or best their national side, it has never been a comparison that has ever ended well for our own impression of what we have accomplished.


Instead of watching the glistening, gold-encrusted and somewhat soulless Premier League only to then turn our noses up at St Johnstone v Hibernian, we should instead be noting how well the Scottish Premiership compares to European nations of similar size and scope.


Although we all like to lament the state of Scottish football and the pitiful performances of our teams in Europe each season, when was the last time anyone took stock of how well a country the size of Scotland should actually be doing?



Taking every winner of UEFA competitions since 1954 and then dividing each nation or state’s achievements by their population we get a graph like the one shown above. Which, unequivocally, shows Scottish football not only punching well beyond the capacity of similar-sized countries like Finland, Denmark, Slovenia or indeed Ireland but actually doing better than European heavyweights like Germany, France and Belgium whilst on an equal footing with our dear neighbours, England.


When we broaden the context of the debate to the whole of European football we can see that Scottish football isn’t a graveyard but in actual fact a rich tapestry of achievements throughout the past 70 years of continental football. And one that has continued on in the modern age with UEFA Cup finals in 2003 and 2008, as well as a continued presence in the Champions League and Europa League.


The popularity of Celtic and Rangers over the world is often chalked up as expats clinging on to their past, but little is ever made of the way clubs like Aberdeen, Dundee or Dundee United and both Hibernian and Hearts are revered across Europe. Ask a German to name a football club in Denmark and they’d need a moment to think about. Ask them to name a Scottish club and they’d have five lined up before you could finish your question.


Did you know that the SPFL’s current TV deal is the sixth highest growing in European football? Or that only nine countries across the whole of Europe have a fanbase that pumps more money into gate receipts than fans across Scotland? And that Scottish football can lay claim to the highest average attendance per capita in Europe?


You probably did know about the first one. But the rest are rarely reported or indeed given the opportunity to be celebrated by Scottish football fans. What use is there in marvelling at a league of clubs that not only continue to punch above their weight when your eyes are glued to Super Sunday each and every week and unknowingly subscribe to the concept that football only begun in 1992?


There is plenty wrong with Scottish football. And let’s be honest: we can hardly stand each other. But instead of trying to fix or contextualize these problems against the backdrop of English football we should instead look across the continent for solutions. And whilst there we might notice that our little league has plenty to be admired.


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