Billy is away this week so we are republishing his brilliant analysis of Henry McLeish’s recent report into Scottish football. The report was in development for over a year and was supposed to “send shockwaves through the Scottish game“. But 5 months on, and aside from the SFA getting a Facebook page, has anything changed?
The Football We Deserve
by Billy Williamson
James Curran Baxter was born in 1939 in Hill of Beath, Fife. He played 381 games for Raith Rovers, Rangers, Sunderland, Nottingham Forest, and Scotland, scoring 38 goals, including both in the 1963 win at Wembley – the stadium where, four years later, he played “keepie uppie” against the newly-crowned world champions. Baxter retired from football at the very early age of 31 and died in 2001 at the relatively early age of 61.
Slim Jim was one of the last of the true gallus Scots footballers in the tradition of Hughie Gallagher, Jimmy Johnstone, Alan Ritchie, and Chic Charnley. In the last few decades this type of player has all but disappeared from the Scottish game, with fingers being pointed at causes as varied as slum clearances, teacher strikes, and video games, and it is clear that something needs to change or Scottish football will continue its slow decline in relative world standing. In the mid-90s a famed report was commissioned by the SFA, then ignored – last year, another wide-ranging review was commissioned, with former First Minister Henry McLeish tasked to deliver the report in phases.
Henry Baird McLeish was born in the Fife mining town of Methil, 9 years later than Baxter. He scored two goals in 89 games for his hometown team between 1964 and 1969 before moving on to a career lecturing at Heriot-Watt University and then as a Member of the UK and Scottish Parliaments, culminating in his brief spell as First Minister of Scotland.
The first part of the McLeish report , released in April, focuses on talent development within the game and how we need to change the Scottish way from one largely based on luck to one that is more process based and systematic. Though McLeish and Baxter were born only 17 miles apart, the vision of talent development that McLeish has is a million miles away from how Baxter was found. While this might not be good for cabinet-making in Scotland, it should directly benefit our national sport, and with it our national health – perhaps mental as well as physical.
This represents a major project for Scottish football – indeed Scottish society – so in line with this I’ve tried to put the essence of the report into that favoured format for launching projects everywhere, the Powerpoint deck. View it below or here, and then I will cover the main points below.
It’s important to note this is only part one of McLeish’s overall brief, and the focus of here is on grassroots participation and youth development. The report unabashedly states that its goals are to broaden the base of talent – increase the number of participants at all levels, including the women’s game – and to improve the development of top talent, which means having a way to identify the promising youngsters and stream them into separate routes where the best of them receive more playing time and more intense coaching. There is a view that 10,000 hours of practice are required to create an elite athlete – which implies 3 hours a day across 10 years. That’s a lot of effort and it doesn’t happen accidentally.
(Malcolm Gladwell discussed the 10,000 hour rule in his book Outliers – see the wikipedia entry here)
The report takes as its starting point the view that as a nation we are “underperforming, underachieving, and … under-invested”. While you could make the argument that we outperformed in the 70s and 80s, and therefore what we are doing now is merely performing at our level – one could argue that 40th in the world is not that bad for a nation our size – you need to factor in that Scotland is a football nation and as the report states, “There is no other sport in Scotland where the anticipation and expectation of success can grip the nation in the way football still does.” Therefore we should be doing better than our size would indicate, because we are football-mad in a way that (say) Denmark isn’t – on any given week, up to 2% of the population pay money to enter a Scottish football ground – in Denmark, about half as many do.
Under-invested is a more interesting assumption. Relative to what? Other countries? Bigger or richer ones? Probably. Other sports? Rugby may have a nice shiny stadium for a few games a year but they’re not exactly rolling in cash at the club or grassroots level either. “The Arts”? How is it possible to even compare, say, the state of Partick Thistle against the Citizens Theatre? However, I think under-invested is a fair assumption when you look at what our facilities are versus what they could be – you still drive around Glasgow and see blaize pitches, while nationwide there are precious few all-weather facilities which might encourage participation in our chilly wee nation.
The report acknowledges that effort is being made, but it’s not producing the right level of output – i.e. a steady flow of talented players – so the conclusion is that the system is inefficient or even broken. Wisely, it suggests that replication of any one foreign model is not going to succeed – the individualistic Dutch model may not fit the Scottish mindset, the Scandinavians have more resources for facilities, the US aims for elite athletes across a wide range of sports. There needs to be a “Scottish way”, to paraphrase Christian Dailly on an entirely different topic.
The meat of the document is a long list of recommendations – 53 in all – across six areas defined as Football, Talent, Government, Facilities, Clubs, and Finance. I find the recommendations are a mixed bag: some are concise and focused (establish a National Academy of Football), while others range from non-specific to meaningless (“Within the structure of the game, we have to achieve more accountability, responsibility and transparency for youth development.”) Frankly, some of the report isn’t written very well so it’s hard to identify the high-priority items, but the key items that I can discern are discussed below.
Structural change to simplify the organisation of the grassroots game:
The main point here is to have the SFA take a more direct role in the youth game, providing coherence and transparency to what is currently a mish-mash of organisations (SSFA, SYFA, schools, club academies, SFA centres). This would be the key objective of the Performance Director who would presumably oversee the entire structure for Scottish youth football – his or her focus would be on the 11-16 age group. Also mentioned is the need to streamline these different organisations with mention of a “Community Alliance”, which sounds to me like a way of bringing these groups together in a way that minimises turf wars. Finally, the SFA have recently established a regional structure, and this would be built upon with 20 regional SFA-run academies coupled with the National Academy and better links with local government. The report could do a better job in mapping out what the end-state would look like, but I think the gist of it makes sense.
One item that is kicked down the road a bit is how to enable the best players to reach the goal of 10,000 hours of ball-work to develop into elite athletes – the suggestion is to spin off a sub-committee, which is acceptable as long as it happens and happens quickly. There is an acceptance that the world has moved on: “We cannot recreate street football but we can create the conditions to provide that level of intimacy with the ball and the developing of natural ability and skills, reinventing the benefits derived from the old game but in a modern context.” This, for me, is a killer quote: elegantly putting to rest our nostalgia for tanner ba’ players while looking forward to a future with equally-talented players who have come up through a different route.
And on that route: the concept of “Golden Pathways” is introduced, a phrase which encapsulates the basis of new thinking: Scotland needs to be comfortable with a streaming process for kids identified as high-potential (identify the “golden”) and we need to simplfy and clarify what the route is for such a child to become an elite athlete (map the “pathway”). In the past, players could be overlooked because they were not in the right catchment area for a club’s academy, or their school didn’t have a good program so there was nowhere for them to be coached, or they didn’t have the right contacts into the professional game – there were many reasons for missing out on the next Baxter. The SFA and SYFA have already developed “National Player Pathways” to adjust how kids are coached as they age, and an important addition to the idea is that Scotland needs to be comfortable treating a small number of kids as “gold dust” and giving them special treatment – we need “a new mindset within the highest levels of the game which accepts and endorses this approach.”
The report also suggests that these best practices are not football-specific, and they should be seen as a set of best practices for other sports – something few could disagree with.
The price tag attached to the report garnered some headlines – £500m over 10 years. Many people asked how we could expect to afford this, given the current state of public finances, and it’s a reasonable question. But £50m a year? £10 annually for every person in Scotland? And much of the investment is in facilities – which will mean construction jobs, maintenance work, people to operate them, coaches and the like. So maybe the politicians should look elsewhere for things to take out of budgets – replacement of the Trident nuclear missile defence has been estimated to cost up to £100 billion over 30 years – while this is something that will provide direct benefit to the nation.
Or will it? Well, McLeish posits that physical education, and more importantly physical *literacy* should be as important as basic reading, writing, and arithmetic – and if you look at Scotland’s horrendous health statistics, and the hidden costs of this national affliction, then it’s something that makes a lot of financial sense, never mind the benefits to our FIFA ranking. The NHS spends over £10 billion annually in Scotland, and is under pressure to hold down costs. A government report from February estimated obesity to cost £3 billion annually by 2030, so getting another 150,000 people engaged in regular physical exercise could make a serious dent in that cost.
One simple example: the Rangers facility at Murray Park has run sessions for kids and even those who don’t make the grade come away with a better appreciation of diet and nutrition – avoiding sugary soda drinks, for instance (or in the case of Irn Bru, encouraging them to go for the diet version). This can only be a good thing in a country with obesity and health problems that are beyond joking about.
The bulk of the £500m investment is in facilities, and here the report makes another strong point: there are many facilities already there that are massively under-utilised. Specifically, the 2700 primary and secondary schools across the land, many of which have indoor gyms and outdoor pitches which are only used between 9am and 4pm, and even then, sporadically. In my school, from October to March our PE was entirely indoors, so we had maybe 3 months of outdoor PE per year. With an all-weather pitch, and/or indoor ‘bubble’ facilities, there is no reason why these facilities couldn’t be used all week, all year.
Where the recommendations are a little less clear is on what we expect from clubs and where the finance will come from.
Professional clubs are, in effect, told to get off their arses and every one is expected to have “a youth framework and talent development program”. With the state of Scottish football’s finances today, I’d be surprised if any team doesn’t have some sort of youth program in place, but possibly the requirement is that they broaden the reach of their program from scouting (i.e. stealing good players from other clubs or schools) to development (helping to broaden the active player base and working on high-potential players). It’s not clear to me how this fits with the requirement for the SFA to work more closely with the clubs – if a player is affiliated with an SFA academy, can he or she also be affiliated with a club team? What if the club team also has an academy? Presumably the “golden pathway” concept, once fleshed out, will answer these questions.
A similar challenge that is alluded to but not directly addressed is the power structure that exists today. I see this as the single biggest obstacle to implementation: there are too many vested interests and the power structure is too diffuse. The notorious Ernie Walker/Rinus Michels report recommended a simplification of this, but we are now in a position with a third national entity (the SPL, created after the Walker report) and only a minor change to the governance of the game (the SFA board cut from 49 members to 10). Government pressure will be needed to make things happen.
Financing this will be a problem for individual clubs and overall. McLeish suggests that new sources of funding need to be developed but is less clear on what these could be. Different levels of government could and should work better with others on infrastructure investment, but that’s only going to give marginal benefits. He also discusses the successor to the Football Trust, the Football Partnership, and says its role should be expanded, but it’s not clear how.
Finding the investment will be tricky but the National Lottery claims to have raised 24 billion pounds for “good causes” since inception in 1994 – and with 16.67% of this money going to sports, that equates to £250m per year. Given London was given Wembley and an Olympics, diverting a chunk of that money to Scottish football infrastructure is an argument I hope Salmond and co. will be making.
Wayne Gretzky is perhaps the most talented ice hockey player the world has ever seen – Canada’s Jim Baxter, without the drinking? – and his father Wally famously taught him to “skate where the puck is going, not where it’s been.” In reading the report I have to ask the question: what is truly innovative? Is there anything that will put us ahead of others with regard to youth development, or are we just going to be playing catch-up, to find out that when we get where we’re going, the world has moved on?
Perhaps the only novel idea is the concept that any new system needs to ensure there is protection for the individual – a “duty of care” to young players. A recent in-depth article by the New York Times indicates that in the Ajax system, this isn’t a major concern, and it’s something that Scotland should aim to do better.
Apart from this there isn’t much that is ground-breaking – but I would argue it’s too much to expect. If we can put in place a good system and infrastructure to support it, that will be a platform for subsequent innovation – and we have to walk before we can run.
In summary, I could say that the published report is over-long, disjointed, repetitive, and lacking in focus – but having re-read it a few times I would also say it consists of little to disagree with, a lot of common sense, and a few phrases that resonate. But 15 years ago we went through a similar exercise, and, as far as anyone can tell, precisely nothing was done. If that happens again, then Scotland will definitely have the football it deserves.
Photo Credit: TGKW