Scottish Football: Defeated by ineptitude before a ball is kicked

Not since Gerald Ratner chose the unusual sales pitch of calling his jewellery ‘crap’ has anyone adopted such a downbeat marketing strategy as Neil Doncaster and the SPFL. From the moment he wailed “financial armageddon” at the liquidation of Rangers in 2012 he has failed to produce anything resembling a strategy or indeed anything positive. Until of course his renewed, feeble mantra this week of repeating the clichés of ‘old firm game’ and ‘box office’ in every interview and a bunch of platitudes about ‘big names’ like Brendan Rodgers and Joey Barton belying the fact that these are two people who made their names in England and he’s actually heard of them.

It doesn’t take a fictional marketing mastermind like Don Draper to point Scottish football administrators in the right direction. They had the real thing tell them in explicit terms when snooker, darts and boxing kingpin Barry Hearn spoke at the SFA convention in December 2014 Here was a man who knows more than most about talking up sporting events of dubious quality and making them a spectacle. The decision makers of the SPFL took this advice and seem to have largely failed to do anything with it.

Hearn understood that Scotland had an inferiority complex exacerbated by playing over the border from the self-styled ‘greatest league in the world’ but that there was no point in bemoaning the fact that New Douglas Park would never be Old Trafford. “You’ve got to grow. You’ve got to be positive. You can’t expect people to take you seriously if you don’t take yourself seriously. If you live in everyone’s shadow then you never come out of that shadow,”

None of this is to suggest that there is nothing wrong with Scottish football that a better presentation and marketing strategy wouldn’t sort. Of course there is plenty needing fixed from the grassroots up but bemoaning what is lacking rather than a strategy of making the very best of what we do have just cheapens and demeans the sport further.

One of the primary factors for the lack of direction from Doncaster and others in positions of power is that they view Scottish football in simplistic terms, as a pantomime with the twin ugly sisters of the Old Firm the only stars that matter. Devoid of one of them for regular performances their cluelessness and inactivity became all the more acute.

Their sole tactic was just to wait for the next blockbuster to come to town, in the meantime failing to advertise the other performances and putting them on at all kinds of strange, early times inconvenient to their loyal, paying customer.

Neil Doncaster, then SPL Chief Executive and Stewart Reagan Chief Executive of the SFA were the undynamic duo of boys who cried wolf and foresaw the end of days when Rangers went into financial freefall. This proved baseless fearmongering. Arguably the only team who lost out in income and sporting interest as a result of Rangers absence was Celtic. Average attendances have risen fairly significantly at all the east coast clubs and several clubs became debt free during Rangers climb from the bottom.

The on the pitch facts are even more rosy: since Rangers financial problems started to fatally hamper them in the 2011–12 season there have been 10 major cup finals with nine different winners. Aberdeen, Kilmarnock and St Mirren won their first trophies for a couple of decades, Hibernian won the Scottish Cup for the first time since Charlie Chaplin had a paper round and St Johnstone, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Ross County won major honours for the first time in their history. That all seems like something you can sell as a lot more competitive and interesting than the annual two horse old firm gallop.

There has been some truly attractive football played by many of these cup winning sides but even the quality isn’t the fundamental issue here, it’s the competitiveness and the entertainment. As Barry Hearn said: “you don’t have to be the best in the world to be entertaining: I put on fights that are not good sometimes, but they’re entertaining. On Saturday, I’ve got eight lightweights. None will win the world title, but they’ll all be brilliant fights because they’ll be kids going for it and everyone will go home happy.”

It is that involvement in attending games, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, groups of mates, the excitement and passion of having your own team and actually seeing them in the flesh that watching the English Premiership or La Liga on Sky cannot replicate or replace.

Despite growing up in the north east my stepson’s main interaction with football was supporting Man United watching the English Premiership on Sky Sports until aged 11 when I first took him to Pittodrie. Immediately after his first game he said “I thought I’d have to lie or exaggerate and say Aberdeen were good and they’d be crap, but they actually really were pretty good”. Since then he’s given up his armchair support for Man United and embraced the whole match going experience.

We’ve seen some great games, some mediocre games and some rubbish games, many while we could have stayed in and watched televised English or Spanish games that would have offered the world’s most talented and expensive players. Champions League football was on the night Jonny Hayes scored a world class goal to beat Celtic at Pittodrie in February but we wouldn’t have swapped any of this priceless real world experience and interaction for some stylised facsimile however well packaged.

It this camaraderie, passion and enthusiasm that the men in suits at the SPFL do not understand because although they are paid to represent it, it is not their world. It is why hundreds of thousands of football fans in Scotland are looking forward to this weekend’s domestic kick off with an enthusiasm the bureaucrats running the game can probably only muster for another three course meal on expenses at the Rogano.

There has undoubtedly always been a disconnect between the fans and the blazers who run the game but it has surely never been as wide as the gulf between the vigour of the fans and the flaccid, directionless bureaucracy epitomised by Doncaster, a man with an unparalleled record of ineptitude. His cynical lack of belief in the sport he represents could exceeds even Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic, as he seems to know neither the price nor the value of anything.