Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Scottish Football Decade: Europe

And so the decade ends. Or doesn't depending on who you believe and what patience you have to live through another thousand pub bore discussions that you hoped had run their course in 1999.

In the time honoured media tradition of such year/decade/century closing moments the Scottish Football Blog is looking back on the decade lumbered with the terrible nomenclature. Ladies and gentlemen, the "noughties."

Where better to start, in our most woeful of years, than with our European decade:

Celtic and Rangers in UEFA Cup finals. The record books will show that in this decade Scotland could boast of two European finalists. The same figure as the 1980s. In fact, in four of the six decades in which we've played European football Scottish clubs have only failed to make a final in the 1950s and 1990s. Moreover both Celtic and Rangers reached the knockout stages of the Champion's League, new ground for Scottish sides.

So the current gloom is only transitory? Well, probably not. Both those finals were in the UEFA Cup which was, by the turn of the millennium, but a pale shadow of the tournament that Dundee United came so close to picking off back in 1987. And Rangers and Celtic in the latter stages of the Champion's League are like the paupers being let into the Manor House once a year. They like what they see and they get a small slice of pie. But the gentry just want to get rid of them.

2009 probably offers a better insight into where we stand. One way or another six teams, half our top flight, set off on European trips this summer. Not one will still be there when the Christmas turkey is roasted. To cap it all Standard Liege's goalkeeper scored the goal that pushed the final nail in the coffin of our coefficient. It's not going to be easy in the twenty-tens.

There have been some highs along the way. Jimmy Calderwood's Aberdeen made it through Christmas in 2008 to serve a little reminder that there are more than two teams in Scotland. On the other hand, Aberdeen only played in Europe three teams this decade and failed to get out of even prequalifying in 2000.

Other teams had some brave performances, good results. But so often it was all too little, too late. Hibs beat AEK Athens at home but lost in extra time. A brave result but Hibs' European decade seemed to revolve around misjudged, ill fated Intertoto Cup adventures. The bad has outweighed the good.

Or Celtic with their UEFA Cup final, including the green hooped invasion of Seville, and their Champion's League knockout appearances. But what of the inability to win on the road, the debacle that was Artmedia Bratislava?

I'm not picking on those two teams. I'm saying for Hibs and Celtic, read Scottish clubs in Europe. One step forward, two massive punches in the face backwards. Success has proved illusory, mediocrity might now be seen as level to aspire to.

The truth is that UEFA have seen the future of European football and countries like Scotland are not an integral part of it. Unless the governing body is suddenly gripped by a desire to level the playing field and embrace the concept of inclusiveness then we are destined to live off crumbs.

We should, however, be able to produce more teams that are harder to beat, that can discover a game plan, stick to it and get the job done. Like most things, when we search for the answers to our European conundrum we might begin to look for answers closer to home.

Hello: Livingston, Gretna, Queen of the South and Falkirk made their European debuts. The Bairns shortlived adventure this season made them the 19th Scottish club to play in European competition. Falkirk, Queen of the South and Gretna fell at the first hurdle. Livingston got through a preliminary round before going down to Sturm Graz in the first round proper of the UEFA Cup. Proof that the romance of Europe is not easily converted into a rocketing coefficient.

Fifty years: In 2005 Hibs travelled to Germany take on Rot-Weiss Essen to mark the fiftieth anniversary of their pioneering role as the first Scottish club in Europe. Back in 1955/56 Hibs dispatched of Essen in the first round and went on to reach the semi final of the European Cup.

Two finals: Celtic in 2003 and Rangers in 2008 made the final of the UEFA Cup. After a long drought from Dundee United's appearance in the same final back in 1987 this might well be seen as a sign of some progress. Probably not much progress but desperate times call for desperate clutching of straws.

Fans: Fairly or unfairly Rangers' UEFA Cup final will be remembered by the violence that erupted on the streets of Manchester. Rangers had found some European pride and, sadly, much of it was ripped away. Tell me the rights, tell me the wrongs. The fact is mob violence is ugly, a throwback, and Rangers fans that night shamed the club and shamed Scotland.