Thursday, August 25, 2011

SPL in Europe: The Worst Night of Football in the World Ever?

Things are never as bad as they seem. In 1882 The Sporting Times declared English cricket dead.

Right now England are the number one team in the world, holders of The Ashes that once symbolised their demise.

Sport has peaks and sport has troughs.

But this was a grim night for Scottish football.

So often in the past our poor European form has been given a slightly more becoming cosmetic sheen by progress made by one or both of the Old Firm.

Not tonight. With Hearts already out, Celtic lost a man, a goal and much hope within a minute against Sion. Rangers fell to the modern European curse of slipping from two competitions before August is out.

Grim indeed.

The worst ever?

Comparisons are tricky given the rejigging of these European competitions.

The 1991/92 season was hardly a roaring success. That year Rangers fell at the first hurdle to Sparta Prague in the European Cup, GKS Katowice knocked Motherwell out in the first round of the Cup Winner's Cup and Aberdeen's UEFA Cup campaign disintegrated at the first time of asking to Copenhagen's B1903.

Celtic did get past Germinal Ekeren in the first round of the UEFA Cup but there ended the dream as they lost 5-2 on aggregate to Switzerland's Neuchatel Xamax.

There would have been soul searching aplenty that year. Fan's with typewriters asking if this was the "worst ever," "the lowest of the low." Different mediums, same dire predictions.

The 1990s as a whole were hardly a picnic. The only decade since the 1960s when no Scottish team progressed to a European final.

Look at the teams from that 1991/92 season, teams from Switzerland, the old Eastern bloc, Denmark. Hardly traditional powerhouses.

Or 1994/95 when only Motherwell got through the opening round of European competition. Rangers, Aberdeen and Dundee United were sent packing by teams from Greece, Latvia and Slovakia. Motherwell won the privilege of being knocked out by Borussia Dortmund by beating a team from the Faroe Islands.

We were falling over ourselves to bemoan our lack of standing among the elite as Tottenham Hotspur steamrolled Hearts last week.

But that was never the comparison that mattered. It's results that have cropped up consistently - perhaps this year they are more concentrated - that better crystallise our decline.

Take a look at the 2009/10 season. True we had Celtic in the Europa League group stage and Rangers in the Champions League.

But by the end of that October Scottish teams had lost games - if not two-legged ties - to sides from Lichtenstein, Wales, Romania, Israel and Albania.

21 games into the 2009/10 European season our clubs (six from the SPL that season) had combined to win five games and keep two clean sheets at home.

Tonight's unseemly predicament has competition as the worst ever.

Perhaps it feels worse, combined as it is with the national team's prolonged absence from a major tournament and the general fug of financial despondency, but a night such as this is no surprise.

It's been coming a long time. Fans of clubs who have suffered this season will identify their own faults, vent their own anger, point to their own men to blame.

Surely though this is a night that hammers home the long term failings of the Scottish game.

A game that has been allowed to decline by governing bodies that have not been fit for purpose, by short term fixes, by brave words being backed up by powder puff actions, by a parochialism that allows us forget the European humiliations as the domestic season progresses.

And each season they come back to us, holding out the begging bowls and asking for just that little bit more that will make things better.

They've failed us.

It hurts. Hurts if your club have been sent home to think again before these European jamborees have even properly started.

Hurts if you take even a passing interest in Scottish football and know that part of our history that tells us we could once compete with the very best of them at this level.

But a night of doom that kills Scottish football? Hardly.

Listen to the Hearts fans at White Hart Lane tonight and be in no doubt that there's enough passion here to sustain the game in these dark hours.

Rebounding won't be easy. It's going to involve a lot of toil. There might be more nights like this along the way.

If nothing else, tonight should convince us that we need to have the patience to see through the massive structural changes that our game needs. Real action on the McLeish Report - I don't agree with it all, most of it ain't rocket science but it's a start - has to be pushed through.

We face a choice: wallow in self-pity or vow that a repeat of tonight simply won't happen in 15 years time?

The changes we need are unlikely to return us to the elite. The European game has been transformed, Scotland won't be able to redress the inequality that has cast us adrift.

But there are nations out there that we should at least be able to hold our own with.

For two decades we've struggled to do that. And results over the past twenty years as much as results this season prove that. Teams that we hadn't heard of in 1970 embarrassed us in 1991 and do so again in 2011.

There's our inspiration right there. Why can't we make the gradual improvements that other countries have made? What marks us Scots out as being singularly incapable of adapting to modern football?

The worst ever? I've heard it all before.

Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. That's just a label, a convenient shorthand to express our gloom and our disgust. When it's been bandied about before we've failed to react.

If we're similarly inactive now then our next worst night ever will be lurking just around the corner.

> 1990s facts and figures from londonhearts.com