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Apocalyptic exit for Scottish Clubs in Europe: A new low for the Scottish game?

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Remember the date 25th August 2011, the day that Scottish Football hit its lowest ebb in the modern era. Fans can argue that Scotland under Berti Vogts was horrendous, that Celtic in the late 80s and 90s were poor and Rangers under Le Guen, but tonight was the night that proved once and for all that Scottish Football can no longer ride on the coat tails of those glory years in the 60s and 70s.

The UEFA website in a news bulletin reporting on tonight’s games labelled tonight an apocalyptic one for Scotland as both Old Firm clubs missed out on the group stage. However I would go as far as saying that it was an apocalyptic night for Scottish Football as a whole. Of course you will have clubs outwith the Old Firm laughing at their misfortune, likewise Hibs fans laughing at Hearts efforts in Europe also, but all that mockery will hide one clear point – these clubs are supposed to be the best within Scottish Football. If they can’t beat the likes of FC Sion or NK Maribor, certainly not the best sides in the competition, then times are worrying for the Scottish game.

Four clubs entered the European competition this season from Scotland and on the 25th August 2011, Scotland had no representatives in Europe. The League of Ireland are celebrating tonight, with the news that Shamrock Rovers beat Partizan Belgrade to progress into the group stages of the Europa League.

The SPL kicked off their season early in the hope that it would give our teams much-needed match practice ahead of the start of the European campaign.

Dundee United kicked off their European adventure in Poland as they faced Slask Wroclaw on 14th July losing 1-0 on the night. A week later they crashed out of Europe after only one tie, despite scoring two early goals, the game ended 3-2 and Slack Wroclaw went through on away goals.

Rangers kicked off their Champions League qualifying campaign against Malmo FF on the 26th July at Ibrox, despite being overwhelming favourites Rangers lost 1-0 on the night and in the return leg at the Swedbank Stadion in Malmo Rangers could only draw 1-1, going out 2-1 on aggregate.

There was some good news initially for Scottish Football when Hearts kicked off their campaign against Hungarian side Paksi. The first leg in Hungary ended 1-1, but at Tynecastle the Jambos dominated proceedings winning 4-1 on the night and 5-2 on aggregate.

With Rangers dropping out of the Champions League at the first time of asking, they entered the Europa League play-off round alongside Hearts and Celtic. Rangers were drawn against Slovenian side NK Maribor and were once again favourites to progress into the group stages. Celtic were also favourites to progress after drawing FC Sion of Switzerland, while Hearts got a glamour Battle of Britain tie against Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham Hotspur, no one gave Hearts a hope in hell of progressing.

So all three remaining clubs kicked off their Europa League play-off games on the 18th August. Rangers travelled to Slovenia and despite taking the lead through Ortiz at the Ljudski vrt Stadium they proceeded to throw away two late goals as Maribor won on the night. But at least Rangers got the all important away goal.

Hearts meanwhile played host to Spurs at Tynecastle and were well and truly humped 5-0 by a Spurs side that had not kicked off their own domestic season yet. In fact Spurs never really got out of second gear against Paulo Sergio’s men. But we expected Hearts to lose – but to that extent? The result certainly showed the gulf between the English Premier League and the Scottish Premier League, with the Battle of Britain clash more of a damp squib.

Celtic, despite being drawn away from home in the first leg, had to change it to a home leg due to a clash with rivals Rangers. So Celtic played host to FC Sion at Celtic Park as they looked for another one of those famous nights in Paradise. Sadly the game was a no score bore, 0-0 on the night and the Celtic fans didn’t take kindly to such a poor performance as the team were booed off the field.

A week later and the return legs were upon the trio. Hearts were merely playing for pride now as it was mission impossible for them to even contemplate overturning the 5-0 deficit from the first leg.

Spurs themselves fielded a young Spurs side made up of reserves and emerging young talent. Both sides played some good football at times, with Hearts holding the Spurs second/third string side to a 0-0 draw.

It was a much-changed Hearts side from the one that lost heavily the week before. Early on Gordon Smith struck the Spurs bar for Hearts, but despite the odd one or two chances Spurs were on easy street with that five goal cushion. Spurs also had a penalty saved by Jamie MacDonald in the Hearts goal, after the keeper fouled Harry Kane in the box, Kane stepped up to take the resulting penalty but MacDonald made amends and denied the Spurs youngster.

In the end though, Hearts restored some Gorgie pride as they travel back to Scotland with a credible 0-0 draw, but the 5–0 drubbing handed them their P45 out of the Europa League.

Rangers – with that away goal – were for many football pundits/bloggers alike dead certs to progress. Despite having Steven Whittaker and Steven Naismith suspended and a number of other casualties, it was widely reported that Rangers would do the business, even I predicted a Rangers victory.

How wrong were we, Rangers crashed out of the competition 3-2 on aggregate after drawing 1-1 on the night. Dalibor Volas stunned the Rangers faithful when he opened the scoring for Maribor, giving Rangers a mountain to climb to win the tie. However American defender Carlos Bocanegra equalised for Rangers, his first for the club. But Rangers could not find a second goal on the night to send the tie into Extra Time, with David Healy missing a glorious chance to score when one on one with the Maribor keeper. At Full Time, the Rangers faithful booed their side of the park and who could blame them, it was a poor performance from the SPL champions, who have only won once in their last 25 games.

As for rivals Celtic, their away day hoodoo continued as they also crashed out of the Europa League 3-1 on aggregate. Daniel Majstorovic saw red after just one minute on the clock as he conceded a penalty, bringing down Guilherme Afonso in the box. Pacal Feindouno – who had been on trial at Celtic but no deal signed because of wage demands – stepped up to take the penalty and duly dispatched it past Fraser Forster.

The remainder of the first half was poor and uneventful with neither side really testing the keepers. Into the second half and that man Feindouno added a second, before Charlie Mulgrew scored a superb free kick to give Celtic a feint lifeline, needing another goal to progress. However South Korean midfielder Ki put paid to any hopes that Celtic would progress as he lost possession in the Celtic box and Giovanni Sio scored to seal Celtic’s fate and exit from the Europa League. Celtic have now only won once in their last 30 games away from home in Europe.

Celtic still have a lifeline of sorts. FC Sion fielded several players classed as ineligible by FIFA due to a transfer embargo being imposed on the Swiss side. However a Swiss court ruled against the FIFA decision and Sion promptly signed a number of players which breached FIFA rules and with the Court of Arbitration set to rule in the coming weeks, Celtic could see themselves being reinstated and awarded a 3-0 win for both legs. But given that FIFA and UEFA are based in Switzerland, and the officials not wanting to lose that tax-break offered to them by the Swiss authorities, I doubt that any such punishment would be handed down. I envisage a hefty fine and a slap on the wrist for FC Sion at the most. Even if FC Sion were kicked out of the competition, Celtic certainly don’t deserve to go through especially after the two performances against the Swiss Cup winners.

With all four Scottish clubs crashing out of Europe in August, possibly for the first time ever, Scotland’s co-efficient took a massive hammering as we plummet further into the ranks of lowly European football nations. Some fans of Celtic and Rangers are already calling for the heads of their respective managers.

SFA Chief Executive Stewart Regan was quick to comment on tonight’s debacle. The Englishman said on his twitter page: “Moaning will not deliver progress. Neither will knee-jerking. Tonight reinforces what we already knew from the McLeish report.”

“Our domestic product is poor, our national team is improving due to players playing at the highest levels, mainly in England. We need a strategic focus on reconstruction and time for performance strategy to make a difference. We will work together and we will implement a plan.”

However from the fans point of view, all we have heard is talk from the SFA. We heard from outgoing SFA President George Peat that he knew the Scottish game needed a radical change from top to bottom, when Scotland’s Under-17s lost to Cyprus and Georgia two years ago. Some five years after every Scottish Football fan and pundit knew it was declining. The tell-tale signs were evident as Scotland suffered heavy defeats under Berti Vogts tenureship, and even more glaring obvious the 2-2 draw with the Faroe Islands.

Scotland dropped to 77th in the rankings at this time and Vogts was sacked. This was the time to act, but as per usual with such bodies filled with egotistical self-centred bureaucrats they left it to the 11th hour to formulate a plan to save Scottish Football. That plan was to get shamed First Minister Henry McLeish, a man who spent five years at East Fife as a player was tasked with producing the most important document in the modern era of our game. A document that could make or break our future in the game.

We all know that the ideas within the McLeish report will take time to be implemented, if they are. But while the beaks, the clubs and the chairmen continue to argue about what’s best for Scottish Football – mainly from a financial aspect – the fans are gradually losing their love of the game. Forced out of the game by ticket prices that are not value for money, the lack of quality football on the field and jerseys being filled by second-rate primadona players earning more in a week than the average man or woman earns in a year.

There is no quick fix, but one thing is clear Scottish Football MUST revamp its whole system from youth level to the senior game. Our players are less than technically proficient, our coaches train our kids god given ability on the ball out of them moulding those or selecting those who are taller, muscular or powerful in tackles. A lack of height, slightness and skill was never a problem for the likes of Messi and many of the Barcelona youngster that are now filling the ranks of the senior side. So why do Scottish coaches enforce a training regime that gets rid of these abilities or dump players solely on the basis of their height, weight or muscle strength?

Largs has a world-class coaching system, a system that has seen the likes of Jock Stein, Sir Alex Ferguson, Walter Smith, Jose Mourinho etc walk through its doors. But why is it now failing? We can produce some top quality managers, as the number of Scots in the English top flight can testify too, but why are we not producing top quality kids like the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Belgians are? These countries have around the same population numbers as Scotland, so what do they do so differently when coaching their youths that is so lacking in the Scottish game?

The German Football Federation foresaw problems for their national side and their top clubs in Europe, and revamped it when it was needed. The SFA only saw the problems when it slapped them in the face like a wet kipper and with the SPL are still dragging their heels over revamping the whole football system in our wee country.

Yes the state of our game will not be solved solely by revamping the coaching and youth systems of our game, nor will it be solved solely by increasing the SPL to a 16 team league or getting a few more million into our game. But the cash hungry Chairmen and board members MUST look to the future and what their greed and their selfish approach to the game could cost Scottish Football and their clubs in the long run.

Scottish clubs out of Europe in August, that is bad enough. But the way things are going next year we will be lucky to have any sides in Europe in August.

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About Author

scotzine

Andy Muirhead is the Editor of Scotzine and the Scottish Football fanzine FITBA. He is the Scottish Football columnist for The Morning Star and has written for a number of other publications including ESPN, Huffington Post UK, BT Life's a Pitch and has had his work featured in the Daily Record, The Scotsman and the Daily Mail.

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