Scottish football, a Jurassic world where ancient species thrive

Kevin McKenna
Hamilton Academical at home to Rangers
Hamilton Academical take on Rangers on the artificial pitch at New Douglas Park. Photograph: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

A new form of football seems to have evolved in Scotland during our 20 years of wandering in the game’s wilderness.

On closer scrutiny, it bears curious similarities to some of those recently discovered islands in the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific which are found to have sprouted their own unique ecosystems. In these places some of the accepted norms of biological science appear to have been happily defied in the passing of millennia. The passage of time, though, is no match for David Attenborough and his camera crew – and these remote islands, like all living things, must eventually succumb to the great TV explorer when he rocks up for a wee look.

As he enters his tenth decade on planet Earth, Attenborough could fill his Dubarrys with the way football in Scotland has regressed into a kind of Jurassic form of the beautiful game. Exotic species, once considered extinct, are flourishing. Ancient behaviours, formerly associated with a more savage era, are thriving. It’s as if our two decades in international exile have left us untouched by progressive developments elsewhere.

I now encounter a degree of disorientation when I settle down to watch another World Cup or European Championship. It’s got to the stage where the television companies ought to consider screening a special tournament guide for viewers in Scotland to inform us of developments that seem to have passed us by.

We would get to discover that tackles from behind have been banned in the outside world and that attempts to maim and cause life-changing injuries can be met with an instant red card. After this we can better appreciate why skilful players are free to display their artistry unhindered by the fear of being stookied by the hulking Rabs and Tams who are still permitted to maraud hither and thon across the killing fields of Scottish football. We would also find out that international football is played on smooth, natural surfaces made of grass, having dispensed with the cheap experiment of plastic pitches.

Just as Scottish footballers have become an extinct species at these international gatherings, so have Scottish referees. Very soon a scientific study will evaluate early career mortality rates among players who have suffered prolonged exposure to Scottish football surfaces, tactics and refs. Reports of missing limbs, scalpings and testicular violation will be studied.

In Scottish football’s so-called elite professional league, a quarter of the clubs are permitted to use artificial surfaces. Nor are these the artificial, hybrid surfaces on which clubs in the outside world fuse nature and science to pleasing effect. Oh no; these are Scottish artificial surfaces, which after exposure to a single weather cycle begin to resemble the carpets in a facility for abandoned dogs. All attempts at recruiting skilful overseas footballers and adopting an expansive ground-based game are rendered useless. Lacking an artificial surface of their own, the club who currently occupy second place in Scotland’s elite league have taken to keeping the grass deliberately long to inhibit the progress of skilful players.

In football’s developed world (basically every country furth of Scotland), players know that to make a challenge that endangers an opponent will result in instant dismissal. In Scotland there often has to be blood, brain tissue or exposed internal organs before a ref considers the ultimate sanction.

Scottish clubs participating in European tournaments are put at an immediate disadvantage. In the 1960s and 1970s, when even the most sophisticated teams had their on-field assassins and hatchetmen, Scottish clubs regularly held their own and reached the latter stages. The best Scottish clubs, having had to devise a strategy for most of the year principally aimed at handling an SAS training course, now find they are literally playing a different game with different rules.

Scottish football commentators choose to reach for the excuse that our game can’t compete with the money available in Europe’s big five leagues. This isn’t the problem though. Our clubs and players can’t compete with ordinary teams in the 40-odd other leagues below England, Germany, Italy, Spain and France. Some of the top European clubs and agents have been attracted by Celtic’s reputation for successfully developing young overseas talent. But they have to weigh up the risks of their prodigies being exposed to an exceedingly primitive form of the game.

European football’s governing body Uefa still harbours a residual fondness for Scotland’s pioneering role in developing the game. Thus, they have gone to extraordinary lengths to make their flagship international tournament, the European Championship, so easy to reach that even Scotland could catch a bus to it. Scotland still keep missing it. For 2020 they have devised a complicated system that virtually ensures qualification for any country whose players can successfully tie their own bootlaces. Predictably, Scotland are making it into an ordeal, as demonstrated by last month’s abject defeat to Israel, ranked 91 in the world.

Before tonight’s game in Albania, nine players were unavailable for selection. Only a few of them were injured. There seems to be a dawning realisation among some Scottish footballers that, in terms of their careers, representing your country can be bad for your health. Those of us forced to watch Scottish football every week came to that realisation a long time ago.

• Kevin McKenna is an Observer columnist