Scottish Football’s Crisis of Confidence

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When Alex Ferguson was appointed Billy McNeil’s successor as Aberdeen manager in the summer of 1978 it had been thirteen years since a team outside the Old Firm were crowned champions of Scotland and the Glasgow giants had already racked up sixty seven league titles between them: their reputation as the country’s preeminent force well established.

Given the weight of historical context and the fact the 36 year old Ferguson had recently suffered the ignominy of being sacked by St Mirren; casual observers might have expected Ferguson to ease himself gently into his new position in the North East. Those who understood the psyche of the Govan-raised firebrand, however, knew better.

And so, after only a few games in charge. Ferguson included the following blistering statement of intent in his programme notes:

Having set that standard there is no way I’ll let the players drop below it. They may as well accept that fact right now because there is no way I’ll give up on my fight to get total belief in their ability to win every game, and I mean sincerely, every game. The one thing that has annoyed me all my life is the acceptance that Rangers & Celtic must win, that everything is geared around them, that nobody but nobody is expected to beat them. I played for Rangers and believe me they were not any better than the players at say, Dunfermline my previous Club but they believed they are better and this to me is the greatest challenge. I look at everything round about me and success is staring people in the face but the one thing that is lying hidden inside people’s heads is this total belief. We have it in the Beach End and that’s where we must build & develop from, right through the corridors of Pittodrie and into the dressing rooms

This wasn’t empty bravado from a new manager trying to endear himself to the initially skeptical Pittodrie faithful; Ferguson’s disregard for the normally reverential treatment of Rangers and Celtic in Scottish football was very real.

A staunch Rangers supporter in his childhood, Ferguson would later represent his heroes before exiting the club in acrimonious circumstances, with Ferguson accusing individuals at the club of forcing him out due to his wife’s Catholic faith. This perceived mistreatment not only fuelled his desire to get one over on Rangers but also altered his entire view of the Old Firm paradigm: he understood the clubs were fallible and could conceive of a world where their success wasn’t sacrosanct. His challenge was to convince those around him of the same.

A few games into his tenure the magnitude of his task became clear when after a draw at Ibrox, Ferguson was met with jubilant scenes in the Aberdeen dressing room. His anguish at witnessing such celebrations after only snatching a late point was palpable.

He set about identifying those players who didn’t have the mental toughness required to take his team to the next level; those whose ambition only extended to sneaking the odd result against the Old Firm were soon deemed surplus to requirements.  Many of old guard were moved on to be replaced by younger, hungrier players who were more willing to buy into Ferguson’s vision. A player’s mindset was given as much importance as their physical attributes in the recruitment policy.

Gradually Aberdeen transformed from a team of perennial nearly men to a group characterised by Doug Rougvie’s warm-up routine whenever the Dons visited Ibrox or Parkhead. Rougvie would conduct an outlandish set of drills right in front of the most vociferous home supporters: rampaging up and down the touchline, star jumping and heading invisible balls all the way. The message was provocative and unequivocal:  we’re Aberdeen, we’re not intimidated, we’re here to win. And win they did.

In Ferguson’s eight full seasons in charge his team won three league championships, five domestic cups and two European trophies, becoming the only non-Old Firm team to ever do the league and Scottish Cup double. As well as bringing success to Aberdeen, he also ushered in an unprecedented era of democratization – of the 24 domestic trophies contested during Ferguson’s tenure, half were won by “provincial” clubs. Aided and abetted by Jim McLean – another master of psychological conditioning – at Dundee United, Ferguson achieved what he’d set out to do eight years previously: through sheer force of character and a serious infusion of self-belief, he’d smashed through the glass ceiling and destroyed the Old Firm’s aura of invincibility.

Flash forward to the present day and the footballing landscape is almost unrecognisable. The thirty two years since Aberdeen last broke the Old Firm’s top flight hegemony represents their longest period of unbroken success in history. The contrast with those halcyon days of Scottish football is stark.

The seismic shift was initiated by the appointment of Graeme Souness as Rangers player-manager in early 1986, just a few months before Ferguson’s departure from Pittodrie. The galvanizing effect of Souness’s arrival along with a major injection of capital set in motion a period of Rangers dominance over the next decade. Celtic were spurred into action and forced to respond in kind. The decisive factor was the conversion of their previously latent fan bases into paid up season ticket holders; both sides more than doubled their average attendances in the space of a decade. The additional funds from this surge in numbers through the turnstiles along with the influx of external investment and huge revenues on offer in the new era of European competition meant the financial gulf between the Old Firm and rest widened to chasmic proportions.

In an act of supreme folly the chairmen of the other top flight clubs attempted to match the spending of the Glasgow nouveau riche. Rather than investing in training facilities and youth development which would have yielded a long term dividend, they filled their squads with second-rate expensive foreign players. The clubs were left trailing in the wake of the Glasgow clubs and many faced near financial ruin from spending so far outside their means.

The psychological hangover from trying and failing to compete with the Old Firm during this era had a profound effect on the clubs: their optimism has decimated, they were left bereft of ambition.

The mainstream media have also played a significant role in stifling expectations in boardrooms and terraces up and down the country. With a readership made up overwhelmingly of Rangers and Celtic fans, print media and television have taken the easy option of pandering to their core customers while utterly dismissing the ambitions of the other teams. Watch any Sky Sports coverage of Scottish football today and what you will see is essentially an Old Firm soap opera with the other teams reduced to the role of bit part characters who are only mentioned to further the narrative arc of the Glasgow protagonists.

There is no appetite for real competition in the media; a dip in fortunes for either of the Old Firm teams equates to loss of interest and revenue– the potential surge in interest that would arise from a compelling top flight is too risky when weighed against the guaranteed income from a perpetual Old Firm back and forth.

There is also a more pernicious element of the media which seeks to actively dismiss any emerging challenge to the status quo. Any club daring to raise their head above the parapet is cast as delusional: just look at the characterisation of Hearts’ chairman “Mad Vlad” Romanov during his side’s blistering start to the 2005/06 campaign. Instead of hailing the ambition being shown by the Tynecastle outfit, some members of the press were falling over themselves to dismiss Romanov as a fantasist for daring to challenge the natural order.

Given the financial peril so many clubs found themselves in during the recent past and the crushing negativity emanating from the media, it is easy to understand why the clubs are now so reticent to display any aspirational thinking. Nevertheless, the continued poverty of ambition from our provincial clubs is undoubtedly one of the largest factors holding back the re-invigoration of the game in this country.

The unquestioning acceptance of the Old Firm’s position of superiority comes from the false assumption that our game operates in a footballing micro-climate. The party line among the clubs which should be mounting a challenging is that disparities in revenue make a sustained title challenge impossible. The reality is that teams from across Europe have been able to overcome similar resource gaps to win their championship; the inconvenient truth is that the real impediment to Scottish clubs is their absolute paucity of ambition.

It is clear that a paradigm shift in the mindsets of the clubs, players and administrators is required if the dream of truly competitive top flight is to be become a reality.

Clubs: Develop a culture of ambition

Renowned sport psychologist Dan Abrahams believes the first thing clubs need to address is the unrelentingly conservative message they convey:

“The job of those clubs outside of Celtic & Rangers is to strive to develop a culture; a robust language and robust set of behaviours that’s much more focused around an attitude of “we can”. I think the underdog approach is short termism; it’s a protection of the clubs and the manager’s position. Clubs need to leave no stone left unturned to develop players that can compete with Celtic & Rangers. Mangers will argue that they don’t have the players to do that but it’s a chicken & egg. The question is why aren’t the organisations strong enough to create an environment that is geared towards being more competitive. The whole of Scottish football needs to be more aspirational if they want to get back on an even footing.”

Bill Beswick, the sport psychologist credited with playing an integral part in transforming FC Twente from perianal nearly men to winners of the 2010 Eredivise under Steve McClaren, agrees that clubs need to be much more forthright in stating their ambitions if they are to start eroding the dominance of the Old Firm. Beswick states “The use of the ‘underdog tactic’ is temporary. If you aim to be champions, you must shape the collective mindset to think like champions all the time – only this leads to the level of belief necessary for sustained success.”

Players: Play the game, not the opponent

Former Aberdeen midfielder Lee Richardson knows first-hand the scale of the mental barriers Scottish players face when coming up against either of the Old Firm. Richardson, who now runs his own sports psychology business, recalls looking around the Dons dressing room before the 1993 Scottish Cup final against Rangers and seeing normally confident teammates racked with excessive pre-match anxiety because of their opponents’ reputation.

Richardson is convinced that as the vast majority of current Scottish players will have grown up supporting one of the Glasgow teams during an era of unprecedented dominance, they will have an even greater inferiority complex than Richardson observed.

This deeply ingrained belief that the Old Firm have a divine right to success inevitably has an adverse effect on the self-belief of players when facing Rangers or Celtic. The ability of a player to access their peak mental performance is hindered and they take a psychological backwards step into an avoidance state of mind; conversely their Old Firm opponent is emboldened by the reputation of their team and they are able to get on the psychological front foot.

The perceived quality of players the Old Firm have at their disposal also plays a significant role in the minds of their opponents – in what psychologists term the Halo Effect. The consequence being that Old Firm players appear to Scottish opposition players to be stronger, faster and better than they actually are due to the decades of mental conditioning.

Sports psychology has the potential to reverse the detrimental effect of these combined biases. A series of individual and group exercises can be implemented to move the focus away from the perceived strength of the Old Firm and onto the processes players need to implement in order to be successful.  These methods have been shown to have a marked positive effect on the ability of teams on the continent to overcome these types of inherent inferiority complex.

Administrators: Stimulate & Promote Competition

Barry Hearn, the irrepressible sports promoter, has on several occasions in the past few years held up the mirror to Scottish football’s powerbrokers in an effort to reveal to them the ugly truth: it is their own lack of confidence which is holding them back.

Hearn is a man who lives and breathes the power of positive thinking and his assessment of the Scottish football psyche has been damning. Hearn has pointed to an air of despondency and lack of self-belief as the main factors in the top flight being unable to maximize their broadcasting and sponsorship revenues.

Hearn has urged the merits of the league to be talked up at every opportunity, even if there’s not that much to shout about. His message is resounding, “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.”

A more positive mindset alone may not be enough to bridge the current resource gap; more radical measures such as a return to splitting home gate receipts or a draft system for a better distribution of young players may be required to artificially stimulate competition. However, one thing is certain: without a systematic re-programming of the collective psyche, the Old Firm’s ultimately self-limiting position of domestic power will remain and Scottish football will be left floundering in the shallows of the modern game.