Scotland must shift its focus - why rebalancing of club over country needed more than ever before

Former First Minister for Scotland Henry McLeish, whose two-part review into Scottish football was published in 2010, reflects on another failed qualifying campaign ...

The dust is beginning to settle on another failure to reach a World Cup. Five consecutive appearances from 1974 to 1990 – then everything suddenly fell apart after 1998.

We must shift the focus to shape the future if we don't want the exile to continue.

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We need a change in attitude, a change in ambition and a change in governance. My future for Scotland is seen through a very different prism to others these days.

Scotland finished their most recent campaign with a 4-1 win over Armenia in Yerevan.Scotland finished their most recent campaign with a 4-1 win over Armenia in Yerevan.
Scotland finished their most recent campaign with a 4-1 win over Armenia in Yerevan.

I would go as far as to say the focus on club is costing country.

It’s now a quarter of a century since we qualified for a World Cup. In football terms that’s a very long time. The youngest player on the pitch against Ukraine, Aaron Hickey, would not have been born at the time.

I don’t think we are learning as much as we should. The first thing I would say is that Steve Clarke deserves to be in the post. I don’t think there should be any debate about his future. We have made progress under him. But I think he will fully concede there is a lot more to be done.

We have to approach this long-term problem through a different lens. That means looking at things surrounding Steve Clarke and not trying to pin blame on him for what was a poor performance against Ukraine on a highly charged and emotional evening.

Current Scotland manager Steve Clarke.Current Scotland manager Steve Clarke.
Current Scotland manager Steve Clarke.

Over the last 24 years we have had 12 national managers. We keep changing the manager but the results don’t necessarily change. Let’s not look at the manager, who I think is a good manager, but let’s look at the wider issues.

European football has changed dramatically over the last 25 years. I don’t think we have. We need to look at an integrated approach to the Scottish national game that includes all the age groups and sexes. A new era of international football is opening up.

We need changes in the governance of the game. We need champions at the centre of the administration of football to support the international game to rebalance priorities and ambitions and to redesign the elite youth game. Progress is being made but not fast enough or improving the quality now demanded at the highest level.A rebalancing is vital. A few clubs continue to dominate the SPFL and now the SFA. As a consequence the priority being given to our youth development and the international game is not sufficient for us to become a world-class footballing nation, like Denmark and Croatia. How can Croatia with a population of 4.1 million play in a World Cup final?The timing is crucial as we enter this new era of international football, with the frequency of games and the quality demanded. Including UEFA Nations League, UEFA Championship and the World Cup, plus friendlies, nearly 40 international games have been played since 2019.

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I feel the national game is not being given the priority it deserves. You could argue that it should be the SFA’s responsibility. Yes, you would be right. But it isn't happening. My fear is that the SFA is largely being taken over by the clubs. The independence and identity of the SFA is largely being lost.

Henry McLeish feels we have to change the current landscape to succeed on the international stage.Henry McLeish feels we have to change the current landscape to succeed on the international stage.
Henry McLeish feels we have to change the current landscape to succeed on the international stage.

I would propose within the existing structure to have an Oversight board – it does not have to be independent – working with the SPFL and the SFA. It would have a bigger, more direct responsibility for the international game at every level.

That to me would be a statement about priority, about how Project Brave needs to be reinstated in a big, positive way. Part of that oversight would be looking at how we progress the pathway of young people of all ages. Creating the skill base is vital and Premiership clubs must think young and this raises the question of the number and quality of foreign players squeezing out native talent.

Project Brave is a pale shadow of what I intended and what was formally set up. Again, the influence of the clubs is too significant.

There was to be an academy structure throughout Scotland but we now only have club structures in the game.

That seems to point to the fact that clubs have too much influence on developing the international team. Their first priority is to be themselves. I understand that. But the priority then is not being given to the national side. Project Brave is in my view under-resourced and is being dismantled. Let’s remember, more than 50 per cent of all 42 clubs in Scotland do not have access to an academy of any kind.

Clubs are still absolutely crucial. But the point is, the direction of travel, the pace of travel, should be dictated by the Scottish game and not just the Scottish clubs.

As for the make-up of this so-called Oversight board. Let’s take one name for example, Craig Brown. One of the most successful Scotland managers in the post war era. Is his expertise being asked for? There are others. This would demonstrate the bigger ambition.

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I am not saying people will be identified overnight, but we should look to include people with gravitas who know the system. It would give it that credence and priority I fear is lacking now. Steve Clarke does not get the benefit. He can only work with the players available. If we want to perform on the world stage or the European stage, then we have to acknowledge that what we are doing in Scotland is simply not good enough. There should be a bigger effort by everyone to ensure the manager has more and better players currently available to him.

That is the medium to long term goal as well as making sure we do qualify in 2026 and from there onwards.

We are going to be playing international football every second month or every few months. For the sake of Scottish pride, identity and the whole Hampden Roar as it were, we need to reprioritise the national game in the context of the current game.

Without that we will still be holding our breaths in the years that lie ahead. There might be no World Cup in 2026 and beyond. Steve Clarke does not deserve that, the fans don’t deserve that.

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