Has Scotland got lessons for England once again?

Geelong Advertiser, Wednesday 14 February 2007, p. 49.

So here we go again. Steve McLaren, the manager of the English national team is pilloried for a narrow loss to Spain in a friendly match and calls for his resignation go out from sections of the English press. The man has only been in the post for a few months, having been appointed in succession to Sven-Goran Eriksson after the World Cup in mid-2006. I wonder if the problems of English football are to be found elsewhere than in the peculiar talents of the current manager? It is said he is a first class coach, but is less effective at fielding a coherent team and tactically planning and altering its formation in the heat of battle.

It is arguable however that the problems encountered by England lie much deeper. It appears that English football has reached the position occupied by Scotland in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At that time there was a saying going round north of the border that ‘Everybody knows that a top class team requires three to five Scots in its line-up, the problem is that we have to play eleven.’ Then English club sides were dominating European competition with Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa annexing six European Cup victories in succession between 1977 and 1982. Each team had a nucleus of Scots. Names included Ken McNaught, Allan Evans, Alex Cropley and Des Bremner at Villa, Kenny Burns, Frank Gray, John McGovern, John O’Hare and Ian Wallace at Forest and Alan Hansen, Graeme Souness, Kenny Dalglish and later Steve Nicol at Liverpool.

Since 2005 English teams have begun to re-establish themselves as challengers in the top European competitions while the national side cannot break through to the very highest level. The underlying problem would appear to be that only about four or five of the current squad are of the requisite calibre. The manager unfortunately has to pick eleven. Club sides on the other hand, bolstered by skilful imports from abroad, are doing the business, sometimes, as in the case of Arsenal recently, with no English players at all.

Scotland faced exactly the same problem for the last decade but financial and other circumstances have enforced a change. A couple of years ago Rangers and Celtic had teams in which the majority of players were often imports and hence young and promising Scots were squeezed out of opportunities at the most successful clubs. The much-maligned national coach Berti Vogts was the victim of this circumstance. Earlier this season Rangers flirted with the notion of a successful foreign coach, Paul Le Guen, formerly with Lyons, who tried to revamp the playing culture of the club, only to be sacked when results were shocking and he dumped the talismanic Scottish captain Barry Ferguson. Now the balance of talent at Ibrox and Parkhead has switched back to home-grown players, not completely but significantly. With its limited pool of talent Scotland will hardly rise to the position of influence it once had in the world game, but it seems that it has turned the corner, partly as a result of conscious decision-making and partly because of financial necessities. Has Scotland got lessons for England once again?

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