Saturday, 7 July 2012

The State of the Game

I don't usually blog on a Saturday but tomorrow I plan to watch a tennis match.

Even having decided to do so I am undecided as to the topic. The admirable Nationalist blogger, Lallands Peat Worrier, posted a thoughful contribution to the constitutional debate earlier this week. It deserves a response in kind and, in time, I will try to provide it.

But, instead I'm going to post about football. And I do so prompted by a brief exchange with another courteous Nationalist, Natalie McGarry. Nat, by name and nature as she was described on Scotland Tonight,  tweeted within the last few days that she was minded to return to blogging and appealed for suggested topics. Replying instantly, I suggested "Rangers", It was meant as a joke but, on reflection, maybe it was insightful in its frivolity.

For a Country meant to be in the throws of a constitutional fervent, actual people, not internet political partisans, are much more interested in the state of our national game than they are in the state of our nation.

I'm a supporter of one of the wee teams, St Mirren. The club's main unofficial website recently asked for accounts of supporters first game. I couldn't answer that question because it was so long ago, and I was so young, that I have absolutely no recollection of the event. I've just "always" gone, to Love Street and then latterly to New Greenhill Road.

But like many supporters of their local team, I was not always constant. When I moved to Kilsyth in 1992 it all became a bit to difficult to trek back to Paisley every second Saturday and I slowly drifted away. I even, for a while, gave Clyde a wee go. But they were never "my" team and, anyway, they were rubbish, so over time I just stopped going altogether, other than on special occasions such as encounters with the Morton.

And then in 1999, one of my pals phoned to say that we really had a team worth watching again and I should make the effort to see them. And I did and they were worth the effort. "Big" (actually that is insufficient description) Mark Yardley; Junior Mendes who, if he could have been arsed, could have played for Barcelona (but rarely could be arsed) and Barry ("Basher") Lavety. What a team!

But there is one moment of that team, of that season, that I particularly remember. There were four teams in contention for promotion: Us, Falkirk, Dunfermline and Livingston. Towards the end of the season we played Livvy away midweek. It was make or break for them and they rose to the challenge and attacked from the off. There were 1500 of us packed in, in the freezing cold, at the away end and, in the second half, we were under siege. And in goal was Ludovic, "Ludo", Roy, who played a blinder.

Now, as you might have deduced from his name, Ludo was not from Paisley; indeed he was French. But while in our heads we could recognise that he was just a journeyman pro who had washed up in Paisley by accident of history, in our hearts, for that forty five minutes we believed he could as well have been born in Causeyside Street. As save after save was made an invisible bond formed between him and the fans behind his goal. And you slowly realised they were never going to score.

And, at the end, as we chanted "Ludo, Ludo" and embraced complete strangers, they were not strangers, they were Paisley folk who, even if you didn't know them directly, would certainly know somebody who knew you. And Ludo, for that moment at least, was one of us.

These better moments are what makes people so engaged in football. The game certainly but also the sense of belonging, and of common cause, and, just occasionally, sheer joy.

And I defy any supporter, of any team, not to have had a similar experience. The sort of experience that makes you excuse, or at least forget, all the dysfunctional home defeats, in steady sleet, boasting not a a singular redeeming feature; defeats that invariably end with the team booed off the park.

So, to that extent, it is no surprise that when the game in Scotland is in crisis, and be in no doubt that Rangers are as much a symptom as a cause of that crisis, everybody has an opinion. And everybody worries about what it might mean for their own team.

But crises demand leadership and the difficulty that Scottish Football is facing is that too many who are meant to provide that leadership seem concerned not with the welfare of every team but only with the welfare of one team.

For the Chief Executive of the SFA to be in a position where he consistently denegrates the product of his own association; threatens his own long standing members at the instigation of an institution which has not even, yet, applied to join; casually disregards rules and regulations; misrepresents the position of other stakeholders; asserts consequences of certain outcomes without any regard for actuality; makes hyperbolic claims of social unrest (social unrest!!!!) unless a team gets to play in the League he has chosen for them; all of these things are unacceptable. Some of them are bordering on farcical.

In consequence, however, we now find ourselves in a situation where the occupant of  a position in which trust is essential is someone of whom no-one believes a word he says.

Anybody who has read the detailed, sometimes agonised,  statements of Clubs like Stenhousemuir, or attended meetings of fans like that organised by my own club can only feel sympathy for the Directors and officials trying to balance the good of their own club, the good of Scottish football and the imperative of sporting integrity. But all of us need to decide where we stand on the basis of the true facts (it's indicative of the problem that in this context this construction is not tautological) and that can only come from a full disclosure of the position of the sponsors, particularly the television companies.

Assertions that we must simply trust those in whom we have no reason to invest trust is simply not good enough.

Mr Regan is, in the end, an employee. If any of my employees claimed that they were justified in keeping secrets from me, then they wouldn't occupy that position much beyond the end of the sentence in which they made that assertion. It's time the clubs asserted their authority and we all knew the truth.

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