Scottish football is about more than who makes the most noise, whether it be 10 in a row – or stopping 10 in a row – or the obsessions of the top league and clubs. Scottish football's deep roots reach much further than the dominant media narratives. They provide an insight into wider society, with the state of the game reflecting how healthy and vibrant Scotland is – and how we are being tested by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Scotland has 42 senior football clubs and a welter of clubs below, many of which are in a pyramid structure – including the Highland League, the Lowland League, and those in the West and East of Scotland Leagues who have morphed from the junior football world, such as Auchinleck Talbot, Kelty Hearts and Pollok.
Scottish Football's hesitant return after the first COVID-19 lockdown has seen only the Premiership resume play without crowds. Scotland's three other senior leagues have a start date of 16-17 October but there is always the possibility of further delays – the Highland League having just announced they are postponing the start of their season to 28 November, while only playing 16 instead of 32 games each.
Everyone accepts the significant risk of crowds gathering due to COVID-19 and the likely implications of full or packed houses at Celtic Park, Ibrox, Pittodrie, Easter Road and others. But, apart from the first two grounds, most stadiums across the country do not experience sell-out crowds for most games. Indeed, in the three other senior leagues – the Championship (with the exception of Hearts), Leagues One and Two – as well as all the other league set-ups, the numbers are small enough and ground capacity large enough to allow for some kind of selective, controlled return.
Scottish football cannot survive without fans – even in the top league. This is a world that has no similarity to the English Premier – the richest league in the world, awash with TV monies from Sky and BT Sports, meaning its top teams can survive without turnstile receipts. Scottish clubs have a share of income from paying fans that is one of the highest in Europe – aided by the poor TV deal football authorities negotiated. This is reinforced by the fact that Scotland is per head one of the most passionate football countries in the world (coming out way ahead of England, Italy, Spain and Germany).
All of these strains affect Scotland's smaller clubs, for whom fans are critical. Mike Mulraney, chair of Alloa Athletic, described the predicament of his club over the weekend. Like most smaller clubs, Alloa relies on regular home gates which pre-COVID could see an attendance of 1,400 at Recreation Park, bringing in £25,000 at the gate plus £3,000 in corporate dining. Describing the current situation, he said: 'Scottish football has worked very hard to prioritise its fans and their attendance at games. Statistically, we are one of the most supported leagues in Europe, and we need our fans inside grounds seeing the games. This is a huge part of Scottish football's economy and very existence'.
A week and a half ago, I ventured over the border to see how English football does it at the small club level, attending a Carlisle City v Nelson match with an impressively cheap entry price of £4 (£2 concessions). A socially-distanced crowd of 121 witnessed a dramatic, skilled contest in the FA Vase First Round with the visitors winning 5-3. This does raise the question: if this is possible in England at this scale and resource, why not in Scotland?
No-one is questioning that health, safety and caution should be at the forefront. The Scottish Government is following an understandable logic in its actions. Yet it does seem that for the leagues below the top, they are not just being unnecessarily cautious, there is actually no rationale to what they are doing. Why could small crowds not be allowed to attend matches at many of these grounds?
Take Brechin City and Forfar Athletic as examples. Brechin play at Glebe Park in front of crowds of approximately 300-400 in a ground with an official limit of 4,123, and Forfar play at Station Park and have a similar-sized home support in a ground that can take 6,777.
These clubs' importance in their communities goes beyond football. They reach out to schools, youth groups, community groups, local businesses and media, and provide a focus and reference point for people in the area. In some communities, the football club is the last standing, surviving institution with a distinct and genuine local character. Even more, it can often be the only organisation that embodies the many changes experienced by local communities such as the rise and fall of various industries, world wars and the coming of peace, and the connections of generations through the varying fortunes of the club and past triumphs they may have had.
I have been to every one of the 42 senior league grounds in Scotland and written about it in the Scottish Review. They are a fantastic array of different places with many of the smaller clubs filled with intimacy, romance, a sense of history and offering a real welcome to visitors and strangers. This feeling was multiplied several times over when, after finishing the 42, I started going to junior football grounds across the country.
At the level of the juniors, comes the added ingredients of humour, stoicism and resilience about life's knocks. The smaller the team, the stronger the thread running through the most passionate fans. At the Carlisle game, I encountered four Auchinleck Talbot fans who had made the journey just to watch live football, fully versed in Talbot's impressive history in the Junior Cup and Scottish Cup proper. Football at this scale provides a democratising local history which most things now do not – politics included.
Brechin City's chairman, Ken Ferguson, said of the state of the game: 'These are the most severely challenging times I've known, and I've been involved with Brechin City now for 30 years. We have seen the first quarter of this season be non-existent, and now we face going the next three-quarters without fans. It poses a massive challenge'. Ferguson went on: 'No club wants to stick its hand up and say "look, we won't be able to see out this season"'.
When the previous season ended prematurely, Forfar Athletic's then chairman, Ross Graham, said that taking an entire football season out 'might cost us £1,000 a week'. Despite this awful prospect, he was sanguine about it: 'We can budget for that. If there is no football next season, it will cost us £50,000, but that's not going to put Forfar under. We will find the money somewhere'.
Graham worried about the clubs in between the big clubs and his, and thought that some might go out of business. Ferguson believes that if small clubs have to bear the cost of a track and trace system, that could be the difference between surviving or not: 'The nail in the coffin for Brechin and others would be the full COVID testing procedure. If testing comes back at our level – swab-testing, not just temperature testing – then that really could be it'.
Some six months after the first lockdown, many of Scottish football's clubs are worrying about their viability. The game cannot survive indefinitely without fans; for most clubs they are the cornerstone of their financial base. This is true of the top league but even more so for the lower leagues. Alloa's Mike Mulraney views the prospect of fans not being allowed to return to grounds over the winter as a bleak one: 'It's like being allowed to open your pub while told you cannot allow anyone in. Scottish football must be one of the few industries that has to continue to trade, while having no customers'.
It is more than a game
Many people who are not football supporters will say that football is only a game – and an often highly commercial one with some clubs making huge profits. Others who call themselves football fans – particularly if following a successful club – will ask what does it matter if small clubs with tiny to non-existent margins struggle, or even fold, and may question what they offer the game.
Leaving aside that every single football club in Scotland is taking a financial hit in this pandemic, this is about much more than individual clubs struggling and about more than football. Firstly, it is about the nature of our game and how it is run. What are the criteria the football authorities are using during this pandemic? Whose interests are they looking after, and could they not look at creating some kind of solidarity fund for the smaller clubs?
In all of this, there is the big question of who the football authorities are accountable to. The Scottish Football Association (SFA), established in 1873, is a private association. It is not accountable or answerable to anyone. That used to pass uncommented upon in Scottish society, but is no longer defensible in the early 21st century.
Secondly, there is the kind of society we are. Scotland is a centralised society with political power and decision making increasingly focused in Edinburgh. This is usually told as a story about the Scottish Parliament and atrophying of local government, but is also about the retreat of a complex mosaic of local businesses and companies and the demise of a more Scottish-owned and run economy. This has left football clubs like Alloa, Brechin and Forfar as the last champions of their local communities; standing out as isolated islands in a sea of homogenisation and globalisation (obvious in football in the behemoth of the Champions League).
Scotland used to be characterised by local traditions, pride and networks of organisations, that underpinned a sense of civic identity and connection in communities up and down the land. Much has been eroded by deep-seated changes in society, culture and politics, but some of it still remains, and can be seen in the welter of voluntary and community associations and the array of football clubs which play an important role in their community, with ripples way beyond the world of football.
Graham Spiers has been inarguably the best football writer in Scotland in recent years. He is of the opinion that the entire nature of our game could be completely transformed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and we may soon lose a whole host of clubs and histories that we will never get back. Spiers comments: 'We built great ships. We once howked for the "black gold". To this day we drill for oil. Scottish football belongs among those great sagas of Scotland'.
The future well-being of Scottish football casts a mirror on how we run society, and what our priorities and values are. Do we really want to end up with a national game which is only about the top league and its predictable, stale menu, which for many is really only about the top two and their historic rivalry?
If, through the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the small clubs go the wall, it will not only have an impact on football. It will make our society less distinctive and unique – and more like everywhere else in the developed world, where young kids in Brechin and Forfar tune in even more to the Champions League and follow Barcelona or Real Madrid. In short, we will become a more bland, dull and uninteresting place. This shows the pretence of going through the democratic motions while sitting in a world of suffocating near-monopoly capitalism. The stories of Alloa, Brechin and Forfar are a weathervane for who we really are, and the threat to their survival a wake-up call to all of us to cherish what we have, what our communities and shared histories mean, and not take them for granted.