Scottish football’s warm glow will extend to cartwheels and somersaults if England are seen off in the 150th anniversary match at Hampden Park. Success in Cyprus on Friday took Steve Clarke’s team to within touching distance of Euro 2024. Acceleration under Clarke has captured the hearts and minds of a nation.
It would be a mistake, however, to depict Clarke – an excellent manager – and his talented squad as reflective of the Scottish football scene. Clarke wants the best possible group at his disposal and can revel in the naming of nine English Premier League players in his squad for this double header. Kieran Tierney and Lewis Ferguson are plying their trade in La Liga and Serie A respectively. Half a dozen of those initially called up are based in Scotland, versus 14 from Clarke’s first contingent in the troubled times of 2019.
Where does this leave Scotland’s top flight and can it somehow cling to the coattails of the international side with any legitimacy? If it cannot, Scotland’s football authorities should be working furiously on infrastructure while everything front-facing appears so good.
Callum McGregor – who, in fairness, could play in a superior league had he any interest in leaving Celtic – was the sole Scottish Premiership representative from 16 who featured in Larnaca. This Scotland squad is laced with exports; not just Tierney and Ferguson but Jack Hendry, Aaron Hickey, Nathan Patterson, Scott McKenna, Ryan Porteous, Ryan Christie, Stuart Armstrong, Lyndon Dykes, Kenny McLean and Kevin Nisbet. Perhaps that flow towards Saudi Arabia, Brentford and so many spots in between means Scotland’s national game is justifying its existence but a scratch below the surface of some Premiership numbers makes alarming reading for anybody interested in the bigger picture.
The recent Old Firm clash at Ibrox involved 32 players. Just six – and two in Rangers colours – were Scottish. Celtic have a tried and tested transfer strategy that has made them the finest team in the country, without either the desire or the ability to coax a stable of Scots. When Ange Postecoglou’s side hosted lower-league Morton in last season’s Scottish Cup one young prospect, the Irishman Bosun Lawal, was given minutes: three of them. Rangers did give the young Englishman Johnly Yfeko a start against the same opposition in this season’s League Cup, but there was not a single Scot in their starting XI. For those who believe it is unfair to pick on Celtic and Rangers, St Mirren’s draw with Aberdeen on 27 August is a decent reference point. The Paisley club had three Scots listed out of 20 on their team sheet. Aberdeen’s six looked radical in comparison.
All of this could be swatted away if the Scottish Premiership was turning heads. Instead, embarrassment in European club competition is common. The national team’s tremendous work is an anomaly against the inauspicious quality of week-to-week business. This was also the case, of course, when Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland were making international headway in the not-so-distant past. Yet Scotland should surely take more pride in its hugely well-supported domestic game.
“In my opinion you should try to have a Scottish core in your team,” says Robbie Neilson, whose second tenure at Hearts ended in April. “They understand the game but there is also a link to the supporter base. If you were going for two players, similar players who tick the same boxes, you would go for the Scottish one but that could be really difficult.
“The challenges relate to cost. Generally the player will be under contract so you need to pay a fee, whereas most of the players brought into Scotland are free transfers. If they have done well in Scotland and are out of contract, the salary expectations become an issue because they will have English Championship interest. You will see players move from the Scottish Championship to the Premiership fairly regularly. You don’t see so many moving between Premiership teams because of these things.”
Indeed, of the 80 players who made permanent moves to the Premiership in the summer window, a mere 14 are Scottish. Between them Celtic, Rangers, Hearts and Hibs did not sign a single Scot. But should we care if Clarke continues to work his magic? Are supporters right to place results – and they do – over the nationalities of players? “It is a reflection of the league,” says Neilson. “If we want the Scottish national team at the elite level then the players need to be there.”
Dykes, of Queens Park Rangers, would hardly take offence at being excluded from that category, but the striker has served Clarke with distinction. Dykes was developed at Livingston by David Martindale, who continues to defy the odds on a minuscule budget.
“The Scottish talent is there but for a club of our size, it 100% comes down to cost,” says Martindale. “I had six Scottish players in my office over the summer and couldn’t afford one of them. If I look south I should really be going for League One players but there is no way on earth finances allow that.”
Martindale’s comment inadvertently points towards the Scottish Premiership’s level. Scotland’s national team is at its highest standing for decades. The league picture is, putting it kindly, less flattering.