With an announcement expected sometime this week regarding where Scottish football’s international games and club showpieces will be held in future, those for and against have been reiterating their stances this recently.
I feel like I should start off by nailing my colours to the mast and informing you I am against the move, with tradition and sentimentality near the bottom of the list of reasons why.
So now I’d better try and prove my point. Feel free to disagree and leave your thoughts in the comments section below, as this is possibly the second most divisive and evenly split of opinions in Scotland since the independence referendum. A Daily Record website poll asking if Hampden should remain the home of Scottish football currently stands at 45% for Yes, and 55% for no, but what this question doesn’t address, is whether that home should be at Murrayfield or not.
It’s practically indisputable that Murrayfield is the better stadium, even though it’s in Edinburgh (attach winky face emoji here, please also note I actually quite like Edinburgh as a place to visit).
It’s bigger than Hampden, is easier to get to for those unfamiliar with the city, and doesn’t have that stupid running track, which isn’t even a running track suitable for international athletics, resulting in temporary renovations being made so as to make it suitable for hosting the 2014 Commonwealth Games, around it.
According to Dominic McKay, the SRU chief operating officer, this increased capacity could benefit the SFA to the tune of £2m extra income per year, and we all know that money talks in professional sport. The SFA and SRU both stand to benefit from the move, but that extra £2m that Mr Mckay speaks of would only be generated if the games sell out.
Unless you take no notice of football whatsoever, you’ll be aware that we’re not much good at it anymore. This year’s World Cup in Russia marked the 20th anniversary of the last time Scotland qualified for a major championship. I was a fresh-faced, trim young schoolboy back then, I now sit in front of my laptop with a salt and pepper bearded chin, a bit of a beer belly and a dodgy back. My dad, who let me stay off school to watch the opening game of the 1998 World Cup match v Brazil and allowed me one of his cans of Tennent’s, is sadly no longer with us either.
A lot can happen in 20 years.
We’ve suffered at times as rugby fans over those years too, regularly watching our boys get hammered even in our own backyard, but not to these same long-standing extents. And, to put it simply, if you have a sh*t product, you can’t sell it.
Scotland’s friendly match v Costa Rica, who have actually qualified for the last two World Cups, drew a paltry attendance of 20,448 in March of this year. Even 10 years ago, with a glamour friendly against an Argentina side which included star names such as Carlos Tevez, Javiers Zannetti and Mascherano, and at time of sale a potential glimpse of the young phenom, now the legendary, Lionel Messi, could only draw 32,492 in what is regarded as Scotland’s footballing city.
UEFA have taken steps to halt these slides in attendance, and the inevitable player call-offs that occur during these meaningless, friendly internationals, by inventing the new competition the League of Nations, which will offer a chance to qualify for the next European Championships in 2020. Scotland’s opponents, due to our low standing in the current FIFA rankings, will see us come up against the likes of Israel and Albania, and with all due respect to those sides, if things don’t improve for the national team, can we realistically expect a healthy attendance at Murrayfield given the calibre of opponent? It took the upsurge in quality of Scotland’s rugby, and a healthy dose of Vern-love, for Murrayfield to sell out for the first time against Italy in the 6 Nations just last year.
Conservative Edinburgh councillor Cameron Rose, has stated “football is not the preserve of Glasgow”, which is entirely accurate, but although Glasgow does not have the monopoly on football fans, the statistics show that selling out Murrayfield would be very difficult indeed if excluding the Glasgow based clubs. According to european-football-statistics.co.uk, the average attendances for Hearts and Hibs were over 18,000 each, placing them 3rd and 4th. Aberdeen were 5th with nearly 16,000 and Dundee F.C in 6th with close to 6,000. Dundee’s city neighbours Dundee United, currently plying their trade in the second tier of Scottish football, top that league’s average with Dunfermline just behind. Both average a little over 5,000, so of the biggest clubs in and closest to the capital, it would virtually take all of their averages combined to fill Murrayfield. And as a west-cost based point of reference, Motherwell, Partick Thistle and Kilmarnock, all average roughly the same attendance figures as the Dundee teams and the Pars. How many of those fans who wish to support their nation would be prepared to travel through to Edinburgh for a midweek game and then back to their homesteads? More on that later.
At which point, best turn our attention to the elephants in the room, Rangers and Celtic. Regardless of what opinion you may have on the clubs and their supporters, they are of huge relevance and importance to this debate and Scottish football. They generate huge amounts of income for the Scottish game, via their global fan-bases which boost TV revenue, and their comparatively relative successes on the European stage, which trickles down to the rest of the clubs. Without their input, and bearing in mind how important, cold, hard cash is to professional sport, there would virtually be no product to sell, or at least no buyers for what there is to sell.
There are undeniable negatives about Old Firm fans. Hell, I kind of am one, was a big one, but the poisonous attitudes of certain factions is one of the reasons I stopped even sporadically going and my attention has swung to the generally more convivial atmosphere and attitude of fans at rugby matches, and I know of others, from the opposite side of the spectrum, who have said the same.
The spite and poison, allegedly fuelled by religion, despite the fact that Old Firm games kick off when “good” Catholics or Protestants should really be in church on a Sunday, is nothing short of a cancer on Scottish football and our society in general. But in all likelihood, particularly given that it’s a 20-year lease that the SRU have proposed for hosting the games, both the Old Firm will make the latter stages of domestic cup competitions and face-off, Cage and Travolta style, (haven’t seen that film in ages, but I remember repeat viewings on VHS and loving it’s ex-Woo-berance) with a potentially similar level of violence.
Football violence in Scotland is not the “preserve”, to semi-quote Councillor Rose, of the Old Firm, the shameful post-match scenes of the 2016 Scottish Cup final were primarily instigated by the thousands of Hibs fan who invaded the pitch, which they then ran the length of to goad the Rangers’ support, with some only stopping to assault Rangers’ players, and it was at Tynecastle where a Hearts’ supporter channelled his inner- Bruce Lee to attempt a kung-fu kick on Neil Lennon. Aberdeen fans of the 80s were also particularly notorious for their desire of a dust-up too, but the vaster swathes, and long-standing rivalry between the Old Firm, creates an added layer of unpredictability than the Edinburgh police may be accustomed to. Sure, they can handle the international festival and it’s million-odd visitors, but not many comedians, theatrical groups or performance artists attract crowds that are in opposition to each other. The likes of Billy Connolly, Noel Gallagher, Jim Jefferies and most tragically former Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell, may have been assaulted, or in Dimebag’s case worse, by a mentally ill “fan”, on-stage whilst their doing their performance, but none of that was because of the team they represent or support. The Glasgow police know the trouble-makers and potential hot-spots, hence the traditionally named at Hampden “Celtic” and “Rangers” ends, and try to ensure that the largest groups are kept apart on their way to the stadium. If those games are played at Murrayfield, it creates a much larger area to police, and raises considerable safety issues, not only for the fans, but for those wishing to use public transport between the two cities as a general means to an end. Scottish Police Federation General Secretary Calum Steele, quoted in The Herald this week, said “What might have been a policing operation that starts an hour or two before kick-off and an hour or two after the final whistle, will start several hours before the game and continue several hours after.” The SFA would be partly responsible for covering the policing issues, and the rest would be on the tax-payer, so does this represent good value for the SFA, or the Scottish Government?
It’s a damn shame that this is the truth, as most football fans are generally just fair-minded people who want to go and support their team, but all it takes is one arse to say something untoward and another arse to kick off, and a rammy can ensue. With both sets of fans involved in a many hours and miles longer than usual journey, using the same routes, and with longer times for alcohol to be imbibed, it’s a potential powderkeg.
Transport, other than the potential for disturbances, is another concern. Edinburgh council leader Adam McVey last week stated, “the stadium is just a twenty-minute journey from the airport or five minutes to Princes Street by tram”, which is all well and true, but the schedules of UEFA and the 6 Nations are very different.
I have earlier stated that Murrayfield is easy to get to, particularly for those not au-fait with the city. Generally, when I’m heading to Murrayfield, it’s a train from Queen Street, and then walk it to the stadium in the advertised 15-20 minutes, and the same back. After 6 Nations or Autumn international tests, it’s usually fairly simple to get back and well sign-posted, Glasgow trains join one queue, services to Stirling, Dundee etc. The games kick-off in the afternoon, 5:30pm at the latest, which leaves plenty of time to walk, or stumble, so there’s plenty of scope for getting home. The longest I’ve waited was probably 45mins, after leaving the Scotland v New Zealand match of 2015. It’s very well arranged, but at those times they have extra trains on, and it’s always on a weekend.
After the shambles of Silver Saturday at Haymarket station – an omni-shambles of such shambolickiness that Warriors fans vented their ire in proportions large enough that the SRU had to change the fixture schedule for next season – you have to ask how these issues have been addressed? That game was later on a Saturday night, when town centres across the country are at their busiest, yet they couldn’t handle the 10,000 or so Warriors fans that had made the short journey from west to east. Scotland’s first League of Nations match, versus the might of Albania, will be held on a Monday night with a 7:45pm kick-off, around the same time as the Edinburgh v Glasgow showcase of Silver Saturday.
Although I’ve already addressed concerns over attendances for such games, optimistically, even if just 20-25,000 Scotland fans were in attendance, which would mean a 1/3 filled cauldron of silence, how are they going to get the staff or vehicles, to transport fans to all corners of Scotland at such late times? During the week, when Scotrail staff will most likely be required to do overtime to cover these shifts, then go back to work the next day for normal hours?
Some people have argued that it makes perfect sense for there to be one national stadium, to which both sports are housed, such as Conservative MSP Graham Simpson; “surely having a national stadium in the capital does make some sense.” Those echoing those statements have cited the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, and Cardiff’s Millenium/Principality Stadium as examples, but what they neglect to address in such an argument, is that both of these capitals are also the main population base of their respective countries.
The Greater Dublin area accounts for nearly 2m of Ireland’s entire 4.8m population, and is a globally A-rated economic powerhouse, the metropolitan-district of Cardiff is home to over a million residents of Wales’ overall population of 3m.
A more relevant example may be to draw comparison with the world’s greatest international test team, the All Blacks. We house a similar populace spread and landscape, and although the All Blacks do play in stadiums across the country, their fortress, and where they play all the “big games”, is Eden Park in Auckland.
When the Lions toured in 2017, there were two games in Eden Park, sandwiched between the second test in Wellington. Auckland is to Wellington, like Glasgow is to Edinburgh: bigger due to having the more accommodating harbour in its infancy, which saw it grow, but not the capital. The population base, ergo the fan base, is bigger, which defines it’s stature as the most intimidating arena for visiting opponents.
Glasgow has proven itself to be at least on par, if not superceding, Edinburgh at being capable of hosting major sporting events. The Commonwealth Games of 2014, featuring the mega-super-white-dwarf of a star, Usain Bolt, and a world-record crowd over 2 days for the rugby 7s at Ibrox, was an unmitigated success. The Kelvin Hall has been reopened to field indoor athletics, there’s the Sir Chris Hoy velodrome, and Hampden was deemed suitable enough by UEFA to hold the finals of the then EUFA Cup, and more notably the 2002 Champions League final, in which Zinedine Zidane scored one of the greatest goals ever seen in the competition.
I started by saying I don’t want to get sentimental or nostalgic, but I’ll always remember that goal, not just because I love Zizou, but because I watched it in a student union bar in Wales, with a bunch of Madrid fans, when I should have been doing an essay. With slightly improved transport links, as Hampden really isn’t that difficult to get to, and a face-lift would it be that bad a stadium? Or is it, perhaps, just preconceived, negative opinions of Glasgow that cause fans to call it a dump? Personally, I’ve been in worse (the Wellington “Cake-Tin”, and Mestalla in Valencia, which resembles a shopping centre car-park, spring to mind).
This whole debate is, ultimately and, unsurprisingly driven by cash. The SRU will undoubtedly, make a bit off of it, but unless we know the finer details, it’s hard to see how much, fans of either sport will benefit in the long-term. Claims that the SFA only opened up the bid, in order to get a better deal for themselves, only help to strengthen the discord between boards and the stakeholders, with the least of consideration given to the most important of those who finance both sports: the fans.