By Jim Thornton:
THE inevitable and inexorable exodus of players from Ibrox probably says more about the modern breed of Scottish footballer in general than it does about the individuals directly involved in the current Rangers meltdown.
Thanks to George Eastham, Jimmy Hill, and Jean-Marc Bosman, the old maximum-wage restrictions and the retain-and-transfer system have been consigned to history. So, can we blame players for taking advantage of the benefits that have been won for them, benefits that are taken for granted in every other walk of life? Of course not. But, if the lot of our players has improved out of all recognition, is the Scottish game in general any better than it was in the bad old days? Is ‘too much too soon’ one of the reasons for the decline of Scottish teams’ performances at both international and club levels? And do our players really deserve their new-found wealth?
Before the maximum wage was done away with at the beginning of the sixties, leading players in Scotland could earn as much at Tynecastle, Easter Road or Pittodrie as they could at Ibrox or Parkhead; there was therefore little financial incentive to up sticks and move to the bright lights of Govan or Garngad. As a consequence, provincial clubs – or Muppets, as Craig Burley would call them - held on to their top players, and league and cup honours were spread around rather than going almost by default to either Celtic or Rangers. In the fifties, the decade prior to the abolition of the maximum wage, teams from outwith the Old Firm won nineteen of the thirty major trophies up for grabs, including five out of ten old-style First Division titles.
The abolition of the maximum wage enabled the Old Firm to take advantage of their financial clout and offer bigger pay packets than their provincial competitors. Following the formation of the Scottish Premier Division in 1975, home sides retained all league gate monies instead of having to share them with visiting clubs, as was previously the case. Again, the Old Firm, by virtue of their bigger grounds and supports, were the prime beneficiaries, and the gap between the wages they could offer and what other sides could pay became a chasm. The Bosman ruling in 1995 then gave players the right to leave almost at will for bigger teams and for even bigger money. In Scotland, this inevitably meant to either Rangers or Celtic.
Hearts v Auchinleck Talbot: The day a team happy just to get wages bravely knocked Talbot out of the cup.In the ten seasons up to 2011-12, with provincial clubs all but deprived of any significant transfer income and unable to retain their top performers, only six out of twenty League or Scottish Cups escaped the clutches of the Glasgow behemoths, and the SPL’s trophy engraver hasn’t had much variety in his work since Aberdeen did the business way back in season 1984-85. O tempora! O mores!
Prior to Rangers’ liquidation, an established player with either of the big two didn’t have to wonder where his next Baby Bentley was coming from. And even allowing for a bout of belt-tightening all round - Celtic included - Scott Brown still won’t have to do the matchday meeting and greeting at Parkhead to make ends meet once he’s retired – although he does have a right wee greeting face, come to think of it.
Although not on a par with their Old Firm colleagues, players at the other SPL sides nonetheless routinely take home the sort of money that the man in the street would be scared to tell his wife about. Assuming that they don’t succumb to the temptations their mammies warned them about - sorry, too late, Mrs O’Connor - they can still retire from the game with enough tucked away to see them comfortably through their declining years. They may not end up living next door to Posh and Becks, but they’ll not have to go walkies with Marvin and Bullet from The Scheme either.
Although the good times may now be about to stop rolling because of the Rangers’ debacle, the modern player has been able to earn much more in real terms than his elders and very much betters did in those far-off pre-maximum wage/Bosman days. Billy McNeill, as captain of Celtic in the 1970s, was reportedly the highest-paid player in Scotland at the time; he’s said to have earned around £15,000 a year, roughly equivalent to what a senior cabinet minister of the day trousered. Today, David Cameron’s salary as prime minister is around £142,000 a year; Allan McGregor wouldn’t get out of bed – his or anybody else’s – for that kind of money.
The standard excuse proffered by players for jumping from one club to another is that a football career is a short one, with a risk of it being curtailed because of injury. Players therefore have to follow the money if they’re to continue to live the life to which they’ve become accustomed. Blonde WAGs are expensive to run, you know. However, a successful player will start pulling in serious money in his early twenties, or even in his late teens if he’s particularly precocious. He’ll then be in high-earning mode through until his early/mid-thirties, so he has a career spanning, say, twelve to fifteen years, during which he’ll pull in more than the average working-man will earn in several lifetimes. And is the risk of a career-threatening injury really higher on the football pitch than it is down a mine or on a building site? I’m surprised PFA Scotland haven’t called for a day of action in support of their members’ working conditions. Mind you, where would they find any decent strikers?
Scotland used to be able to hold its own at international level; nobody, be it England, Spain or Germany, would come to Hampden and expect an easy ride. Nowadays, countries that didn’t even exist when Derek Riordan was thrown out of his first nightclub are miles above us in FIFA’s rankings. The rot probably set in around 1990 when Costa Rica beat us in the World Cup in Italy. Today, Costa Coffee would give us a roasting.
And our clubs’ recent record in Europe is nothing to write home about either. Like a dodgy wine, our sides don’t travel too well, do they? For every win against Inter Milan, Moscow Dynamo or Real Madrid, there’s a humping from Artmedia Bratislava, FBK Kaunus or Bohemians.
Jim McLean has banged on for years that our players get too much too soon, and that they drift into a comfort zone instead of working away to improve their game. Nobody could ever accuse him of not doing as he says when he ruled at Tannadice and his players were on miserly basic wages topped-up with chunky win bonuses. Wee Jim’s men went home with full pay pokes after they humped Terry Venables’ Barcelona, Gary Lineker et al, home and away, so there may just be something in what he says.
It would be interesting to hear what Mark Wotte, the SFA’s performance director, has to say about the attitude and mentality of Scottish players compared with their counterparts in his native Holland. There must be some Neanderthal players in the Netherlands, but they never get anywhere near their top sides. Over here, they get to play for Chelsea and Celtic, and then write a column in the Sunday Mail.
And when players who have won hee-haw in their careers can afford to write off £90,000 sports cars without losing sleep over it, what price a player who won a Scottish League title with a provincial club, reached the semi-final of the European Cup the following season, and then went on to play for Arsenal and Manchester United? Oh, and he played for Scotland sides that beat England at Wembley and Spain 6-2 at the Bernabeu. Is he retired and drawing his EBT pension in his Monaco penthouse? No, Ian Ure went to college and became a social worker when he stopped playing, and he earned more from that than he did as a footballer. And he lives in Kilmarnock, not the south of France. Like big Marvin and Bullet.