Monthly Archives: January 2013

Some More Thoughts on Celtic Players’ Mind-Set

Henry Clarson’s thought provoking blog yesterday and Graeme Macpherson’s article in The Herald today have prompted me to throw my own tuppence worth into the debate.

But I need to come at my thoughts indirectly –

Our perception of a football player’s skills and abilities, and therefore his value on the transfer market, is inextricably linked to the context in which he performs.

It is not too difficult to work out why the so called better players in Scotland automatically attract lower transfer market valuations than their counterparts in England. It is often more about context than ability.

There is an interesting irony here which is worth considering. The players in Scotland most likely to attract decent bids from English Premiership clubs are the ones who have had the opportunity to show case their talent in a different context, namely the Champions League.

This season, of course, only Celtic players have had this opportunity and they have invariably risen to the challenge. No sight of the psychological problems that have plagued them elsewhere.

Yet as the aforementioned writers pointed out, these same players have struggled to perform to the same high standard when competing in domestic competitions and against so called inferior teams (on paper, at least). The suggestion by Henry Clarson is that this could be down to some kind of fear of losing to the under dogs; whereas Graeme Macpherson’s article considers the view of sports psychologist Tom Lucas, that it probably comes down to complacency and poor preparation.

Different observations. Each worthy of consideration.

But this also got me thinking about how easy it could be for potential suitors to make costly errors of judgement in the transfer market by underestimating the significance of a context judged too weak to matter, and overestimating the significance of a context judged to be the ultimate marker of a player’s worth.

The problem is that the context deemed too weak to matter in this instance is actually the one in which a player’s strength of character faces an important challenge, which can be completely missed if we focus too much on the bright lights and the bigger stage.

What I mean is that when it comes down to mental toughness – an indication of just how valuable a player actually is to a team – the ability to rise periodically to the silky smooth occasion of Champions League football is perhaps not as telling as the ability to perform regularly on the rough ground of Scottish football.

So my question is why do clubs place more weight on individuals playing well in Champions League games, for example, than they do on their sometimes faltering performances in domestic league and cup games? The answer has to be that it is all about context, and the context in question is one which has been created by the type of media hype that always wants to ask the question, ‘yes, but can they step up to our level?’

It is a smug sense of superiority that exaggerates the worth of one context over another and that distorts the perception of what matters most when judging the value of players and how well they are likely to perform.

Now, by way of tying all of these points together, I will throw another opinion into the mix – perhaps the reason why some very good Celtic players have struggled to perform to the standard we all know they are capable of in domestic games, is that they too have bought into the media hype and transfer market preferences that renders many of our domestic games of low importance when it comes to proving their calibre as the top players their Champions League forays appear to have made them.

So rather than fear of losing to the under dogs, or complacency because they should be expected to win easily, perhaps it is much more simple. Perhaps it is just a subconscious decision that they don’t have to work hard in these games, because despite their importance to the rest of us, these games don’t actually matter that much to them when viewed with one thought in mind: these are not the games on the basis of which they will earn their lucrative move to the promised land of the English Premier League.

Tagged , , , , , ,

An Unglamorous Option

In an interesting article yesterday, Michael Grant, Chief Football Writer for The Herald, wrote about English clubs pillaging the most promising talent from among the youth teams in Scotland, long before they have the opportunity to fully develop and make any real contribution to the Scottish game:

He is referring to an aggressive style of courtship that has flourished partly because of the category two ranking of compensation fees between Scottish and English clubs, allowing English clubs to entice our best young players with the promise of significantly higher earning potential, at a relatively low cost.

He goes on to suggest that upgrading cross-border compensation fees to category one between Clydesdale Bank Premier League and the Barclay’s Premier League would help address this problem, meaning that English clubs would have to pay more than twice the amount they currently pay in compensation.

That would definitely be a start and I am sure the majority of Scottish clubs would be delighted with such a move. However, it doesn’t really help the long term ambitions of Scottish football in general. How can the game in Scotland ever be improved if this unfortunate pillaging of our best young players continues, albeit with higher levels of compensation?

We are often told that one of the key solutions to the decline in Scottish football is to invest in youth development, better training facilities and academies, and so on, in order to identify and nurture the best of our talent at a young enough age.

In Henry McLeish’s 2010 Review of Scottish Football, for example, he argued that, among other things, investing more in Grassroots, Recreation and Youth Development, would be essential to addressing some of the key problems in our game:

Of course he is absolutely correct in saying this. It is an obvious place to start. And league reconstruction is an obvious one too. But you really have to wonder just how effective all of this would be as a means of improving the game in Scotland when, even with a re-categorisation of cross-border compensation fees, the aggressive pillaging of our best young talent by the wealthy elite in England is likely to continue, unabated; even more so, if the calibre were to improve again as a result of significant new investment.

Thinking up a fine array of initiatives to improve standards at youth level and above is futile if we cannot find a way of incentivising that talent to remain in Scotland. Pushing for higher compensation fees would only help in so far as it brought some additional income into the Scottish game, but it certainly wouldn’t stop our best young talent being lured down to England.

It is difficult not to be too cynical. But in a world defined by unimaginable wealth and dictated by those who are in possession of it, ignoring the advances of persuasive agents in order to continue with the less lucrative hard work you have started, is most unlikely.

Until the financial bubble bursts in English football, the game in Scotland appears destined to be an occasional provider of under-developed Scottish youths with star potential, and a regular developer of unknown foreign players, for wealthier clubs in England. Few perceive it to be anything other than that now.

It would take a deep rooted attitudinal shift to reposition the Scottish game as an attractive end in itself, rather than the means to the more financially lucrative end it has become. But it appears to be no longer obvious to anyone within the Scottish game how that shift could ever be achieved. A radically new way of thinking is required. Until then, Scottish football will remain an unglamorous option.

Tagged , , , , ,

Catholic Schools, Religious Discrimination and Racism

There has been another recent burst of interest in the problem of anti-Catholicism in Scottish society.

Opinions vary on how prevalent it is and whether it is in fact a significant problem or not. Some think it is, and believe they have evidence to that effect, whilst many others disagree.

Within the context of these discussions, the existence of state funded Catholic schools has come up again as an important talking point. Questions have been raised as to why they are funded by tax payers’ money at all, and how much of an effect they have on the enduring problem of sectarianism in Scotland.

In discussing these issues, I think it is instructive to look back for a moment, and compare the way in which Catholic schools figured in public debate at the beginning of the 1900’s, around the time of the Education Act (Scotland), and how they figure in similar debates today.

It is instructive in the sense that one of the deepest roots of today’s objections to their existence may be traceable to this earlier period, during which they took a slightly different outward form; a form that could perhaps throw some light on a question I struggled with in an earlier blog – whether sectarianism is a form of racism. The merit of understanding the answer to this question is that it would help shape the type of solutions we ought to be putting forward to eradicate this type of bigotry from society.

The common objection to the existence of Catholic schools today is that they contribute to the problem of sectarianism in Scottish society by breeding a subconscious segregation psychology at an early age based on religious differences, a situation that is made worse in the eyes of the objectors because these schools are funded by the Government.

According to 2010 figures, there were 373 state funded Catholic schools out of a total of 2,722 schools in Scotland. The Scottish Government’s position on Catholic schools is positive and supportive. The view is that they play an important part in our society and parents and pupils should have the choice to attend one if they want to. They also tend to have very high achievement records.

Despite such Government support, in his Cardinal Winning Education Lecture in 2008, Alex Salmond described the general attitude towards Catholic schools in Scotland today as one of grudging acceptance at best, and outright hostility at worst:

It is an attitude that was passionately expressed by Scottish Conservative MSP, John Lamont, during a parliamentary debate on the Offensive Behaviour and Threatening Communications Bill in 2011, in which he said that our education system was effectively the “state-sponsored conditioning of sectarian attitudes”.

In his efforts to draw a direct link between state funded Catholic schools with the problem of sectarianism in Scotland, John Lamont remarked that the resulting “segregation of our young people has brought them up to believe that the two communities should be kept separate”:

Prior to the 1872 Education Act, Catholic Schools were mainly set up and paid for by Irish immigrant communities in Scotland. It was a means of teaching Roman Catholic values and instilling a strong sense of moral discipline to those born into these impoverished communities, who may otherwise have missed out on formal education altogether.

After 1872 Catholic Schools were encouraged to integrate into the wider state system. Many decided not to do so out of concern that the values being taught would be of the wrong influence. However, the 1918 Education (Scotland) Act removed this concern by making provisions to fund Catholic State Schools in Scotland. To many sections of Scottish society, this was a controversial move.

Reflecting on the type of objections to Catholic schools around this time suggests that the concern in the early 1900’s was not the fashionably moral one we come across today of claiming that their existence leads to sectarian conditioning in children – the implication being that the existence of Catholic schools aggravates and perpetuates the problem.

Rather it was that their existence was viewed as an unwanted solution to the problem of Irish Catholic immigrants in Scotland – the implication being that Irish Catholics, with allegiance to Papal authority in Rome, were believed to be a menace to Scottish Protestantism and hence a threat to Scottish culture and to the Scottish identity. There was therefore a racist undertone to the debate.

At a meeting of the Scottish Protestant Congress on the 9th October 1923, whose purpose was to discuss the ‘Burden of Roman Catholic Schools’ and the ‘Effects of Irish Immigration’, and which was reported in the following day’s Scotsman newspaper, The Rev. Dr Mackintosh Mackay spoke of the financial burden of Catholic schools on the people of Scotland and the “progress of Romanism” as a direct consequence.

It was deemed “unfair that the education of the land should be crippled in order to maintain the education of children of an alien population”. It was reported that he could not understand the psychology of Scottish members of Parliament in passing the Bill leading to the 1918 Education Act.

At the same meeting, the Rev. Duncan Cameron spoke about ‘Protestantism’ being synonymous with ‘Scottish people’, whereas those who were coming in were faithful and loyal servants of Rome. He was concerned about Scottish people having to give up the ideals and traditions of their fathers and insisted that ‘the Scottish race had a great mission…the safeguarding of Protestantism’.

Therefore, there would appear to have been a strong link between anti-Catholic and anti-Irish prejudice at this time. The concerns about the financial burden of Catholic schools on the state were almost inseparable from concerns about the threat of Irish immigrants and their children posing a threat to Scottish Protestantism and hence the identity of the Scottish race.

How much of this early twentieth century influence still lingers in the Scottish psyche today is an interesting question and it is not altogether easy to answer. But what it clearly highlights is that the problems of religious bigotry and racism are sometimes so closely interlinked that the one cannot be properly understood without reference to the other.

Perhaps the debate about the continued existence of Catholic schools today is entirely innocent. Perhaps it is simply about the financial burden on limited Government funds in a time of economic austerity and the (tenuous) link between Catholic schools and sectarianism.

Or perhaps these are just some of the objections that tend to be given in a time of greater political correctness – and possibly without conscious intent – to mask the deep rooted cultural attitude of rejecting that which is not perceived to be of traditional Scottish stock and everything that entails.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

History, Myths and Value Systems

An article in today’s Herald reports on the decision of the Scotland Office to temporarily block the publication of certain files relating to the Scottish devolution process, with Whitehall ministers having the final say on their release. SNP MSP Jamie Hepburn describes it as “cheating Scotland of its history”:

It is unsurprising that this would happen, of course, given that the independence referendum is not that far away and there are likely to be vital pieces of information – which quiet deals were made, when and by whom, who gave away what and why – that could have an effect on how the people of Scotland vote in 2014.

One of the difficulties we have when trying to make sense of key political events today is that their causes, and reasons for occurring, may be inextricably linked to certain people and events in the past, the motives of whom, and the significance of which, are not always easy to understand.

The problem is not necessarily that we are poor at understanding occurrences in the past. Sometimes it is that we are simply unable to arrive at a true account of events because of inherent ambiguities and compelling alternative interpretations, with no means of corroborating any of the versions given.

Other times it is because the truth – as in the case cited above – has been deliberately withheld for political reasons, with lighter and more digestible accounts of events offered up to us in their place through carefully controlled press releases and media coverage.

All of which can make it difficult to fully understand why certain political decisions are being made today – or why some key ones were made in the recent past – and therefore deny us the opportunity to make informed judgements about our country’s future.

The sickening part is that it is perfectly legal for our ‘democratically elected’ Government to manage the truth in this manner on our behalf, and as a result, through the variety of institutions in which we are immersed, control the history we think we lived through in the past, and manipulate the present we believe we are experiencing today.

Almost on a daily basis we have representatives of the United Kingdom and Scottish Governments accusing each other of peddling dangerous myths about independence or otherwise and attempting to mislead the people of Scotland through their own particular slant on events.

Whilst the passage of time will help to loosen the grip of the political and economic myths we build our lives around today, we may never achieve complete transparency in these matters until it is too late for the truth to make a difference. That’s just how this country operates.

When we elect a Government, we are not simply authorising politicians to make decisions on our behalf; we are also gifting them the right to manage the truth behind those decisions. And when a Government appoints itself, as the case may be, we may find that the value systems they carve out from the truths they have been entrusted with begin to diverge from our own in drastic fashion.

In 2014, Scotland’s choice is not simply about where the ultimate seat of political and economic decision making for this country should be. It is about choosing the values that best reflect Scottish interests and the needs of the people of Scotland.

It is about choosing Scottish priorities, such as free education and welfare policies to support social justice, over Westminster ones, such as dismantling the NHS, engaging in illegal wars and keeping Trident out of harm’s way of London.

But the problem is this: these values are easily lost in the mix of dangerous myths and historical inaccuracies we are asked to accept as fact; they are easily promoted by clever rhetoric as the root cause of our economic problems and the reasons behind many of our social ills.

When you manage the truth behind political decisions, you ultimately manage the country’s value systems. And when you manage that, you are a short step away, not only from ‘cheating a country of its history’, but also depriving it of a better future.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

On Whether Sectarianism is a Form of Racism

The question of whether sectarianism is a form of racism is an important one.

Not only does it have a bearing on how we ought to understand instances of sectarian behaviour and how such instances should be dealt with from a legal point of view; it also has a bearing on the most appropriate way of managing sectarianism out of our society.

At the 2012 Festival of Politics at the Scottish Parliament, Professor Richard Finlay of Strathclyde University put forward the view that sectarianism in Scotland should indeed be regarded as a form of racism. Whilst I am not completely convinced that this is correct in all cases, I do agree that there are benefits in this position.

Firstly, it helps us break away from the narrow understanding of sectarianism in Scotland as nothing more than religious bigotry rooted in certain working class communities. In addition to this, thinking about sectarianism as a form of racism helps deliver a more accurate account of the origins of sectarianism in Scottish society.

But more importantly, understanding sectarianism this way might help bring about a structural shift in our thinking, such that instances of sectarian behaviour begin to be perceived differently, with greater social stigma attaching to them than perhaps would have been the case under popular understanding of what the term denotes:

In Scotland, sectarianism tends to be popularly understood in terms of the bitterness and hatred between two Glasgow football teams, the divisiveness and triumphalism of parades and marching bands, and the controversial existence of faith schools.

These are some of the automatic associations many of us make. However as Professor Finlay notes, the problem runs much deeper than this, and cannot be disconnected from an underlying anti-Irish sentiment which has prevailed in Scottish society for generations, particularly from the 19th century onwards.

On the other hand, Patrick Yu, Director for the Northern Ireland Council of Ethnic Minorities, has previously been on record to argue that, in Northern Ireland at least, it would be unwise to conflate issues of sectarianism and racism. His belief is that doing so would draw the courts into the wrong types of dispute, for which separate provisions already exist in law.

So is it correct to argue that sectarianism is a form of racism? Does each country have its own distinctive brand of sectarianism, with only some instances meriting description as a form of racism? Could sectarianism be a form of racism in one country, but not in another? Would that even make sense?

Or would it be more accurate to argue that there are instances of sectarian behaviour that sit outside the scope of internationally recognised definitions of racial discrimination, and therefore should merit different legal and social treatment? It is a difficult one.

Whatever the case elsewhere, there are obvious connections between Scotland’s brand of sectarianism and the racial prejudice historically displayed towards those of Irish Catholic descent living and working in this country. It has just rolled on since then, in greater or lesser degrees over the years, and taking different forms at different times.

So whilst I see the reasons behind Professor Finlay’s thinking, I am still not entirely convinced that it would be correct to say that sectarianism is a form of racism. I completely agree with the idea that it would be socially expedient to think of sectarianism in this way, if doing so helped change the way we manage instances of offensive behaviour motivated by religious hatred.

But what I also think is this – and it is why I believe we should exercise caution in seeking a closer alignment of the two – treating sectarianism as a form of racism could force a fundamental redefinition of prominent world religions that would diminish the universal nature of their core beliefs by localising them to a people, a time and place.

In addition, and perhaps more importantly, if sectarianism is in fact a form of racism, then arguably we are also holding the view that tolerating another person’s religion is the same thing as tolerating his race. We need to be careful how closely we want to tie these two concepts together –

Because not only would this seem to threaten the autonomy of religious belief with respect to race and ethnic origin; I think it could also make it very difficult to rationally debate and logically criticise belief systems promoted by other religions – as should be our right – without running the risk of making implicit criticisms and unintended negative judgements on issues of race and ethnicity.

And having built the good part of the argument on the premise that racism is inherently wrong in the first place, this could prove to be dangerous territory to wander back into.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,