Always darkest just before the dawn

The situation facing Rangers, and Scottish football as a whole, reminds me of time in my childhood. Staying close to the Union canal in Falkirk, there was a tunnel that stretched along a mile-and-half of the canal that was known locally – before the days of political correctness – as “The Darkie”.

The tunnel was fearsome. The further in you got, the darker it got. And just when you thought it couldn’t get any darker – it did. Yet no matter how intolerably dark it became, the speckle of light at the other end of the tunnel never appeared to be getting any closer. Because of this, I never did venture up the courage to go all the way through.

Nowadays, as part of the regeneration of the canal, “The Darkie” is a completely different experience. Well lit and highly maintained; there isn’t a summer goes by without my venturing through it with the kids on a sunny Sunday afternoon. We can only hope that the power men of Scottish football can somehow lead our game to a similar place of light and safety.

To do so, though, is going to take something of an epiphany. A eureka moment when they realise that the doomsday scenario facing the game is not all of Rangers’ doing. Too many, indeed all, of the major clubs in our game have been ignoring its deteriorating health for some time – and it is time to seriously rewrite the way our game is ran. Primarily, they have to realise that for too long, Scottish football has ignored the key element of our and any countries game: the fans.

It was Billy Connolly who, inadvertently, made me think that our game had serious issues to address. As part of his “World Tour…” series he visited Belfast and was visiting the famous, although in serious demise, Harland & Wolff shipyard in the city. Connolly himself had worked on the shipyards in Govan, and he looked genuinely sad at the apparent fate of his former trade. “The thing is”, he bemoaned, “once you’ve lost it for a generation – it’s gone forever”. He’s right – and the same scenario is facing our game. In fact, it may already be too late.  

I once quizzed a good friend of mine, who is around nine years younger than me, what his footballing experience as a youth was. How did he watch football? His answer? “On Sky”. Did he ever feel the need to go out and take in a game? “No. Why should I when there is football on the telly”.

Compared to my own experience of growing up in the 80s, it couldn’t be any different. There are only nine years separating our teenage years, but in that short time the way of watching football had changed so dramatically that he felt absolutely no inclination to take in a game. My fear is none of the people running our game have recognised this.

My youth is one of getting highlights of Rangers games on Sportscene and Scotsport. The only live games screened we’re cup finals and the occasional very important European game. So if I wanted to see the Rangers, I had to be pro-active about it.

Also there were no distractions from other countries. There was no access to English football – bar highlights of one game on Sportscene – there was no access to La Liga and Lionel Messi, Xavi and Iniesta. So the only real source to see live football, to live it and breath it, was to go for yourself. And we did – in our thousands.

My memories of going to Tannadice, Tynecastle, Easter Rd…etc in the late 80s and early 90s are ones of games being complete sell-outs. Ones where there were names drawn out of a hat to see who was lucky enough to board your local supporters bus on matchday. We had a thriving game at one stage – and lost it.

Because of that negligence we now have the current scenario where chairman of SPL clubs are fearful of a SPL without Rangers. Their own fan base has been turned off over the last 20 years and, like Connolly’s realisation about the shipyards, they are aware that they could have lost them for good – and cannot rely on them in their moment of need.

The confirmation of our demising game is there when you look at the three stadiums in Glasgow. Once three behemoths, they now hold a combined capacity that would not be far off what Hampden alone could hold 40 odd years ago. The fans have been turning their backs on our game for generations without any real attempt to address the situation, but the last 20 years is where the serious crimes have been committed.  

Our governing bodies and chairmen have failed to recognise a richer social environment, where kids and families have far more options open to them for entertainment. They have failed to recognise that we have a £3 billion league over the border to us, and TV access to La Liga, the Bundasliga and Serie A – all for a relatively cheap price and in the comfort of our own home.

Rather than recognise the changing environment and aggressively challenge it, they have gone the other way. They have taken the TV money and put the price of attending football in this country at an unacceptable and unrealistic bracket, which has turned fans away in droves.  And now they are reaping what they have sewed: a poor, over priced product with low attendances, overpaid players and a struggling national side.

The current scenario was only narrowly avoided a few years ago when the Sky TV deal fell through. The laughable SPL TV notion was banded about before Setanta arrived with a much lower offer, but it was enough to stave of financial meltdown. Setanta, however, paid a heavy price for getting involved.

Failure to recognise the changing landscape and arrogantly assuming that fans would simply turn up out of blind loyalty is a major factor in all of this – and every club is guilty of it, including our own. Attendances have been dwindling for years without anyone paying a blind bit of notice. Why? Because as long as Rangers, Celtic and the TV money were there, there was a three pronged bar-stool strong enough to sustain the rest. Not anymore, and nobody knows how to handle the situation.

But perhaps this is what the game needed: a wakeup call that will address the wider issues facing football in this country today. I’m all up for competitiveness, but the deep divisions that Rangers have inadvertently exposed in all of this are worrying to say the least, and it needs addressed. I love my club, but I recognise that without the platform of the wider Scottish game they would have no platform on which to perform. More supporters and clubs also need to appreciate that.

All of this is a mess that may take years to reconcile. The healing process for Rangers alone could take, in my opinion, up to a decade. But if the club, and the game as a whole, comes out of it stronger, then it was a process worth going through because the fact is that our game has been heading for this car crash for years – it’s just the manner of it that is surprising.

Thirty years ago, the tunnel known as The Darkie was a dark, damp inhospitable and almost hostile place to go to – and people stayed away. Now, with some well thought out regeneration, it is a well lit, welcoming and vibrant tourist attraction. Salvation is always possible – even for the most lost of causes. 

Colin Armstrong was born in Govan but now resides in Falkirk with his wife and two children.

He was a season ticket holder for ten years and still regularly takes a seat in the Govan Stand.

He is a former columnist for the Rangers News and matchday programme and contributed to the book Ten Days That Shook Rangers.

He has written for other publications including When Saturday Comes. You can follow him on Twitter @moonman1873

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