HAS FOOTBALL CHANGED FOR THE BETTER OVER THE LAST 35 YEARS?

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This article is designed to ask if the changes in football have made the game more entertaining; read on as football memories are shared including fans and players’ views.

Football childhood

The date was Wednesday 17 September 1986 and I had an added feeling of excitement as I put my Glasgow Rangers shirt on after school. The reason was, I’d finally convinced my dad to take me to a game that night.

There were a few reasons I wanted to see Rangers play; I had started supporting them as most of my friends in my primary school class did, I watched them on tv every week, I had a team poster on my bedroom wall and also my favourite Scottish player Davie Cooper played for them.

Rangers were playing Ilves Tampere in the UEFA cup. We went up in the supporter’s bus and stood in the terraced enclosure. I remember feeling frightened, as if I was standing in the middle of giants and it seemed like everyone was chanting angrily.

My hero Super Cooper had a hand in three of the goals, as Rangers ran out 4-0 winners, but as I came off the bus at the end of the night, I had a feeling of disappointment. Ibrox wasn’t the place I’d imagined and I didn’t get to see much of the game.

My dad took me to some of his beloved Kilmarnock games at Rugby Park the following season, I felt safer in a main stand seat and started to learn about the players. As the 1988-89 season approached, I pledged my allegiance to Killie and wanted to go everywhere to see them.

As the first game of the Scottish First Division 1988-89 season kicked off between Queen of the South and Kilmarnock at Palmerston Park, Dumfries; I looked around the stadium. I was full of exuberance as I took in the atmosphere, it felt like I had made the right choice.

The game ended in a 2-2 draw and my ticket to the lifetime rollercoaster of being a Kilmarnock fan had been well and truly purchased.

In the same season I remember watching live on TV as Michael Thomas scored an unbelievable last-minute winner for Arsenal at Anfield, pipping Liverpool to the title on goal difference in a brilliant climax to the English First Division (English Premier League as it’s now known). I also remember watching the Hillsborough disaster unfold on TV, memories that will last a lifetime.

Back in Scotland, big spenders Rangers were the force to be reckoned with as they stylishly won the Premier league, in what would be the first of nine in a row.

In the First Division, me and my dad had again travelled to Dumfries for the penultimate game of that season. Queens had already been relegated and the other relegation spot could be taken by either Kilmarnock or Clyde.

If Clyde were to win their home match against St Johnstone by one goal, Kilmarnock needed to win by six goals to stay in the league. After a swashbuckling display of attacking football Kilmarnock won the game 6-0, leaving fans wondering why they were in the lower echelons of the First Division that season and not challenging for promotion at the other end of the table.

After the match, proud Kilmarnock fans swarmed onto the pitch thinking they had done the unthinkable. Me and my dad were amongst them, as horrible news of Clyde scoring a second goal in injury time filtered through. The mood between the Kilmarnock fans changed from ecstasy to agony, as the stadium announcer declared the full-time results, confirming a 2-0 winning margin for Clyde.

The journey home was a sombre one and I couldn’t understand why Kilmarnock fans were throwing their scarves onto the side of the road after such a brilliant performance. I vowed from that day on Killie would be my team.

I was lucky enough to speak to Kilmarnock ex player and club legend Ray Montgomerie. ‘Monty’ as he’s affectionately known, had his first season with Kilmarnock in 1988-89 and said: “Coming to Kilmarnock, I could see potential there, I knew it was a sleeping giant. They were a bigger club than what they were showing at that time”.

“It wasn’t really a great start to my Kilmarnock career – but we went down because we deserved to go down. The last game of the season was a fantastic performance, at the time it was heart-breaking, but if we had more performances like that we wouldn’t have been relegated”.

“As a result of going down a lot of changes were made for the better, the rest is history”.

Boardroom changes

New chairman Bob Fleeting made an immediate impact in the boardroom, working alongside the board to secure the extra financial backing that was required for the club to get back to where they aspired to be.

In an exciting time for the fans, Kilmarnock made big signings like Tommy Burns (ex-Celtic, who also went on to manage the club) and Dave McKinnon (ex-Rangers).

These signings were proven winners in the Scottish game, ‘TB’ remains the best player I have ever seen to grace a Killie shirt. Within four seasons Kilmarnock were back in the SPL (Scottish Premier League).

Killie Hippo (Kilmarnock fanzine) editor Sandy Armour said: “Tommy Burns came in and was the best thing ever to happen to the club, we were on the up, the fans were behind everybody, that was the catalyst and the reason we stayed in the top league for 28 years following that”.

The improvements at the club continued in line with the Taylor report, as Rugby Park was transformed into an all-seater stadium, re-opening in August 1995.

The Taylor Report

The Taylor Report was a home office document, brought out in May 1989 in the immediate aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster.

Initially the report was started by Lord Justice Taylor to determine the causes of the disaster, but there was also a second and final report that concentrated on all clubs in the English and Scottish Premiership upgrading to safer all seater stadiums by 1994.

The Killie Trust was set up in 2003, to give the fans a voice and provide extra funding from fans’ pockets to the club. The Trust has a subscription-based model and is now the third biggest shareholder in the boardroom at Kilmarnock.

Founding member Jim Thomson had this to say: “The Taylor Report was a massive thing that could have bankrupted clubs. Has it changed the atmosphere? It probably has, I’ve been to Hampden and Parkhead (Celtic Park) where you were standing. Don’t get me wrong, the atmosphere was electric, but from a safety point of view, well you saw what happened at Hillsborough.”

“If we (fans) are going to stand, that’s why the Trust funded that safe standing area in the East Stand (Rugby Park), it’s a safe environment and you’re allowed to do it.”

During matches at Kilmarnock, the atmosphere in Rugby Park has been greatly enhanced through this initiative.

Jim continued: “We paid £40,000 for that (safe standing area) at Rugby Park and there’s less than 300 spaces there, the club wouldn’t have done it if the fans hadn’t put their hands in their pockets to do it.”

Pics: Rugby Park safe standing area, before and after. Credit: Jim Thomson / The Killie Trust

Simpler times

The game of football as I remember it in 1988-89 seemed so much simpler, with teams usually lining up in 4-4-2 formations and using more direct methods of play. The wing players seemed more eager to excite the crowd by taking on their opponents, before getting to the goal line and providing crosses for strikers in waiting.

One of the exciting wingers I enjoyed watching play then was ex Stranraer, Kilmarnock and Queen of the South player Jim McGuire.

This is what he had to say about the 1988-89 season: “Football has turned full circle now. For the supporter, people miss the crunching tackles (and) people miss the end-to-end football that it was back then”.

“It was easier, it wasn’t about making thirty passes across the back line and not going anywhere”.

“My asset was pace and being direct. When we played; full backs would get two or three kicks at you before the referee would even speak to him. Now I don’t know how people would cope with how I played, I certainly wouldn’t get the same amount of kickings that I got in my time”.

“I wouldn’t swap playing now, for playing then”.

Currently, a lot of managers now choose to set up their teams in 3-5-2 formations, meaning the wide positions are taken up by what are now called wing backs. The job of the wing back is to defend first, but also attack on the counter to give service to forward players. Managers that have favourited and had success from these tactics include, Louis Van Gaal, Thomas Tuchel and Emma Hayes.

Based around the 3-5-2 formation, Van Gaal managed his Holland side to beat reigning champions Spain in the 2014 World Cup, Tuchel won the 2021 Champions league in his first Chelsea season and Hayes’ had a successful 10-year tenure as Chelsea manager.

Another aspect of the game that we see nowadays is players passing the ball backwards to keep possession. In my opinion, these formations and gameplay are negative to the game, stifling the attacking side of football that the fans want to see.

Football is now a much more results driven business and managers can quickly lose their jobs from a few bad results. Does this pressure play into the tactics and methods that they coach their players?

This could be the case, but thankfully there are still some managers around that go all out to dispel this theory. Ex Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa brought his exciting brand of attacking football to the UK when he took over at Elland Road in 2018. The Leeds fans were distraught after his sacking in February 2022.

Current Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou is another exciting manager to grace our game. The Australian has swept up since joining Celtic in 2021, winning the SPL and Scottish league cup twice.

His aggressive, attacking brand of football has revitalised Celtic and lit up the Scottish game. It has now been confirmed that Ange has agreed to join Tottenham in the EPL next season (2023/24).

Fans Survey

As part of this article, alongside the players opinions I was interested to find out what other fans thought on this topic. To gauge their opinions, I created a fan’s survey.

From this, 90% of visible responses said that football was more entertaining 35 years ago and 70% of those stated that they thought money changes were the biggest factor.

One of the survey responders shared their view: “Players are paid extortionate amounts of money for playing bad football. It used to be about playing your heart out for your team, now all I see is the lust for money, notoriety and no real camaraderie between players.”

Another said: “Far too much money unevenly distributed through the game. Cap the amount that can be paid to players and make it more affordable for fans and families to attend.”

What UK footballers earn

In season 1988-89 the two biggest teams in Scotland were spending big. The player wage info graph below, details Glasgow Celtic accounts of that year.

Accounts for Glasgow Rangers were unable to be located, but at that time they were also overspending to attract big name players. In July, 1989 a reported £1.5 million brought Scotland striker Maurice Johnston to Ibrox from French side Nantes. Further reports elude that the star pocketed a large slice of the transfer fee.

English players wages are also compared below to show the changes over this time.

Graphs for TV rights deals below are shown in billions, this is to illustrate the massive difference in what players are being paid in both countries now.

Future of our game

The last time the Scottish Premier League was won by another team outside the old firm, was 1984/85 when Sir Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen took the crown. The fanbase of Rangers and Celtic with the money they can bring in (both commercially and TV), means that it’s looking like it will be a while before this monotony will be broken.

Further evidence of this was shown in the recent Scottish Youth Cup final at Hampden. Celtic ran out 5-4 winners over Rangers, in a great advert for the Scottish game. The match showed exciting end-to-end football and was played in a good manner. Will the talent on show be allowed to fully express themselves in the future?

In England Manchester City have just won their third English Premier league title in a row.

Commercially, as well as TV money, they have massive investment from the Far East. Could they also break away from the rest of the English Premier league in the future?

Only time will tell.

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