A Blog for Scottish Football Monitor by Stuart Cosgrove
At the height of summer of discontent I was asked to contribute to a BBC radio show with Jim Traynor and Jim Spence. ‘Armageddon’ had just been pronounced and if the media were to be believed Scotland was about to freeze over in a new ice-age: only a cold darkness lay ahead.
To get the radio-show off to a healthy and pretentious start I began by saying that Scottish football was experiencing an “epistemological break”. It was an in-joke with Jim Spence, who I have known since we were both teenage ‘suedeheads.’ I was a mouthy young St Johnstone fan and Jim was an Arabian sand-dancer. But even in those distant days, we shared a mutual distrust of the ‘old firm’ and in our separate ways wanted a better future for our clubs. We both grew up to become products of the fanzine era, Jim as a writer for Dundee United’s ‘The Final Hurdle’ and me as a staff writer for the NME. Without ever having to say it, we had both engaged in a guerrilla-war against what Aberdeen’s Willie Miller once characterised as “West Coast Bias”.
The term ‘epistemological break’ was shamelessly borrowed from French Marxist philosophy. It means a fundamental change in the way we construct and receive knowledge and although I used it on air as a wind-up to test Spencey’s significantly less-reliable Dundee schooling, deep down I meant it.
Social Media has proved to be one of the greatest disruptions in the history of the football supporter – greater than the brake clubs of the 19th century, the football specials on the 1970s; or the fanzine movement of the post-punk era. The pace of change in the way we send, receive and interrogate information has been so dynamic that it has wrong-footed administrators, asset strippers and sports journalists, alike. No matter who you support we are living through media history.
2012 had just witnessed an unprecedented summer of sport. The Olympics provided a snapshot of how sudden and pervasive the shift to social media has become. Over 40% of UK adults claim to have posted comments on websites, blogs or social networking about the Olympics and in younger age-groups that figure tips conclusively to a majority – 61% of 16-24’s posted Olympic comments. Think about that figure for a moment. Well over half of the young people in the UK are now participants in social media and pass comment on sport. The genie is out of the bottle and it will never be forced back. That is the main reason that Armageddon never happened: we no longer live in an age where the media can guarantee our compliance.
On the first day of the 2012-13-season, Rangers were in the deep throes of administration and facing certain liquidation. With no accounts to meet the criteria for SPL membership, one among a body of rules which the old Rangers had themselves been an architect of, the new Rangers could not be granted entry without a wholesale abandonment of the rules. It was not to be.
St Johnstone launched their new season at Tynecastle so I travelled with misplaced hope. We were soundly beaten 2-0 and both Hearts goals were entirely merited. On the day, I did a quick if unscientific survey of two supporters’ buses – the Barossa Saints Club, a more traditional lads-bus and the ‘208 Ladies’ a predominantly female and family-friendly bus. On both buses, over 75% of fans had mobile phones with 3G internet access and the majority of them posted updates or pictures before, during or after the match. They mostly posted via micro-blogging sites such as Facebook or Twitter, many commenting on the game, their day-out and the surroundings. Most were speaking to friends or rival fans. Some were publishing pictures and updating forums or blogs. And when he second a decisive goal went in some were undoubtedly taking stick from Gort, Webby DFC and DeeForLife, the pseudonyms of prominent Dundee fans, who as the newly promoted ‘Club 12’ were suddenly and very temporarily above St Johnstone in the SPL.
By my rough calculations, well over half the St Johnstone support was web-connected. I have no reason to think the Hearts supporters were any different. This small experiment reflects an unprecedented shift in the balance of communication in Scottish football and in the truest sense it is an ‘epistemological break’ with past forms of spectatorship. Social media has been widely misrepresented by old-style radio ‘phone-ins’ and by journalism’s ancien regime. The presumption is that people who are connected to the web are at home, in dingy rooms where they foam at the mouth frustrated by loneliness and mental illness. The term ‘internet bampots’ (coined by Hugh Keevins) and ‘keyboard warriors’ (Gordon Strachan) speaks to a world that is fearful of the web, irked by alternative opinions, and the threat that the new media poses to the traditional exchange of knowledge.
It further assumes that opinion from social networks is naïve, ill-informed, or unreasonable. Whilst some of this may be true, mostly it is not. No one would dispute that there are small enclaves of truly despicable people using social networks and comment sites, but they are overwhelmingly outnumbered by the multitude of fans who simply want to talk about their team and share their dreams and memories.
Social media is porous. By that I mean it has cracks, lacunae and fissures. This inevitably means that information leaks out. It can be shared, released and in some cases becomes so energetic it becomes a virus. It is no longer possible to ‘keep secrets’, to withhold information and to allow indiscretions to pass unnoticed. Newspapers have been caught in a whirlwind of change where views can be instantly challenged, authority quickly questioned and pronouncements easily disproved. Many papers – almost all in decline – have been forced to close down their comments forums. Undoubtedly some of that is due to breaches of the rules, the cost of moderation, and the rise in awareness of hate crimes. But another significant factor is that ordinary fans were consistently challenging the opinions and ‘facts’ that newspapers published.
Talking down to fans no longer works and we now have evidence – Armageddon did not happen. The beast that was supposed to devour us all was a toothless fantasy. In the more abrasive language of the terraces – Armageddon shat-it and didn’t turn up.
In one respect the myth of Armageddon was an entirely predictable one. Tabloid newspapers make money from scaring people – health scares, prisoners on the run, fear of terrorism, anxiety about young people, and most recently ‘fear’ of Scottish independence is their stock in trade. Almost every major subject is raised as a spectre to be fearful of. Most newspapers were desperate to ‘save Rangers’ since they themselves feared the consequences of losing even more readership. It was easier to argue that a hideous financial catastrophe would befall Scottish football unless Rangers were fast-tracked back into the SPL. Newspapers found common cause with frightened administrators who could not imagine a world without Rangers, either.
So we were invited to endorse one of the greatest circumlocutions of all time – unless you save a club that has crashed leaving millions of pounds of debt, the game is financially doomed. You would struggle to encounter this bizarre logic in any other walk of life. Unless Rick Astley brings out a new album music will die. That is what they once argued and many still do. That is how desperately illogical the leadership in Scottish football had become.
Armageddon was a tissue of inaccuracies from the outset. It tried to script a disaster-movie of chaotic failure and financial disaster and at the very moment when senior administrators should have been fighting for the livelihood of the league, they were briefing against their own business.
Armageddon was a big inarticulate beast but it faced a mightier opponent – facts. One by one the clubs published their annual accounts. Although this was against the backdrop of a double-dip recession and fiercely difficult economic circumstances it was not all doom and gloom. The arrival of Club 12 (Dundee) meant higher crowds and the potential for increased income at Aberdeen, Dundee United and St Johnstone. To this day, this simple fact remains unfathomable to many people in the Glasgow-dominated media. The arrival of Ross County meant an exciting new top-tier local derby for Inverness Caley Thistle and a breath of fresh air for the SPL. St Johnstone insisted on the first ever SPL meeting outside Glasgow to reflect the new northern and eastern geo-politics of the Scottish game.
European football meant new income streams for Motherwell. Of course times were tight, football is never free from the ravages of the economy and some clubs predictably showed trading losses. But the underlying reasons were always idiosyncratic and inconsistent never consistent across the board. Inverness had an unprecedented spate of injuries and over-shot their budgets for healthcare and so published a loss £378,000.
Meanwhile Dundee United published healthy accounts having sold David Goodwillie to Blackburn. Celtic reached the Champion’s League group stages with all the new wealth it will bequeath. St Johnstone – led by the ultra-cautious Brown family – had already cut the cost of their squad, bidding farewell to the most expensive players Francisco Sandaza and Lee Croft. The club also benefited from compensation for their departed manager, Derek McInnes and player-coach, Jody Morris. Paradoxically, Bristol City had proven to be more important to the club’s income than Rangers. Again this was not part of the script and proved unfathomable (or more accurately irrelevant) to most in the Glasgow media.
Hearts failed to pay players on time due to serious restraints on squad costs and internal debt. They were duly punished for their repeated misdemeanours. Motherwell and St Mirren despite the economic challenges were navigating different concepts of fan ownership. By November most clubs – with the exception of Celtic – were showing increased SPL attendance on the previous season. Far from the scorched earth failure that we were told was inevitable what has emerged is a more complex eco-system of financial management, in which local dynamics and a more mature cost-efficient reality was being put in place.
It may well be that Armageddon was the last desperate caricature of a form of media that was already in terminal decline. Flash back to 1967 when Scottish football had a so-called ‘golden age’. There was European success, we tamed England at Wembley and names like Law and Baxter brightened dark nights. Back then access to knowledge was a very narrow funnel. Only a small cadre of privileged journalists had access to the managers and players, and so fans waited dutifully for the Daily Record to arrive at their door to tell them what was happening. That system of ‘elite access to knowledge’ was in its last decadent throes nearly thirty years later, when David Murray would dispense wisdom to his favoured journalists. We now know they drank fine wine and ate succulent lamb in Jersey and the most loyal attended Murray’s 50th birthday party at Gleneagles. One journalist was so proud of his invite he danced round the editorial office mocking those who had not been invited. This was the early height of the Rangers EBT era but it is now clear that difficult questions went unasked by either journalists or by football administrators.
Although it may not suit the narrative of this particular blog my first realisation that David Murray’s empire was living on leveraged debt was from a small cadre of Rangers fans. It was around the early years of the Rangers Supporter’s Trust (RST) and they were determined to shake more democracy from the Ibrox boardroom. Whilst real fans of the club argued from the outside, the press took Murray at his loquacious word. He was in many respects their benefactor, their visionary – their moonbeam.
By the 1990s onwards, football journalism had ritualised and festered around the inner sanctums at Ibrox. This was an era where relevance meant being invited to a ‘presser’ at Murray Park, having Ally’s mobile or playing golf with ‘Juke Box,’ ‘Durranty’ or ‘Smudger’. Many journalists, showing a compliant lack of self-awareness, would use these nicknames as if conveyed closeness, familiarity or friendship. It is desperately sad that careers have been built on such paltry notions of access and such demeaning obsequiousness.
Around this period I had become a freelance radio-presenter and was presenting Off the Ball with my friend Tam Cowan, a Motherwell fan. We both wanted to fashion a show which saw football not trough its familiar narratives, but through the lens of the ‘diddy’ teams, a term so demeaning that we tried to reclaim it. Refusing to peddle the inevitability of ‘old firm’ power we sensed that journalistic compliance at Ibrox was now so ingrained that it was ripe for satirising. This was the main reason that Off the Ball branded itself as ‘petty and ill-informed.’ It was a self-mocking antidote to those journalists that could ‘exclusively reveal’ breaking stories from ‘impeccable sources,’ which usually meant they had heard it on the golf-course, from Walter, a man who needed no surname.
Many fans are astonished when I tell them how the journalism of this era actually functioned. On Champions League nights, journalists from opposing papers gathered together to agree what to write. Circulation was in decline, money was tight, agency copy was on the increase and foreign trips were under-scrutiny. No one dared miss the ‘big story’. So sports journalists who commonly boasted about their toughness and who ‘feared no one’ were often so fearful of returning home having missed an angle, that they agreed by consensus to run with variations of the same story. Celtic fans may wish to recoil at the image – but journalists would go into a ‘huddle’ at the end of a press-conference to agree the favoured line.
So the summer of 2012 witnessed an ‘epistemological break’ in how knowledge and information was exchanged. But let me go further and taunt Jim Spence one more time. It was the summer we also witnessed an ‘amygdala-crisis’ exposing the way the media works in Scotland. Amygdala is the nuclei in the brain that manages our tolerance for risk and is the key that often unlocks creative thinking. Many people in relatively high places in the media – a creative industry – demonstrated that they could not conceive of change, nor could they imagine what football would look like if Rangers were not playing in the SPL. They not only resisted change but lacked the imagination to think beyond it. A common language began to emerge that tried to ward off risk and an almost a childlike fear of the dark. ‘Scottish football needs a strong Rangers,’ ‘But there will no competition’; ‘other clubs will suffer’; ‘Draw a line in the sand’; ‘It was one man – Craig Whyte’, ‘They’ve been punished enough’ and of course, the daddy of them all – ‘Armageddon.’
The biggest single barrier to change was the lingering and outmoded notion that Rangers subsidised Scottish football. As a supporter of a club that had spent seven economically stable years in a league that Rangers have never played in made me deeply suspicious and I was in the words of the we-forums ‘seething’ that St Johnstone were portrayed as somehow ‘dependent’ on a club that was already fatefully insolvent. Because so little is known about the experience of the fans of smaller clubs, they are often misrepresented. For seven years my friends and I, travelled home and away in the First Division, often narrowly missing out on promotion as rival clubs like Gretna, Dundee and Livingston all used money they did not have to ‘buy’ success. It remains an incontrovertible fact that St Johnstone FC has been among the most consistent victims of fiscal misdemeanour in Scottish football. That is the irreducible issue. Several clubs have very real reasons to loathe financial mismanagement, rogue-trading and those that gain unfair advantage on the back of unserviceable debt.
Social media has allowed these smaller incremental versions of history to be told when the established media had no interest in telling them. Blogs can dig deeper than the back pages ever can and fans are now more likely to meet on Facebook than on a supporter’s bus. Many players now bypass the press completely and tweet directly with fans. Rio Ferdinand’s recent attack on racism in English football has been conducted entirely via social media, over the heads of the press. In the Rangers Tax Case context, restricted documents are regularly shared online, where they can be analysed and torn apart. Those with specialist skills such as insolvency, tax expertise or accountancy can lend their skills to a web forum and can therefore dispute official versions of events.
Not all social media is good. Open-access has meant a disproportionate rise in victim culture. The ‘easily-offended’ prowl every corner of the web desperate to find a morsel that will upset them but that is a small price to pay for greater transparency and even the most ardent bore is no excuse for limiting the free exchange of information.
We have witnessed a summer of seismic change. A discredited era that largely relied on ‘elite access to knowledge’ has all but passed away and information, however complex or seemingly unpalatable, can no longer be withheld from fans. The days of being ‘dooped’ are over.
It has been a privilege to participate in the summer of discontent and I yearn for even greater change to come. Bring it on.
Stuart Cosgrove is a St Johnstone fan. He was previously Media Editor of the NME and is now Director of Creative Diversity at Channel 4, where he recently managed coverage of the Paralympics, London 2012. At the weekend he presents the BBC Scotland football show ‘Off the Ball’ with Tam Cowan. He writes here in a personal capacity.