The Turnbull connection | An ancestry of passing acquaintance

The training that these young gentlemen [in England] were getting was really to become leaders, to lead within the British Empire, whether to become generals in an army or to become a major diplomat. You had to show your individual worth. So when it came to the playing field it was the same ethos. You didn’t pass the ball. That was passing he buck—it was a cowardly act. It was all about individual prowess on the park, and Scotland is completely different. Through Queen’s Park, you actually get, really, a passing game based around almost a working-class concept of coming together … whereby if you didn’t have the advantage, you passed the ball on to your teammate who would then carry the attack on. That’s the very, very important difference between early football in England and early football in Scotland.

When Scottish businessmen developed concerns abroad—in Sweden, Spain and South America, among other places—they took this passing game with them. Influence from Scotland has also been apparent in Australia, Canada, China and Africa, with football often encouraged by Presbyterian missionaries. T. Jack Thompson of the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh charts the place of football in Malawi, formerly known as Nyassaland.

The first footballs were taken out to Malawi at roughly the same time that Rangers and Celtic were being formed [1870s and 1880s], and everywhere you go, even in the smallest, poorest village, you will see little balls made up of paper wrapped together with vines from the trees and kids kicking balls about.

This historical turn has been natural with negative influences prominent on the landscape. In late May, the Enterprise and Culture Committee of Scottish Parliament, which is conducting a formal inquiry into the future of the Scottish game, clashed with the stewards of the Scottish Football Association. Parliament has been examining ways to better organize the professional and grassroots games, having stated in an interim report that “the status quo is not the best possible option for the structure of Scottish football.” SFA chief executive David Taylor warned parliamentarians to tread carefully, noting FIFA regulations barring political interference in football’s governing structures. Taylor advocates more public investment in the game rather than more committee meetings: “[P]ublic sector support for football has fallen in almost inverse proportion to the time spent by politicians discussing football’s problems” (note 2).

The much-maligned red-blaes pitch, here at Graeme High School in Falkirk, Scotland. Red-blaes pitch, Falkirk

Significant debates have been occurring related to one subset of problems: the lack of adequate playing grounds. Given our mental picture of Scotland, characterized by green space and unbroken horizons of heather and wildflower, it is hard to reconcile the shortage. Of course, the challenge arises in the populated areas, with advocates such as the National Playing Fields Association Scotland having to fend off incursions from developers. In one case, 22 pitches in Paisley, near Glasgow, could be sacrificed for a rail link from Glasgow Airport. While noting successful preservation campaigns, NPFA committee member Stewart McLachlan refers to the “secret shame … that deprived areas of the country were more likely to lose their playing fields than affluent towns and suburbs where people were more aware of the threat and could organise opposition better” (note 3).

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