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1969/70 - Support Your Local Club | @Alexecky

As part of a series of Scottish football history articles written for us by radio presenter Alex Horsburgh, today investigates attendance figures from 50 years ago, when Scotland enjoyed good footballing times...

It's not always recognised that Scotland (with a population of nearly 6 million) still have one of the biggest overall attendance figures per head of population for domestic football amongst smaller European nations. Even the Scottish nation itself sometimes forgets to celebrate the fact that a high percentage of the population still attend matches, too often looking south of the border for football comparisons, while at the same time unfairly criticising the quality of the Scottish domestic game. 

Aberdeen beat Kilmarnock at neutral Muirton Park (St Johnstone FC's ground until 1989), in the Scottish Cup semi finals of 1970

I discovered attendance figures from 50 years ago, when Celtic were reaching a European Cup final and Scottish players were still a mainstay of the game in England, and found a positive response from social media for a two division set up North of the border.

In this article I'll also reveal the story behind some of the clubs participating in the two division set up back in the year of a Mexico World Cup, won by Pelé and other legends, the emergence of Dutch Total Football and the first time you could play for another home UK nation even if you weren't born there.

50 years ago Scottish football had two leagues of 18 and 19 and many followers of the game north of the border now look back on those times as a bit of a golden age, when crowds were more widely spread across the 37 league teams, and the likes of Celtic didn't have 50,000 for a home game while Cowdenbeath,for example, struggle to count 500.

Many Scottish football fans are exercising their right to call for change in the Scottish League in 2020 as some are now bored with four games for their team against the other clubs in their respective league if they play in one of the four major Scottish divisions.

Smaller leagues in Scotland (12/10/10/10 is the set up currently from Premiership down to League 2) have also run their course for a wide cross section of Scottish fans while the recent arguments over declaring the 2019/20 season early, plus the bickering over who goes up and who stays down still raging, have only left those who support the SPFL weekly with hard earned cash longing for a simpler time of straight two up/two down and more teams to see in their division of choice.

My discovery of the attendance figures for season 1969/70, produced a twitter discussion that saw fans of all generations marvel at one of the last golden seasons of truly old school football in the UK. This was just before the dawn of the 1970s, a decade that brought about more choices for the average person from foreign holidays to colour TV, plus major social and political change, with the 'winter of discontent' to the start of Margaret Thatcher's leadership of first party then country shaping British attitudes, some of which survive today.

Scottish League attendances and league positions lifted from a UK football magazine in June 1970

The attendances for 1969/70 in Scotland show less Old Firm 'gloryhunting' and more an attitude of "support your local team" north of the border.

The gap between Celtic and Rangers home attendances and the rest is not as pronounced as now and while buses did leave from all over Scotland to follow the big two 50 years ago, the numbers weren't as high as they were just before the pandemic and throughout the 2010s.

Many smaller Scottish teams outside the top flight now struggle to get by on crowds in the low hundreds, but back in 1969/70 so called 'lesser lights' such as Alloa, East Fife and Cowdenbeath could at least get a crowd of four figures into home games on a regular basis. Sadly this is a trend unlikely to be repeated within the current SPFL set up.

50 years ago Dundee United were overtaking city rivals Dundee for home crowds at a time when Dundee FC were still regarded as the bigger of the two local sides. United were still a decade away from the height of the Jim McLean era, when they won the Scottish League title for the first time (1983), reached a UEFA Cup final before losing to Gothenburg (1987) and lost narrowly to Roma on aggregate in the 1984 European Cup semi finals.

Bottom of the pile Hamilton Accies were largely bankrolled by local Polish businessman Jan Stepek, who had settled in Lanarkshire after WW2, and although they were a long way from being the Scottish Premiership club they are now, their league position in 1970 was a catalyst for change as they started to rise through the ranks of the Scottish game from the mid-1970s.

Hamilton Academical actually benefitted from the three division 10/14/14 set up in Scotland, which replaced the two division set up in 1975, running until the 1990s. 1970 was largely the last year a trip to the Accies was seen as easy pickings for the likes of Berwick (now non-league), Clydebank (now a Junior club), Arbroath, Montrose and the rest of Division 2 infact.

East Stirlingshire (referred to as East Stirling in the attendance list) are another team now playing non-league football in Scotland (they now play in the Lowland League and ground share with League 1 side Falkirk) after going out of the SPFL in 2015 in the second season of the Scottish pyramid play off and being replaced in League 2 by Lowland League champs Edinburgh City.

Alex Ferguson sent off while playing for Falkirk

Falkirk and Cowdenbeath won promotion to the top tier in 1970 with future Scotland managers Andy Roxburgh and Alex Ferguson (he also won a few games at Man Utd!) blazing a trail up front and mainly scoring the goals. They saw the Bairns pip the Fife side to the title, but Cowdenbeath's achievement of promotion in the runners up spot is still revered in the town as it was the last time they gained a place in the domestic top flight.

While Falkirk survived in Division 1 for a few seasons after promotion as champions in May 1970, Cowdenbeath were to regret their decision to stay part-time in a top division that contained all full-time clubs at the time. They returned to the basement after just one season of welcoming Celtic, Rangers, Hibs, Hearts and the rest to the former mining town.

The odd number of teams (19) in Div 2 in 1969/70 existed as Third Lanark had still not been replaced after going out of business in 1967. Despite lobbying from some Highland League clubs a replacement for Thirds was not brought in until 1974 when Edinburgh based Meadowbank Thistle (now Livingston FC), were admitted to the league in the last season of the two division set up and even then it was only to make up the numbers for League reconstruction in 1975.

It's unlikely Scotland will ever return to a two division set up as top clubs at the start of the '70s wanted more than two league games a season against the money spinning 'Old Firm' (and that's still the case). Back in season 1969/70 all Scottish League clubs were already starting to complain about too many meaningless league matches and this finally led to a vote to ditch two divisions around about the time Scotland qualified for the 1974 World Cup.

The Old Firm end hostilities after a league game at Parkhead in 1970

The attendances of 1969/70 remain as a monument to simpler times when the matches themselves were enough to bring in decent crowds in a Scottish context, a time when mascots were for America only and even the concept of the substitute was fairly new.

Many Scottish football fans want two top divisions and Scottish League teams playing each other twice a season back for 2021.

Sadly, for those looking for a back to the future scenario in Scottish League football after COVID-19, the chances of two divisions happening again are as likely as flared trousers as a 21st century fashion statement and TV going back to just three channels.

The past is the past, whilst the future of Scottish football is still on hold.

This piece was kindly written and given to @TFHBs by Alex Horsburgh - you can follow him on Twitter: @Alexecky

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©The Football History Boys, 2020
(All pictured borrowed kindly & not owned by TFHB)

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