24 October ~ Celtic have started the league season well. We've played eight, we've won eight. But there's a familiar problem: Rangers have won all eight too. Something's got to give today, when Lionel Messi's favourite blue immovable object meets what was – until Tony Mowbray arrived in the East End – also an immovable object. By Scottish standards, at least. Who will win is as hard to predict as the league title. Celtic have the resources, but Walter Smith has steered a remarkably steady course through Rangers' financial maelstrom. Neil Lennon's side won the final derby of last season, but there was little to play for then, and his Celtic side are still unpredictable.
But even if we lose the season's first Old Firm derby today we'll still be at least eight points clear of third place. In spite of several false dawns further down the table, and even with Rangers' new-found poverty and Celtic's recent managerial problems, the Old Firm's dominance of Scottish league football seems to be increasing. Why? Smith's undoubted managerial expertise and experience should never be underestimated, and given a few decades we may well be able to say the same about Lennon. But a quick glance at Celtic's recent European results demonstrates that we're not looking at a surplus of quality with the big two; rather a deficit with the "other ten".
After a great start to the Romanov era under George Burley in 2005, Hearts have overspent and mismanaged their way to self-induced paralysis. On the other side of the capital, Hibs have achieved largely the same result through prudence, selling their talented young players to finance a shiny new stadium (that the fans like less than the dodgy old one) while spending next to nothing on the team. Dundee United have been victims of their own recent success, losing their best players in a story that will be familiar to fans of middle-ranking clubs across the country.
Motherwell chairman John Boyle's proclamation in 1998 that the Steelmen would become the third force in the league eventually resulted in a period of administration. And this is a tale so familiar to Dundee fans that it will send shivers down their spines – the never-ending hangover from the big financial experiment that brought Claudio Caniggia to Tayside has left them fearing for the club's future. With gates that struggle to reach 5,000, Motherwell were never going to be able to rival the two clubs that get ten times that, and the same goes for Inverness, Kilmarnock, St Johnstone, Hamilton and St Mirren. Aberdeen now seem to need no reason to be perennially hopeless.
A good time to be an Old Firm fan then? Not for this one. Even with a 50-50 chance of a 43rd league title on the cards, I've never felt less excited to be a Celtic supporter. In 1998, when we won our first league title for ten years, I was stopping strangers on the streets of Shepherd's Bush to explain to them exactly how significant it was. But winning the league just doesn't do it for me any more. Yet another league title? Chuck it on the pile. The treble? We'll never win as many as the other lot. An Old Firm victory? How can I get excited about a game we play four, five or six times a season? Why? Because our relative European success under Martin O'Neill and Gordon Strachan has left me wanting more.
But the Scottish game is trailing so much further and further behind the competition that I fear our recent relative European glory days will never come again. "Do you realise what we would give to win the league, just one more time?" they ask in Aberdeen, Dundee and Edinburgh. Yes, yes I do. Partly because I spent nine years hoping we'd find some way to reel in Rangers. Or, when we were particularly awful, that Aberdeen would stop their inexorable march. But I've tasted what it's like to be a successful Scottish club. And now nothing else will do. And I thought I'd never say this, but curse you O'Neill and your huge brain. You fed my dreams. And now reality has left me nothing but angst, jealousy and self-loathing, because I'm too spoilt to appreciate the straightforward beauty of a storming start to the league season. Mark Poole