THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Neutrality sacrificed

11 April ~ There can't be many European cities with three dedicated football stadiums each with an all-seated capacity of over 50,000. If there are they will be in countries with far greater populations than Scotland. There has been historic lobbying against the need for a national stadium, Hampden, when Glasgow also has Ibrox and Celtic Park, all serving a nation of five million. Yet this weekend's Scottish Cup semi-finals would have you believe the SFA actually requires a fourth major football venue. All it took was the Commonwealth Games arriving in Glasgow and Rangers reaching the last four.

Dundee United have put Rangers out the Scottish Cup three times already this decade. Last season's meeting of the two at Tannadice was marked by Rangers fans boycotting it. This season's, at Ibrox, is notable for Dundee United claiming they haven't received enough tickets. And yet when offered an allocation of 11,063 briefs for tomorrow's match, United initially declined in favour of taking only one 8,012-capacity stand. By last weekend they had actually sold 10,000.

It's a confusion arising from United's valid anger at the venue's complete lack of neutrality. Ibrox is, of course, Rangers' home ground. United have confused the fact neutral venues should be similarly alien to each club with the hard truth about the relevant supporter bases. United sold under 7,000 for their Hampden clash with Celtic at the same stage last season. Rangers have 34,000 season-ticket holders. This crowd was never going to be split 50-50.

With Hampden being redeveloped to host athletics this summer, the SFA needed alternatives this season. Rangers manager Ally McCoist complained sarcastically about the fact Celtic Park was chosen to host both domestic cup finals. And, with Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell recently joining the SFA's game board, it seemed Ibrox simply had to get both Scottish Cup semis. The fact third-tier Rangers then reached those semis exposed the true bias in Scottish football – that the authorities still bend over backwards for the Old Firm.

That Hampden is in Glasgow already compromises its perceived neutrality. Clubs from the east and north have to ask their fans to travel far greater distances for semi-finals and finals, while the Old Firm traditionally claimed three-quarters of a ground almost as familiar to them as their own. Aberdeen and St Johnstone meet in Sunday's second semi. The SPFL were quite happy to give the same two clubs Hearts' 17,000-capacity Tynecastle stadium at the same stage of this season's League Cup. It was handier geographically and perfect in terms of atmosphere. But the Scottish Cup is the marquee knockout competition, its increased cachet reflected in William Hill's sponsorship and both semis attracting live television coverage.

In an age of financial prudence, it's logistically necessary to have both games at one venue. TV rigging, advertising and hospitality must be left in situ between both semis. This is also why the option of using the national rugby stadium, Murrayfield, has been rejected – the SRU would want a split of all proceeds.

It's unfashionable and unusual to sympathise with the SFA but they have been too organised in this instance. They made the mistake of behaving like UEFA. In explaining why Ibrox was chosen, SFA chief executive Stewart Regan continually cites the fact the Champions League final venue is decided long before the competing teams are known. They made the decision in October and, of course, everyone now wishes they had left it to the last minute. Alex Anderson

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