Celtic and Rangers duopoly can finally be broken
13 January ~ Hamilton Academical last night suffered their first home defeat since August. The narrow loss to Dundee United followed Friday’s departure of player-manager Alex Neil, for Norwich City. Yet Accies remain one of four “provincial” sides currently ambushing Celtic’s title defence. With both major cups held by non-Glasgow clubs, Scottish football has almost revived the exciting distribution of honours which characterised the early to mid-1980s.
Back then Aberdeen and Dundee United shared four Scottish titles, seven domestic cups and two European finals. However, that era is also reprised at present by low crowds and English clubs offering low six-figure transfer fees.
Despite playing two games more, Aberdeen’s four point lead over Celtic brings back memories of 1985, the last year they, or anyone outside the Old Firm, were Scottish champions. Then Dundee United manager Jim McLean famously told his Pittodrie counterpart, Alex Ferguson: “I need you and you need me.” Both had to win against Celtic and Rangers to break the Glaswegian stranglehold.
Celtic have won both SPFL encounters with Aberdeen this season but have lost to United, Accies and Inverness Caledonian Thistle. Consequently that trio remain within three points of the champions and Aberdeen top the table in January for the first time in a generation. The weather has also assisted. A New Year’s Day deluge postponed Celtic’s game at Partick Thistle as Aberdeen, the League Cup holders, defeated Scottish Cup holders St Johnstone. Wintering in Gran Canaria this week means Celtic could drop to third if they lose at Hamilton on Saturday. Lucrative foreign friendlies are increasingly important to Celtic as prudent downsizing over the last few years hurts ticket sales.
Inverness recently announced “pay what you can” admission for the upcoming visit of St Johnstone. Despite closing in on European qualification and reaching their first major cup final in last season’s League Cup, their core support barely exceeds 3,000. Neil was only part of Hamilton’s recent rise but the romance of their story stems from surviving on an even smaller support. With Celtic manager Ronny Deila struggling to retain Dutch defender Virgil van Dijk, January’s transfer window will test everyone in Scotland’s vulnerable market.
A £100,000 offer for Dundee United’s Scotland striker Gary Mackay-Steven is another insult doled out by Wigan Athletic chairman Dave Whelan. United sold Duncan Ferguson to Rangers for £4 million in 1993. Fleetwood Town offered a similarly derisive sum for St Mirren’s much-admired midfielder Kenny McLean. As far back as 1990, the Paisley club paid £400,000 to the Bundesliga’s Bayer Uerdingen for Thomas Stickroth. St Mirren’s 2013 League Cup was their first major honour since the Scottish Cup of 1986-87. Rangers won their first League title in nine years that season, replacing Celtic as champions but restoring the Old Firm duopoly which lasts to this day.
The current Rangers, miles off automatic promotion from the Championship, recently sold star midfielder Lewis Macleod to Brentford for barely £1m simply to avoid a second financial collapse in three years. However, they should comfortably make the play-offs and this season’s “record low” Ibrox crowds are only the smallest since Graeme Souness fronted their mid-1980s revolution. Even a half-closed Celtic Park holds more than a sold-out Inverness and Aberdeen combined. The provincials need to strike now, before they themselves are ambushed by yet another Old Firm era. Alex Anderson