Sunday 14 September ~
Canadian club football has enjoyed a resurgence in the past couple of years. Toronto FC have quickly become a significant success in commercial and cultural terms (though less so on the field of play), since they started up in Major League Soccer last year, and were one of just three teams in the league to turn a profit in 2007. Vancouver and Montreal, who both have teams in North America’s next tier – the United Soccer Leagues – but are keen to join MLS too, and the cash-minded league will welcome them with open arms if it thinks they can guarantee the same fervent supporters and regular home game sell-outs that Toronto have so far delivered in their first two seasons.
Scottish club football may find it worthwhile to take a broad look at the Canadian model the next time it dusts off the idea of Rangers and Celtic moving south to play in the Premier League (or the Championship, if you want to be unkind, which we don’t). No team outside Rangers and Celtic has won the Scottish title since Aberdeen in 1985, and that’s unlikely to change any time soon. Even if one of the two Glasgow sides has a poor season, it’s a guarantee that the other will step in and sweep up. There may be some who still profess to care, but for the rest of us it’s as though the Beatles and the Stones were still at the top of the charts, but recycling the same hits they had 40 years ago.
Accepting the reality that Rangers and Celtic will always be Scotland’s biggest teams, Scottish club football could undergo a competitive revival by casting off its Old Firm dependency and waving them fondly southwards. But where would that leave Scottish clubs in terms of qualifying for Europe? This is where Canada has set a precedent. In order to qualify for Concacaf’s (that is, North and Central America’s) newly instituted Champions League, Toronto played a qualifying tournament against the USL’s Montreal Impact and the Vancouver Whitecaps, rather than being able to qualify directly through Major League Soccer, as the U.S. club teams did. So Rangers and Celtic could play in England, but only qualify for Europe through either the Scottish Cup, or a qualifying competition against, say, the top four clubs from the new and finally interesting Scottish Premier League.
That way, the Old Firm would still play against Scottish teams in two competitions, but no longer tediously dominating the Scottish league. As a consequence, because Rangers and Celtic would be playing either themselves or English and European opposition most of the time, more young (or even not so young) fans might begin to develop closer allegiances to their local sides as well as following a “big” team in Glasgow. Also, Hearts or Aberdeen against Rangers or Celtic in late May as part of a European qualifying competition would become a game with something genuinely at stake, and with a novelty value to boot.
In the same way that turkeys rarely rush out to buy tinsel and mistletoe in late November, the Scottish Premier League is not going to willingly let go of its two biggest draws, and if Rangers and Celtic elected to leave anyway, the league might be too aggrieved to reach the sort of compromise that would allow a European qualifying competition. If the Old Firm is willing to leave, it would take solidarity, determination and ambition on the part of Scotland’s other clubs, as well as some innovative restructuring, brave initiative, and a wholesale change in the mentality of those running the Scottish game, to even entertain the idea. A sceptic might counter that’s as good as saying, forget it. But then look at the alternative: Rangers and Celtic, Scottish champions-in-waiting for the next 50 years. Ian Plenderleith