Firm foundations

Despite recent problems at both Rangers and Celtic, Glasgow's dominance of Scottish football is unlikely to change soon. Neil White explains

The new Scottish Premier League season marks a depressing anniversary for that competition – it is now 25 years since a team other than the Old Firm won the championship. Since Alex Ferguson led Aberdeen to their third title in six years, in his penultimate season as their manager in 1985, an entire generation of supporters and players have known nothing other than the dominance of Celtic and Rangers.

The stranglehold took time to choke the life from its victims. In 1986, Celtic won the title on goal difference on the final day of the season, when Hearts could not find the point they needed at Dundee. Their defeat, by two late goals from the Dundee substitute Albert Kidd, is an ugly landmark in their history, but has become just as bleakly significant for Scottish football as a whole.

In the years that followed, Rangers dominated the title, spending sums unimaginable to their rivals on England internationals including Terry Butcher, Chris Woods and, later, Paul Gascoigne. The final threat to the big two came in 1991, when Aberdeen went to Ibrox on the final day of the season for a championship decider. Rangers’ victory that day was hugely symbolic. They killed off what was left of Ferguson’s dynasty, five years after his departure to Manchester.

Ferguson’s team could not be built today. Willie Miller and Alex McLeish played over 1,000 games between them for Aberdeen when they were among the very best centre-backs in Britain. Players of their quality would be now poached within a year by teams in England’s Premier League, or even the Championship. Worse still, they could be siphoned off by the Old Firm. Such transfers weaken their potential usurpers and have often resulted in the arrested development of players who were central to their former team but become well-paid reserves at Rangers or Celtic.

But nothing has perpetuated the duopoly like the advent of the Champions League. In the ten years between 1985 and 1995, a team outside of the Old Firm finished second on nine occasions. Since 1995, the Old Firm have finished in the top two positions every year apart from one. As both Glasgow clubs spent more and more on players to find a place at this golden trough, the chance of another Scottish club breaking out all but disappeared.

The exception was in 2005-06, when a perfect storm almost brought another player to the table. Vladimir Romanov’s investment into Hearts, and his appointment of George Burley as their manager, coincided with a vulnerable Rangers freewheeling to the end of McLeish’s time as manager and Celtic’s transitory first season of the tenure of another of Ferguson’s prodigies, Gordon Strachan. Romanov’s sacking of Burley with Hearts unbeaten at the top of the table sank their challenge, however. Had it been better managed, Romanov’s investment in his early years as Hearts’ benefactor was enough to win the title.

What chance a new name at the top of the SPL this season? Rangers are as weak as back-to-back champions can be. They have sold or released six first team players, including their prolific centre-forward Kris Boyd, and do not have the money to buy their way out of trouble if they are under pressure in January. Celtic have embarked on a second drastic rebuild, this time under a rookie manager, Neil Lennon. However, their roster of international players should be good enough to stay safe in a league made up of free transfers, loan signings and academy products.

If the duopoly is to be broken, the Champions League is central. In 2006, Hearts finished second in the SPL, but could not navigate the qualification rounds for the Champions League. Had they done so, the power structure in Scottish football would have been transformed. If a team like Dundee Utd, who have so far kept all but one of the key players from their run to third place and victory in the Scottish Cup final in 2009-10, finish second this season, that window opens again. The bad news? As of 2011-12, only the champions of the SPL qualify for the Champions League.

It will take a daring investment, a once-in-a-generation core of homegrown players, some astute signings from peripheral markets and a talented manager to change the scene. But the SPL is not the place for oligarchs or sheikhs to play, and there is no Alex Ferguson to knockout the heavyweights at the top of the division. In 1931, Motherwell won the Scottish championship, ending 27 years of Old Firm dominance. Expect that record to go in 2013.

From WSC 283 September 2010