Heading for riches

Rangers and Celtic have once again hinted that they could leave the SPL. Keith Davidson thinks it might be for the best

This autumn, Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell and Rangers equivalent Martin Bain once again raised the issue of their clubs quitting Scottish football for more financially lush pastures – England or a North Atlantic League involving sides from the Netherlands and elsewhere.

Some non-Old Firm fans just thought: “Yeah, heard it all before, never happen.” Others took it at face value and their response was emotional, raw and unvarnished: “Take your noxious and dated sectarian politics, overweening smugness, arrogance, bizarre sense of entitlement, Buckfast-swilling sociopathic fans and enjoy your glamorous future at Hull and Wigan. Or possibly Blackpool and Scunthorpe. Bad luck, good riddance, close the door behind you and don’t come back.”

After a couple of deep breaths and a willingness to let higher brain functions reassert themselves, the question remains: What would Scottish football be like if Glasgow relocated to England or perhaps an ambitious crannog above Dogger Bank? Fortunately, Old Firm fans who maintain “You’re nothing without us” – and that the rump SPL would be akin to the League of Ireland or Welsh Premier – are just kidding themselves.

Celtic and Rangers obviously bring a huge audience to advertisers; if they disappeared from Scotland there would certainly be a critical drop in commercial income, television revenue and sponsorship money. On the other hand, the league would immediately become more competitive and more sides could have a realistic crack at the title, then the qualifying rounds of the Champions League.

The major clubs from Aberdeen, Dundee and Edinburgh would still be around, while teams like Kilmarnock, Motherwell, Falkirk and St Mirren already draw average gates of over 5,000 even when faced with a dispiriting struggle for mid-table safety. Attendances could actually go up without the stultifying effect of the domineering duo who have finished in league positions one and two for 13 of the last 14 seasons.

Taking the crowds into account, SPL-lite would be more akin to the lower reaches of the Championship crossed with elements of League One, rather than the more poorly supported set-ups in Ireland or Wales. That may not be brilliant for national self-esteem but it is realistic for a country of five million where most interest revolves around Celtic Park or Ibrox. Until someone devises a post-Old Firm rate sheet for pitch side advertising or comes along with a reduced offer for the media rights then the league’s viability is just speculation – although a few interesting questions remain.

Old Firm fans have a touching naivety about their prospects elsewhere – as if healthy attendances in Glasgow, allied to increased TV money, would inevitably lead to them to become masters of the universe in a scant few seasons. A quick call to Elland Road or St James’ Park would provide a few salutary tales, while all the Abramovich money at Chelsea still hasn’t produced a European trophy. It’s just not that easy.

What’s more, it bugs every other Scottish fan not wearing a blue or hoopy green replica top that this issue is always couched in Glaswegian terms. The existence of bigger clubs in smaller leagues is a problem right across western Europe, thrown into sharp relief since the 1990s as countries with critical mass populations – England, Italy and Spain – scoop up the bulk of the available cash. If you’re going to try to match that, then why not have a supra-national Noordzee League?

Maybe it’s not that daft after all. Promotion and relegation could be based on merit, feeding back into the top national divisions of countries such as Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Scotland and Sweden – between them they have an advertiser-friendly population of over 50 million. Forget about confining it to Celtic, Rangers and Ajax in an infinite loop of franchised and meaningless games however – what about Hibs v Anderlecht? Aberdeen v Copenhagen? A route up and out could reinvigorate the entire SPL at a stroke, not just the
dampest bit.

Finally, where murmurs of the Old Firm leaving Scotland have resurfaced every now and again for years, Sir David Murray’s recent business travails mean that this is the first time one of the pair might go for reasons of sheer desperation. And wouldn’t it be interesting if one bailed out to England on disadvantageous terms while the other remained? Watch this space.X

From WSC 274 December 2009