The reaction of Scottish Premier League managers and administrators to the suggestion that Rangers and Celtic were to leave for the English Premiership was predictable, with much “Woe is me” wailing. Less predictable was the reaction of a sizeable number of fans of other clubs, which could best be summarised as a well-known two-fingered gesture and a hearty cry of “See you later”.
Any sceptical non-Scot wanting an idea of what life is like for the SPL clubs outside the big two should imagine for a moment having to share their front room with two elephants. You may admire the noble beasts and wish them no ill, but it will not take too many weeks of them taking up all your space, eating all your food and defecating everywhere before you realise that it really might be better for all concerned if they took their business elsewhere.
In the event of this story being anything more than wishful thinking on the part of Celtic’s majority shareholder Dermot Desmond and Rangers supremo David Murray (both of whom are wrestling with the realities of monumental and increasing debts) the remaining Scottish clubs would of course need to engage in a reappraisal of their outlook.
Perhaps some inspiration might be found in a previously unexamined world, a couple of hundred miles south of the border – the world of rugby league. League offers an example of a sport seemingly short on broad appeal outside a tightly defined area that has, however, managed to maintain a reasonable appeal to broadcasters and sponsors. This, of course, being the primary concern of all those struggling to imagine life without the Old Firm.
In early August, St Helens and Wigan – the Old Firm of rugby league, if you will – played a championship fixture before a crowd no greater than that which watched Hibs defeat Aberdeen the next day at Easter Road. That such clubs should survive in a 21st century professional environment with modest attendances and a somewhat limited television audience should be noted with interest by worried souls north of the border.
Trivia fans might want to study this sequence of clubs: Hibs, Hearts, St Johnstone, Hearts, Dundee United. These, of course, would have been the Scottish champions over the past five seasons in a league denuded of you-know-who. This surely hints at the level of competition that would be possible were the greedy devils at Celtic Park and Ibrox to play their football elsewhere. At the moment, the prospect of an outsider claiming the championship, as Boavista did in similar circumstances in Portugal last season, seems not just unlikely, but completely outlandish.
Last year, Hibs boasted one of their finest teams for years, a strong and talented group of players assembled by an astute manager. Yet no one – including Hibs’ own players, management and fans – seemed to think there was the slightest chance of them winning the title. It was taken as a given that their challenge would crumble in the face of the huge resources available to Celtic and Rangers. What does this say about the SPL as a competition?
Of course the Scottish game would suffer in the short term from any Old Firm defection. Current sponsorship deals and television contracts would be extremely unlikely to be renewed and clubs’ incomes would fall. But, after a while, the game would find its own level. Out of necessity there would be a greater focus on youth development and the seemingly endless stream of middling overseas players would be discouraged by the lower wages resulting from restricted budgets. Young Scottish players taking part in a truly competitive championship, with greater access to Champions Lea-gue and UEFA Cup places – now that doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Ken Gall
If you’ll forgive me starting with a cliche, this is a real heart v head debate. If this were a purely personal thing, I would love to see Celtic and Rangers leave Scottish football. Nothing would make me happier. They might like to disown it now, but the bigotry they’ve fostered for most of their existence has poisoned the game in Scotland, and fuelled the infection that runs through Scottish society.
They’ve milked this bigotry for income so assiduously that it could be argued with some confidence that no other club will win the Scottish Premier Division in my lifetime (and I plan for being around for quite a while yet). Clearly their involvement isn’t healthy. The argument runs that, if they left the Scottish leagues, everyone else would have much more to play for. Even if average crowds fell, we’d all be spared the unpleasantness of a visit from their supporters, and possibly, just possibly, some fans who won’t willingly subject themselves or their children to that sort of atmosphere would return to the game.
Sadly, though, football isn’t just about supporters going through gates. The money that comes in from TV would dry up almost instantly, since the TV companies have made it quite clear they are only interested in the audience the Old Firm bring. That, in itself, hardly has to sound the death knell for the Scottish game. Clubs would simply have to pay players less (radical), or somehow manage to complete a league season with a squad of fewer than 40 players (dangerously radical). Since there are signs that some financial sense has finally permeated Scotland’s other clubs, we might be on our way there already.
The league could survive their departure, were it not for one simple point. From the moment they leave, everyone will see the Scottish leagues, in whatever form they take, as second rate. If your two biggest teams are playing elsewhere, how could it be seen as anything else? The Scottish media’s infatuation with the Old Firm isn’t about to change any time soon – the press would focus on them, whether they were in the Premiership or some quasi-Euro league, to the exclusion of the local game. Scotland’s tabloids know where their circulation lies, and the BBC’s public service broadcasting remit stops at the door of the sports department.
I’ve seen it suggested that the impact of their departure would be minimal, simply pinning our football at the same level as the Scandinavian leagues – possibly no bad thing. But while supporters watching the Danish league will be well aware that there are other leagues in Europe that play to a higher standard, they are not subjected to a press constantly reminding them that their two biggest clubs play there. Any short-term benefit would be wiped out as the public is gradually convinced the Scottish Leagues are, well, rubbish.
Things can only be even worse if, as has been mooted, the Old Firm still have some form of representation in Scotland (Rangers’ David Murray suggested an Under-21 side with a couple of over-age players). Could there be any more patronising gesture?
The concentration of football’s wealth within two clubs cripples the game in Scotland, but that is something other countries are going to have to face up to in the next few years too. For once, we’re just well ahead of the rest of the footballing world. Colin Paterson
From WSC 176 October 2001. What was happening this month