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Wings Over Scotland


One (nearly) down, one to go

Posted on February 13, 2012 by

In the light of today’s news, and some clown on the BBC just saying that Scottish football has “depended on” the Old Firm for years, here’s a little non-political curio from the past. 15 years ago I wrote a piece for the sadly-missed Total Football magazine, putting forward the suggestion that the only way forward for the game in Scotland was to kick Rangers and Celtic out and form a new league without them.

While (some of) the names have changed, the feature is basically as true today as it was in 1997, if not more so.  Among other things it tackled the myth that other clubs relied on the Gruesome Twosome for their survival through increased gate receipts, and it might be worth keeping in mind over the coming days amid what’s an all-but-inevitable avalanche of drivel heading our way from a media which has studiously avoided covering the full extent of Rangers’ troubles until now, and has been shamed by a thoroughly tremendous blog.

[Historical note: at the time this piece was written Celtic were in the worst financial shape of the club’s history, and offered almost no threat to Rangers’ domination of the Scottish game, explaining the first two paragraphs.]

 

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KILL THE KINGS
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Attentive readers will recall TF19, in which we examined the current crippled state of Scottish club football, and, essentially, blamed it all on Rangers.

Oh, alright then, on their current crushing dominance of the domestic game, which isn’t really technically their fault. (If you’re an inattentive reader, or missed the original piece, the argument is roughly this: Rangers have an economic stranglehold on the Scottish game by virtue of their disproportionate size; this means they can afford to buy and pay the cream of international and domestic players; this means they win the league; this gets them into the Champions League, where they make millions of pounds in guaranteed profit; this reinforces their economic stranglehold at home; etc).

What wasn’t addressed in the article, though, was the far thornier question: what to do about it?

Now, the suggestion I’m about to put forward will, more than likely, initially strike you as unrealistic, silly, childish and possibly just outright sour grapes. But I’m deadly serious. I’m a Scottish football fan. I want to see Scottish football continue as a meaningful sport. And the only conceivable way for Scottish football to survive and remain healthy into the next millennium is to GET RID OF RANGERS AND CELTIC.

Specifically, the theory under discussion here is that the other 38 League teams in Scotland need to get together and form a breakaway league as soon as is humanly possible. The Old Firm cancer riddling the Scottish game and draining its lifeblood must be cut away ruthlessly. It’s a drastic solution, I know. But hear me out.

In real terms, of course, a breakaway league already exists within Scottish club football. In the entire 22-season history of the Scottish Premier League, only two teams outside of the Old Firm have ever won the Championship (Aberdeen 3 times, Dundee United once), and it’s 13 years since either of them actually did it.

This isn’t a new phenomenon – for an astonishing 42 seasons between 1904 and 1946, for example, Rangers and Celtic held a duopoly over the league title, with just a single blip in season 1931-32 when Motherwell unaccountably finished top (with the terrible twosome in second and third, naturally). The entire 20th century, in fact, has seen a non-Old Firm side win the game’s top honour on only 15 occasions, with just three sides in 96 years having managed the feat more than once (Hearts with two, and Aberdeen and Hibs with four apiece, against Celtic’s 31 and Rangers’ 45).

Enough stats. The point is clear – exactly 83% of the time, the Scottish League Championship is, at very best, a race for second place (and more often third). And, ironically, the two sides muscling everyone else out of the Scottish honours aren’t really even Scottish at all.

Rangers are known to their own fans as the Queen’s Eleven (or, according to Simon Kuper’s “Football Against The Enemy”, as the Queen’s Ten if there’s a Catholic in the side), and consider themselves “British” rather than Scottish – Ibrox is almost the only place in Scotland, and here I’m not just talking about football, that you’ll ever see anyone voluntarily flying the Union Jack, it being a loathed and despised de facto symbol of England everywhere else in the country (even among the sizeable proportion of Scots who don’t hate the English generally). And Celtic, of course, also fly the flag of a foreign nation over their stadium, this time the tricolour of Eire.

So isn’t it time that the Scottish Football League was left to Scottish football teams? I think so. If you disagree, there’ll be a chance for questions at the end, so just listen for a bit to some people who know what they’re talking about. I rang just about every League team in Scotland and asked them what they thought about my stupid idea. Working my way alphabetically through Rothman’s, the first man who was in was Pat Lawlor, chairman of Third Division Alloa Athletic.

Pat, your club’s entire yearly income wouldn’t pay Brian Laudrup’s wages for a fortnight – what’s the point of carrying on like this? Aren’t the Old Firm just bleeding you to death?

“Well, there’s something in that. Rangers and Celtic have got Scottish football by the you-know-whats. They keep going on in the press about the small clubs dragging them down and how we need to be got rid of, but unless they’re after the £10,000 a year we get from the pools, I’m not quite sure what harm it is we’re doing them. The Premier League takes 68% of all the pools money in Scotland, and since Premier teams have four times as many votes each as we do on all League matters, it’s difficult to see how we can have any effect at all. I certainly can’t see any end to their dominance while they’re still here.”

But what difference would it make to a little club like yours if they weren’t?

“At the moment, 8 busloads of supporters leave this town every Saturday to go to Old Firm games. I believe half of them would come to see their local side if the Old Firm wasn’t there, and while that’s a pretty small number, it would make a very big difference to our gates and finances. And on a bigger scale, if the Old Firm succeed in shutting down all the smaller Scottish clubs, who’s going to supply young Scottish players for the future? You can’t run the league entirely on foreign imports. Rangers and Celtic are too big for Scotland – it’s time they moved on.”

Strong words there, but no real surprises. After all, Alloa don’t really entertain any prospects of ever getting a slice of the Premier League pie, so you might expect them to feel a little antagonistic towards the big boys. But what about a club with pretensions to the big time? Falkirk have yo-yoed between the Premier and First Divisions for the last few seasons – surely it’s in their interests to have something to look forward to? I quizzed chairman GJ Fulston.

“The days of anyone outside the Old Firm winning the league are long gone – no-one can compete with them cash-wise, and I can’t see any end to their dominance. But you need their gates in the Premier League, and in any case they’re part and parcel of the Scottish game – I’d like to think they’d always be there. Of course, whether that would be the case if they joined a European Super League remains to be seen.

I think the only way forward is to build stronger opposition by amalgamation – ideally having one team per region, with perhaps feeder clubs outside a 16-team league in a Vauxhall Conference-type situation.”

Well, no-one’s arguing with the principle, but you only have to look back on the scenes when Wallace Mercer was nearly lynched for trying to combine Hearts with Hibs to see the likelihood of it happening in reality. (After all, Hearts and Hibs are the perfect model for amalgamation – huge catchment area, dripping with potential, both useless on their own for decades. If they can’t do it, surely no-one could.)

Besides, by the logic of the argument, Glasgow would only need one team, so Rangers and Celtic would have to amalgamate themselves, and rivers of blood would be the most optimistic scenario there.

I was also sure Scotland’s oldest club, the Hampden Park amateurs of Queen’s Park would have something to say about the idea, so I rang their Secretary, Alistair Mackay. Alistair, can you just trash decades of tradition and history in the name of competition? And would it work anyway?

“One thing is for sure – it’s going to be increasingly difficult for the domestic game to survive in its current form. Queen’s Park are something of an exception, as the country’s only amateur League club – I think we’d always survive at our own level. After all, the country manages to maintain a thriving Junior game , as well as four League divisions, so there’s clearly enough custom around to support lower-league football.

I think it’s entirely possible that without the Old Firm, you’d get a much wider spread of people across the remaining clubs – it would clear the way for other teams to have a realistic chance of winning prizes, and that could only be healthy.”

[NB – the ‘Junior’ game is the nearest Scottish equivalent to the Beazer Homes League, populated by part-timers and old pros in the twilight of their careers, rather than the up-and-coming starlets the name suggests, but often attracts crowds as big as or bigger than the lower professional divisions.]

Well, indeed. The fundamental difference between English and Scottish football, which often escapes the casual observer, is the possibility of progress. The recent history of the English game is littered with tales of clubs rising from the old Fourth Division to the old First Division (and vice versa) in a very short space of time, which in many ways is the whole point of the thing (and is what the Premiership clubs are trying ever-harder to destroy in the name of their own security).

In Scotland, that simply doesn’t happen, partly because the country’s size and concentration of population means that you’re never too far away to travel to Glasgow every other Saturday. The ten slots in the Premier League are always filled from a pool of about 14 teams, with everyone else shuffling around a bit to no discernible effect. So for the full spectrum of opinion, it was time to talk to one of the chosen few, namely Alan Dick, Secretary of perennial mid-table Premier League side Motherwell. He had some interesting things to say, but he started off with an opinion that, among those I talked to, put him in a minority of one.

“The Scottish game is in a healthy state. Football is based on success on the field, and the other teams don’t want Rangers and Celtic to leave.”

That’s not what they’ve been telling me.

“The Scottish League without the Old Firm would be like strawberries without cream, you’re living in cloud cuckooland if you think it could happen. They’ll never break away, and while there will be some kind of Superleague, Rangers and Celtic will always play in Scotland.”

But what kind of teams would they play? Surely there’s a sizeable chance of them putting out second-rate teams of crocks and kids, like Man Utd do in the Coca-Cola Cup? Who’d go to watch that?

“Yes, you could be right. I think the Euro league might weaken the clubs for domestic games, and their fixture burden would have to be eased, perhaps with byes through the early rounds of the domestic cup competitions. Motherwell would support that.”

What? But I thought you just said football was based on performance on the field? Now you’re saying that because the Old Firm get invited into a European Super League, for almost entirely financial reasons, they should be freed even further from the risk of losing to poorer sides by simply not having to play them? Are you mad?

“Look, miracles do happen, but realistically, little clubs have to find their own level and that includes Motherwell – the Old Firm can’t be touched financially, but we can challenge them on the pitch. We’ve come to terms with the Bosman ruling – our horizons are spread much further now than they were five years ago. Clubs all over Scotland are bringing in players from Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and even Africa to get around Rangers and Celtic buying up all the European talent.”

But if they turn out to be any good, the Old Firm will just take them away anyway – they can afford to pay players 20 times what any other Scottish club can, without blinking. That’s the whole point.

In many ways, Motherwell’s attitude (which, to be fair to them, is typical of most of the other Premier teams and borderliners) is the real problem for the Scottish game. The teams who currently get a slice of the financial action are too afraid of the consequences of an across-the-board strengthening of the Scottish League – in effect, trading the security of permanent second-class citizenship against the possibility of moving up (or, crucially, down) in the much more competitive, fluid scenario that would almost certainly occur in a new, Old Firm-free structure. And while that’s understandable in one sense, it’s a short-sighted view that’s leading the Scottish game down a blind alley with a brick wall at the end. And since it’s Rangers and Celtic who are leading the way, they’ve got to go. Defence counsel, your witness.

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SCOTLAND WITHOUT THE OLD FIRM: YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED
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“But surely all this is just a sad, cowardly cop-out? If Rangers and Celtic always win, it must be because they’re simply the best – the other teams should just try harder.”

Hmm. Remember Zulu, the great Michael Caine film about the battle of Rorke’s Drift? Well, now imagine the numbers being the same, but the weaponry situation being reversed – 4000 camouflaged Zulus with accurate high-velocity rifles against 100 blokes with spears and bright red jackets. That’s what Scottish football’s like. Now imagine visiting the families of the swiftly-massacred soldiers and telling them they should have just stabbed a bit harder. Then piss off and come back when you know what you’re talking about.

“But surely without the Old Firm the Scottish game would end up as just another pitiful, pointless farce like the Konica League Of Wales?”

No. Scotland and Wales are two fundamentally different propositions, football-wise. For one thing, the round-ball game has always been a strictly secondary interest in the valleys – the Welsh love their rugby, and anything else takes a back seat (and a long way back at that). In Scotland, more than anywhere else in the UK, football is the sport of the masses, with other games like rugby and golf very much minority interests (although Murrayfield is always packed for the Five Nations, domestic rugby union attracts microscopic crowds). Also, Scotland has almost twice the population of Wales, and is a great deal easier to travel around, both of which are vital to supportable, successful footy.

“But by the principles of trickle-down economics, surely the provincial clubs will get stronger over time, threatening the Old Firm domination.”

Why, Lady Thatcher, I didn’t know you were a reader. Hello. And how long is all this supposed to take, exactly? The Old Firm have been dominant for a hundred years, and they’re more dominant now than they ever were. The unholy trinity of the Champions’ League, the Taylor Report and the Bosman ruling (which means that smaller teams have to sell their star players to the big boys even sooner than before, or risk losing out on millions of pounds in transfer fees) has pulled up the ladder behind the top few sides for ever. The one thing that absolutely everyone I spoke to in Scottish football for this article agreed on was that the Old Firm’s supremacy was more total and crushing now than it ever had been, and that it was only going to grow more so as time passed.

“But 90% of the money in Scottish football comes from Rangers and Celtic – some of the smaller clubs only survive from the gates they get when the Old Firm come to town.”

Actually, the opposite is true. The Old Firm drain money away from the rest of the Scottish game – you only have to watch the sorry spectacle of fleets of packed supporters’ buses leaving Dundee and Dumfries and Inverness every Saturday bound for Ibrox or Parkhead to see that. Without the pathetic third-hand excitement of Rangers and Celtic to lure them, chances are that a large section of those “supporters” might actually start turning out to see their local side. Even if only, say, a third of them did, the transformation in the fortunes of the lower-division sides (who currently somehow survive on crowds in the low hundreds) would be staggering.

“But there are just far too many clubs for Scottish football to support. David Murray said so.”

Certainly there’s a powerful argument for fewer clubs in the professional game. But it’s worth noting that Scotland’s supported a little under half as many teams as England with a tenth of the population for a hundred years, and that’s with 80% of fans going to see just two sides. Distributing just a fraction of those supporters among the other teams could only make them stronger, and they’re managing to get by as it is.

“But how much fun would Scottish football be if you couldn’t watch Rangers and Celtic unexpectedly losing to Hibs and Kilmarnock occasionally?”

Well, good point. But that’s gallows humour talking. An exciting competitive league would soon put a stop to that kind of petty, small-minded negative thinking (that we all enjoy so very much). Honestly, what would you rather see – your team beating Rangers once in every ten attempts, or winning the league once every ten years?

“But the Premier League is so exciting – with eight teams effectively contesting two relegation places every season, there’s no such thing as a meaningless match. Teams can finish third one season and be relegated the next – ask Dundee United or Aberdeen.”

You probably enjoy badger-baiting, don’t you? Actually, I agree with this point, except that two from eight is probably going just a bit too far. Two from ten would be just as exciting, and a bit less hairy for the clubs concerned, who at the moment are too crippled by fear to play positive football. So it’s “Yes” to leagues of 10, but we still don’t need the Old Firm in them.

And on it goes. While it’s clearly never going to happen, offing the two Glasgow vampires is the only thing that can now resurrect the zombie that is the Scottish League. And while the broader aspects of the issue (“big” teams trying to crush “little” teams to death) apply to all British and European football, really this is a peculiarly Scottish problem. So while the rest of you can sod off and have a laugh, Scottish football fans and lovers of the game in general can join me now in a minute’s silence. 

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VIEWS FROM OUTSIDE THE BOX
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Does money brought into the game by the Old Firm really trickle down to the smaller clubs?

“We received less than £10,000 last year from League sponsorship, and less than £2000 in TV money. Also, the amount of transfer money circulating within the Scottish game has all but disappeared in recent years as the Old Firm have spent their money on expensive foreign imports. It’s also worth pointing out that David Murray and Fergus McCann [Rangers and Celtic chairmen] command such media attention that they’re in a position to formulate the opinions of every newspaper reader in the country – what they say tends to be treated as fact. So when they spend all their time decrying the state of the Scottish game, it actually makes it much harder for smaller clubs to persuade sponsors to invest in it.”
– David Reid, Stenhousemuir FC (Second Division)


Do the Old Firm subsidise everyone else with four-times-a-year big gates
?

“We could survive perfectly well without Rangers and Celtic. Our average gate is around 7,000, whereas with the Old Firm we get about 14,000 – it was more in the old days, but with all-seater stadiums most clubs have reduced capacities, so the effect is diluted. It’s still a useful bonus, but it’s not the difference between survival and bankruptcy.”
– Alan Dick, Motherwell FC (Premier Division)


Would the absence of the Old Firm help attendances by increasing everyone else’s chances of winning competitions occasionally?

“Definitely – many fans are fickle and only watch teams if they win things. And in Scotland, that just doesn’t happen. If crowds were higher, all clubs would be able to be full-time, and that would make more difference to the game than anything else.”
– Charles Kinnear, Arbroath FC (Third Division)


Could Scottish football survive without the Old Firm in its current state?

“Probably not. It’s a facet of Scottish football that Rangers and Celtic are buying more and more foreign talent and putting fewer resources into the development of homegrown players. It is therefore up to the other clubs to do this. It’s doubtful whether the Scottish League’s product would be marketable if Rangers and Celtic left.”
– Dave Maclean, Aberdeen FC (Premier Division)


What about the borderline teams who bounce back and forth between the Premier and First Divisions? Does the extra cash balance the one-in-four chance of being painfully relegated again straight away?

“Well, the financial side in the Premier is as good as it’s ever been for teams like us, but it’s a depressing experience. Realistically, and with the greatest respect to our colleagues at Dundee United, none of the other eight sides in the Premier have the remotest chance of winning it. Without the Old Firm, any of a dozen sides could genuinely win the championship, and that would make for a very healthy league indeed. It’s Catch 22 – but my personal feeling is that that would be much the better option.”
– Malcolm Reid, Dundee FC (First Division)

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    3 to “One (nearly) down, one to go”

    1. Shodan says:

      Great look into the world of Scottish fitba. Maybe some day they'll be sensible enough to listen to you. A healthy game with real competition should be in everyone's interest (aside from the two top parasites dug in at the top and keeping everyone else out). It would be far more exciting to watch, year on year. It would breathe so much more life into local teams and matches for players and viewers.
       
      As good as it would be for one to go and then the next (and so lead to them adopting your idea by default), I get the feeling they'll bounce back somehow from this. Celtic managed to struggle on in the past too. Maybe some Russian billionaire will end up gobbling it up. Then it'll be business as usual, the emphasis on "business".
       
      I've always thought that football and politics had a lot in common.

    2. Tearlach says:

      There is a delicious irony (which I'm sure will be missed by the vast majority of Gers fans) in the fact that it was Her Majesties Revenue and Customs that has brought them to their current position……..

    3. Shodan says:

      It's a good metaphor for the Scottish situation in UK politics. Two big teams (Rangers and Celtic/Labour and Tory) controlling the league to the detriment of all the others and the local teams (just as the two party system destroys political systems and variety within it and to the detriment of areas and political beliefs outside of the SE England priority). Rife with corruption as they've buried themselves in for so long (with virtually no chance of anyone dethroning them within that system), draining revenues and supporters from everyone else and so many in other teams are scared to do anything about it, even if they know it would likely do them good in the long run (the Scottish cringe crew and the "too wee, too poor, too stupid" believers. The solution presented being to cut off the two big teams and form a league of its own (independance and the flourishing of poltics outside of the shadow of the far too dominant big Westminster teams.
       
      In both cases independence and unhiching yourself from that familiar but harmful, uncaring and dominant force is the key to future health and wealth.
       
      You can be subtle when you want to be, Stu.



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