Armageddon days are here again

This is meant to be the age of constant change, but not as far as the Scottish football authorities are concerned.

By Gerry Hassan

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

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We are living through - in terms of the top league - the most uncompetitive, closed period of our game. And yet, at the same time, we have just been gifted this small window of opportunity whereby clubs outside the Old Firm have had unprecedented success at least in cup competitions

A couple of months ago, the new Scottish football season kicked off. On the first Sunday of the season I sat down to watch BBC Scotland’s ‘Sportscene’, and waited through the programme for the Championship highlights, which had been such an attractive and fresh part of the programme the previous year when Rangers were in the second tier.

I naively imagined that considering the division’s excitement, success as a real competition, and the big teams contained within it, that the BBC would be continuing their coverage. Of course not – the BBC, and live broadcasters BT and Sky Sports, could not wait to get back to the pale diet of football as it was pre-Rangers implosion.

Why be surprised? This is what the football authorities, broadcasters and mainstream media want. The return of the circus of the regular ‘Old Firm’ fixture, and the restoration of the cartel crony capitalism of our two biggest clubs. This is competition as farce, and almost merits investigation under trade descriptions, what with Scotland having the joint most uncompetitive league in Europe these last 20-plus years along with the Ukraine (both leagues only being won by two teams since the inception of the Champions League).

I want to take a long view of Scottish football in this piece, and the near-complete absence of any real competition over the history of the game. At the same time, I want to look at some of the short periods when it has been different and competitive, and see if there is anything we can learn. In short, is there anyway out of a return to the discredited, predictable ancient regime?

To begin with, we need to understand the events of recent years, during which Rangers went into administration, then were liquidated, and had to start anew as a club in Scotland’s lowest league, before taking four years to come back through the lower tiers to take their place in the Premiership.

This can only be understood as an age of disruption: as a challenge to all the assumptions that characterise and fill the game. These include the relationship of mutual loathing and dependency that Celtic and Rangers fans have for each other, the notion that ‘Scottish football needs a successful Rangers’, and of course, the spectre of ‘Armageddon’ raised by Neil Doncaster, then head of the Scottish Premier League, and the Scottish FA chief executive Stewart Regan if Rangers didn’t remain in the top league.

Instead, what happened in Scotland’s age of disruption was that the predictable, stale menu of pseudo-competition was partly blown apart. Partly, in that the senior league title was revealed as the farce it is – even when Celtic and Rangers are in the same division – but that in cup competitions and overall, a new culture of unpredictability emerged giving teams outwith the ‘Old Firm’ a realistic chance of silverware.

Numerous events happened. First, the teams of Scotland’s lower leagues suddenly got TV and media attention, along with crowds when Rangers came to town. And to a small, but significant degree, there was a redistribution of monies compared to the previous order through the lower leagues. In some cases, this influx of cash might be enough to see some of the smaller clubs through a couple more seasons, add to their squad, or improve their ground. This was the overall effect of the Rangers trickle-down.

Secondly, but just as importantly, football is – for many fans outside the ‘Old Firm’, the English Premier League elite and Champions League – about hopes and memories, often far in the distance and fast receding. Memories, for many small clubs, are often of bygone days when they were in the top league when it contained 18 teams, or when they won a lower league or cup. These sorts of recollections – of remembering why it is worth all the sacrifice and effort – are intrinsic to the game and the time and love which goes into keeping our small clubs going against all the pressures and odds.

The last four years provided a plethora of fresh memories and stories to Scotland’s wee clubs. These include Alloa putting Ally McCoist’s Rangers out of the Challenge Cup 3-2 after being 2-0 down with 15 minutes to play; Albion Rovers coming to Ibrox and only being bullied out of a 1-0 victory after what amounted to a physical assault on the visitors’ goalkeeper led to a late equaliser; and ‘the Blue Brazil’ of Cowdenbeath getting some honour back by drawing 0-0 with Rangers just days after being humiliated 10-0 by Hearts. These are but a few of many such stories but the above, and others, will live on for decades – told and retold by future generations, about the times when Rangers came to town and the unexpected became the possible, and even on occasion, the expected.

Finally, in the big picture something huge shifted. Celtic won four top-flight titles at a canter, but overall across all 12 senior tournaments, they won only 50% (four league titles, one Scottish Cup, one Scottish League Cup), with the rest shared equally across six clubs. Celtic’s success was, as we will see below, above their historic harvest but, bereft of Rangers, they accounted for the entire ‘Old Firm’ share – a significant reduction compared to trend. This is a pattern not seen since the Aberdeen-Dundee United ‘New firm’ insurrection of the 1980s when, in a much more serious challenge to the old order, both teams not only won the title, but performed wonders in Europe.

In this short period, St. Johnstone, Inverness Caleonian Thistle and Hibernian all won the Scottish Cup, while St Mirren, Aberdeen and Ross County lifted the League Cup. Romance and unpredictability became the new norm, and new moments of joy – and heartache – were created. Some major historical firsts were created, as St Johnstone, Inverness and Ross County all won their first major silverware, the former after decades in senior football, and the latter two as relatively newcomers who entered the senior leagues just over 20 years ago. And, of course, there was the potent story of Hibs finally winning the Scottish Cup again after a 114-year wait.

What is there not to admire in the above picture, apart from the problem with the top league? Armageddon never looked more attractive. But no Henry McLeish review is awaiting publication on how to aid competition in our game, something which is meant to be central to it but, for so long, hasn’t been in ours.

The Long View of the Scottish Game

Four years ago, I compiled an overall analysis of the Scottish game and the dispersal of senior trophies from the first Scottish Cup to the present day. It was motivated by the air of crisis and panic among the football authorities in early 2012, as talk emerged of Rangers going into administration. It even got me the dubious pleasure of going on – as a non-football pundit – my first and only BBC ‘Sportsound’ with Chick Young and Gordon Smith, hosted by Jim Spence.

I subsequently updated the data at the end of the 2011-12 season and, while watching that first ‘Sportscene’ with a mixture of disbelief and non-shock, decided to return to it and adjust for the four previous years. The table below covers the main Scottish League championship (Division One to 1974-75, Premier Division, then Premier League, followed by Premiership), Scottish Cup and League Cup, along with the main European trophies (excluding the Super Cup). Where teams are tied on the same number of trophies I have adopted a higher ranking for the league, followed by the Scottish Cup and then League Cup.

The findings are fascinating. A total of 28 clubs have won at least one piece of silverware, three up from four years ago; 23 of those clubs are still in the senior game, with Third Lanark, Vale of Leven, Renton, Airdrie and St. Bernard’s having disappeared. That means 19 of Scotland’s current senior clubs have never experienced winning major silverware. Since the first Scottish Cup of 1873-74, Celtic and Rangers have won 213.5 out of 322 trophies, or 66.3%. This means 108.5 trophies have been won by non-Old Firm clubs, or 33.7%.

On first impressions, this does not look like too bad a distribution considering the unbalanced nature of our game. But take a closer look.. Celtic and Rangers have won 84.5% of all league championships (100.5 out of 119), 53.1% of Scottish Cups (69 out of 130) and 60% League Cups (42 out of 70). We should take note of the oft-made claim that Rangers hold the world record for the most league championships, which is regularly put at 54. In fact, the correct total is 53.5 – the other half title belonging rightly to Dumbarton who jointly won the first ever title with them.

In the seasons in which Scotland has had three domestic trophies, only twice have Celtic or Rangers failed to win one between them. Those non-Old Firm clean sweeps were seasons 1951-52 and 1954-55, when first Hibs won the league, Motherwell the Scottish Cup and Dundee the League Cup, and second, Aberdeen won the league, Clyde the Scottish Cup and Hearts the League Cup.

The dominance of the Old Firm hasn’t always been so. It took until the 19th Scottish Cup in 1891-92 for one of the Glasgow teams – Celtic – to win it. The Scottish League was established in 1890-91 and professionalism was not introduced until 1893, when the SFA bowed to what was the inevitable. This decision marked the final closure on Queen’s Park’s dominance of the first two decades of the game in this country and the strengthening of the power of Celtic and Rangers.

As Bob Crampsey wrote in his history of Queen’s Park: “Queen’s also saw and warned that the certain effect of a moneyed game within Scotland would be to tip the scales far too heavily in favour of the big city clubs. As long as those intangible things called honour and prestige were all that were at stake, then a local lad might just as well play for his village or small town, with which he at least had an affinity. Pay him, and he would sell his sword to the highest bidder.”

What can we learn from all of the above? Short of the Scottish game renouncing its professional status and going back to its amateur days, is any rebalancing possible? It would be wonderful if we lived in some sort of parallel universe whereby the Scottish football authorities dared to institutionalise disruption until the game found some kind of competitive edge. Possibilities here could include the madcap notion that when one member of the Old Firm returns to the top league putting the other member down to the lowest league, and repeating ad nauseam until the top league finds some kind of equilibrium and a non-Old Firm team wins the title.

Sounds crazy doesn’t it? But this is a time for crazy talk. We are living through – in terms of the top league – the most uncompetitive, closed period of our game. And yet, at the same time, we have just been gifted this small window of opportunity whereby clubs outside the Old Firm have had unprecedented success at least in cup competitions.

This season will mark 32 years since someone other than Celtic or Rangers won the domestic title. That was Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen. Margaret Thatcher was only halfway through her reign as Prime Minister. The poll tax had yet to be devised. The miners’ strike had just ended. Bob Geldof was a youngish upstart who put on the ‘Live Aid’ gig in aid of the human tragedy of the Ethiopian famine. We are talking about a Scotland and UK that was a different world.

We have to do something about this and our football authorities have to understand that competition is urgently required for the well-being of everyone in the game. As it stands, Celtic and Rangers suffocate and distort our game while, at the same time, our unbalanced football contributes to them being minnows who each year lose ground in the big marketplace of the European game. So when Celtic get embarrassed 7-0 by Barcelona, the response of many non-Old Firm fans is to say, ‘now you know how we feel’. Understandable, but not really very helpful.

Short of Celtic and Rangers going off into their dreamland of English football, or decanting to a Qatar or Dubai football facility where they play each other 38 times in a league involving just the two of them, something has to happen if our game isn’t just to continue its slow, inexorable decline into international irrelevance.

I wish I had a silver bullet suggestion to magically change things. Bereft of that, one big change would be if Celtic and Rangers stopped dreaming of fields more financially lucrative just over the border and gave, say, a 10-year commitment to growing our game and recognising that they would be strengthened by such competition. A formula could be agreed by the football authorities of redistributing monies – even players – to aid the coming threat of Aberdeen, Hearts, Hibs, the Highland side, the two Dundee clubs, and others, to be serious title challengers.

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful experience to watch a Scottish domestic game which was unpredictable and where honours and, in particular, the title were more evenly shared? We have just witnessed by accident a very small opening which has shown what a more competitive game looks like, and we have had such periods in the past, some of which have been golden eras of our game.

Do our football authorities even have the wit to recognise that there is a huge problem in our game, and that the return of Rangers merely entrenches the problem? Or is it really back to the future of Scotland from 1985 onward and the same old predictable order? The answer is obvious, but we can dream and hope. And when change doesn’t happen, don’t expect some of us – in particular, a new generation of fans tempted by the allure of English and European football – to remain interested. This is meant to be the age of constant change, but not as far as the Scottish football authorities are concerned.

As for me, I am off to junior football. Goals, friendly crowds and all for £6 maximum a game. And yes, there is constant competition. Maybe the big game could learn a thing or two from them. Otherwise Armageddon Days will be here again, but of a very different kind to that invoked by Doncaster and Regan in the summer of 2012.

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

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