SPL reality - part 1
Although there have been murmurings of discontent from fans for several years, the penny now seems to have dropped at an official level with several SPL clubs now appearing to acknowledge that the game is not in great shape.
Against the backdrop of a declining national team, both Old Firm teams seem to be failing to satisfy their fans` demand for entertainment - yet both are apparently keen to play on a bigger stage than the SPL. Indeed one of them has a severe debt and is looking for a wealthy investor to take ownership. Meanwhile, fans of many teams are complaining at high ticket prices for poor quality entertainment and a scarcity of goals.
Yet the new SPL chief executive Neil Doncaster gave an interview recently where he claimed that recent final-day deciders prove that entertainment is alive and well. Clearly, he hasn`t had to endure many 0-0 draws on a wet Wednesday at Westfield !!
So if the Old Firm can go into the final day neck-and-neck, and a small group of teams can fight it out for 3rd and 4th some 30 points behind, that`s ok ? Is that all that matters to fans ?
Among the reasons being mentioned by Celtic and Rangers for wanting to consider a move to England or Europe is to allow them to afford a "higher calibre of player." Really ? Does that mean the millions spent buying half the Hibs team from a few years back was money wasted ? Did they not know the players weren`t "good enough" before they splashed out the money ? If so, whose fault is that ?
It seems to me they are finally admitting that the prospect of ANY home-grown youngsters being coached in Scotland by ANY club to play at "their level" is now remote. Surely Jock Stein would be turning in his grave at this mentality, having won the European Cup with 11 Scots players - 9 of whom had known no other senior club than Celtic at the time.
Of course, there is a huge irony in seeing the Old Firm bleat about not being able to afford the players they perceive are needed to compete against the big teams. The rest of us have been in that position within Scotland for decades, with no possibility of finding another league to play in. Yet each of them has succeeded in reaching the UEFA final in recent years - an admirable achievement, proving that now and again anything is possible, in the same way as it is possible for Hearts to win the Scottish Cup or win the occasional away match at Parkhead. But unexpected trophy success often comes at a price. In an effort to justify the raised expectations of fans, clubs cannot seem to resist over-stretching themselves financially - which tends to lead to a downward spiral in playing fortunes a few years down the line. Hearts fell into this trap following the 1998 Cup win, with drastic consequences which we are still living with.
With last week`s rejection by the English Premier League, the Old Firm are now forced to take a reality check. Modern club football is now dominated by the big names in the big countries, where TV sponsorship and footballing pedigree count for everything.
Sadly, we have to accept that Scotland is indeed a small country, with 2 dominant clubs who are not big enough to operate consistently alongside the Bayern Munichs, Benficas and Barcelonas of Europe. Can a country of 5 million support even one team (never mind 2 teams) who aspire to be among the elite in Europe ? If so, then surely we`d see a Norwegian or Swedish or Swiss or Finnish club get to the last 8 in Europe regularly ?
So the immediate challenge for the Old Firm is to try to manage the expectations of their fans. Celtic chairman John Reid appeared to be doing just that at their recent AGM by reminding their fans just how close the club were to bankruptcy in the early 90s, and warning that the club won`t be spending silly money again.
So its back to the good old SPL for the Old Firm, where they can still dominate and make do with being only 15 points ahead of the rest at the end of each season, instead of 30. Trying to stretch their annual European adventure out to beyond December is likely to be the coveted prize for the foreseeable future.