11 October 2009

The Old Firm and the SPL

As my old friend Rob has noted, that old chestnut of the Old Firm heading for the English setup is back. Again. Now, in many ways this fact is probably the biggest argument in favour of letting Rangers and Celtic move as it means that the back pages of Scottish newspapers need never again be filled with such tedious handwringing. But on a more serious level, I'm not sure it's all it's cracked up to be:

Firstly, there's the idea of stadium capacity. Celtic can fit 60,000 into their ground and Rangers more than 50,000 but Newcastle United had the third-largest stadium capacity in last year's Premiership. They now have the largest ground in the Championship, so the lesson we can draw from Newcastle (and the lesson that the Glasgow teams would do well to remember) is that gate receipts don't determine the league table.

Plus which, the main rationale for the OF heading for England would be to compete better in Europe. Now, let's see: the English Premiership is dominated by the Big 4 - Man U, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool - with Man City using their new found wealth to break into that rather cosy cartel. It's rather similar to the Old Firm's dominance of the SPL, except no one is as yet seriously advocating that the major teams up sticks and move to a European SuperLeague where they don't have to slum it at places like the Reebok Stadium. Anyway, the English League is allocated four Champions' League places and three Europa League places - so that's five of the seven European spots - including all the CL spots - filled before the Old Firm even get a sniff. That's just two left and the OF will face tough competition for them from Spurs, Aston Villa and even Everton in a good year. And if you think that the Old Firm have a snowball's chance in Hell against the Big 4/5 in a competitive environment, just bear in mind what happened to Celtic against Arsenal: they found themselves in the position that Wigan usually end up in against the major teams - with the notable exception of the Latics' 3-1 victory over Chelsea last month, of course. Now, the Wigan model is fine for clubs like, well, Wigan. Or Reading. Or Hull before Phil Brown's canoe plunged over the edge of Lunacy Falls. Or Burnley. It should not be a consideration for the Old Firm. Ever. A move South wouldn't be a ticket to a better Champions' League performance, but a passport to mid-table obscurity and a season that has fizzled out by March.

Then there's the effect on the other 10 SPL teams. With money tight - so tight that Aberdeen couldn't sign anyone of note this Summer - every penny counts and it's a question of bums on seats.

Pittodrie's highest attendance last season was against Rangers - 20,441 and more than 7,000 higher than the average. Tannadice's highest gate was the Helicopter Sunday title decider against Rangers: 14,077 and 5,000 greater than average. Rugby Park saw almost double the average gate turn up to see them play Rangers. The closest thing to a capacity crowd that the Falkirk Stadium saw last season was against Rangers. 4,000 greater than the average gate turned up at Fir Park when Rangers were away to Motherwell. Inverness CT's highest gate came against Celtic. And the closest thing to full that New Douglas Park got was the Rangers game. So out of ten non-OF clubs, seven saw their highest gates come against the Old Firm. Of the other three, two grounds saw their highest gates for the Edinburgh derby, while St. Mirren Park got its highest gate for the new stadium's official opening.

But the clubs can't open a new stadium every week, so with the exception of the Edinburgh derby, the implication is clear: Old Firm games = ticket sales. That's part of the reason that the SPL insists on teams playing each other at least three occasions. That means extra visits from the big boys, and extra gate receipts. That's something the other clubs might want to bear in mind before they start muttering 'Good riddance'. And that's before you ask just how easy it would be to market an Old Firm-free SPL for TV rights. You think the Sky/ESPN deal was crap? Enjoy your slot on BBC Alba, kicking off at 3:15 on a Sunday, with the second half clashing with the main Super Sunday fixture on Sky.

Then there's the old chestnut that the Old Firm hoover up the talent from the other clubs, particularly Hearts and Hibs. Except that since the 2008 Summer transfer window, only two players have gone to Glasgow from another SPL club: Willo Flood - who was on loan to Dundee United from Cardiff anyway - and Lukasz Zaluska. Hibs lost as many players to Berwick Rangers in the last transfer window alone as the entire SPL-10 did to Celtic and Rangers in the last two combined. Right now, the Championship is the main destination for players - if they're lucky - and that'll still be the case wherever the Old Firm play.

And as for the Old Firm? Well, as Rob points out, they wouldn't be wise to buy the likes of Novo or Flood and would have to set their sights a little higher. Unfortunately, such players are the best they can afford. Celtic are treading water and Rangers are still in debt, and while they'd get more TV money in the Premiership, that would be offset by the loss of European income in the time it took to assemble a squad that could compete for a European place, and even then, they'd still be outgunned by the Big 5. There'd be a gulf between what they needed and what they could get, and their only hope would be to emulate Steve Bruce's scouting network and poach someone from Peru or El Salvador.

Then there's the famous 'Welsh Precedent' or 'Liechtenstein Principle'. What the latter overlooks is that Lichtenstein doesn't even have a league of its own - only a cup, which is nearly always won by FC Vaduz, who got relegated from the Swiss top flight last season. Even the Welsh Precedent overlooks the fact that the modern Welsh setup was put in place a century after its English counterpart, so UEFA hasn't as yet had to deal with a club quitting their existing national set up for someone else's - usually, the reverse is true. But with the Welsh Premier League now running, how has playing in England been for those who stayed behind?

Cardiff and Swansea have done OK out of things: the former is well established in the Championship - and can poach a number of SPL players - but the Premiership remains just tantalisingly out of reach. Swansea are in the Championship and are doing OK for themselves, albeit missing Roberto Martinez. As for the others, Wrexham are now in the Conference, and are lucky to remain in existence after a turbulent couple of years off the pitch. Newport County are plying their trade in the Conference South, Colwyn Bay have eschewed the Welsh League for the glitz and glamour of ties against the likes of Chorley, Bamber Bridge and Leigh Genesis in the footballing hothouse that is the Unibond First Division North. Merthyr Tydfil, meanwhile, are rooted to the bottom of the Southern Premier League, and have been in administration for the last four months. The Old Firm are likely to do better than even Cardiff and Swansea, but should remember that England is not necessarily the land of milk and honey.

Then the Welsh teams who formed the Premier League haven't had life easy in Europe either. In fact, in the last five years, only three teams have ever made it beyond their first tie and no team has played more than two. Scottish teams take note: even if UEFA lets Scotland keep the co-efficient points that the Old Firm have accumulated on the others' behalf - despite Rangers losing to Kaunas and Celtic to Artmedia Bratislava - a slide down the rankings is surely inevitable. After all, only one non-Old Firm team has played more than one tie this season: Motherwell (who, funnily enough, beat Llanelli) - and they only got in because of the Fair Play rules, and benefited from being placed in the First Qualifying Round against teams primarily from leagues of - how can I put this? - a weaker reputation in European football. Imagine Hearts filling Rangers' place in the Champions' League Group stage - in Pot 4, probably against Man United, CSKA Moscow and Besiktas (based on Olympiakos replacing Rangers in Pot 2, and Wolfsburg replacing them in Pot 3). Imagine Aberdeen's Champions' League Qualifier against Panathinaikos. Even if they beat them, can you imagine Aberdeen up against Arsenal? Even if Dundee United and Hibs got something together - and Hibs' record in the old Intertoto Cup was less than stellar, remember - the likelihood is that Scotland would be sliding down the UEFA Club Rankings faster than you could say "national disgrace".

And of course, that's predicated on the Old Firm's points staying in Scotland. As things stand,
for the next two seasons, Scotland will have two teams in the Champions' League Third Qualifying Round, then three teams in the Europa League qualifiers, coming in in the Second, Third and Fourth Rounds. Without the Old Firm's points, Scotland's entitlement dwindles to a team in the Second Qualifying Round of the Champions' League, and three teams in the Europa League: one definitely in the Second Qualifying Round (where Falkirk got knocked out), one definitely in the First, and one in either depending on whether or not UEFA had to award a special place in the Group Stage to the winner of the previous season's Europa League. While comparisons with the League of Ireland may seem unfounded when you look at the health and attendance of clubs there, that's exactly the same position that the Irish were in this year when it comes to European football.

Basically, for European football, the Old Firm and the SPL need each other. Full stop. Without one, the other can't make real inroads into Europe.

And even if you disregard the absence of European cash, the change to the Old Firm's balance sheets by defecting to the Premiership wouldn't translate into anything useful, and the loss of the Old Firm would do massive financial harm to a League that needs every revenue stream it could currently get.

The Old Firm still wouldn't get players of the required calibre, and their departure wouldn't stem the flow of players out of the other clubs. Right now, the Old Firm benefit from being big fish in a small-ish pond. Certainly they benefit more from that than they would from competing for ninth place with the likes of Fulham, Sunderland and Wigan.

Even in England, 18 Premiership teams might benefit from extra gate receipts when the Old Firm come to town, but to make way for Rangers and Celtic, Premiership status would have to be withheld to others - possibly one extra team relegated and one fewer team promoted from the Championship. Can you imagine being in 17th place in the Premiership that year, booted out of the League solely to make way for a pair of Glaswegian cash cows? Can you imagine being second in the Championship, and losing a play-off you wouldn't even have to play under normal circumstances, or being sixth and being denied a play-off place that would, ordinarily, be yours? And then there'd be the ripple effect down the English pyramid, as clubs had to make way for others knocked down because of changes at the top? Imagine supporting a team who would lose League status because of this. Even if you implemented Phil Gartside's proposed Premiership 2, that would have the same impact as the SPL 2 proposed for Scotland. It would still be a side-show, and miss the point of why the top flight teams broke away in the first place.

No. This would represent a bit of extra cash for the Old Firm that wouldn't do much good in the Premiership transfer market so would be counter-productive in terms of European ambition, and a few extra gate receipts for the lucky teams. But the damage it would do to so many clubs, in Scotland and in England, would be immense. It's not worth it.

The Old Firm have to stay. For now, at least. Even if that means a few more years of those turgid newspaper headlines.


Bucket of Tongues said...

Agree with you that the Old Firm need to stay within SPL. Sometimes pains me to hear them run down Scottosh football, as though they are somehow seperate from it!

But they are trapped within the big-fish-small-pond problem caused by the influx of satellite and Champions League money. (Same with Ajax, Porto, etc etc). All UEFA's fault of course - a total abdication of sporting values in the pursuit of commerce - but until the bubble bursts they will be only too happy to ride that train. Greed and avarice: UEFA stands self-condemned.

western european super-league said...

The old firm should from a league with other big sides from small nations. Then cut the SPL to 22 games a year then use the extra weeks to have this new european league. Scottish sides would all be able to qualify for the league.
The present system is killing the game it is tedious and miserable.
Creating a european league would enable ambitious scottish sides outside of the old firm to match them.