By Chris Hammond
The SPL has been broken as a competition for the best part of 20 years. And while the dissolution and subsequent resurrection of Rangers will have some negative impacts on the game’s top flight, there is an opportunity now for the Scottish Football Authorities and clubs to change things for the better.
While the tabloids would like to whitewash away the period where the Old Firm didn’t win everything at a canter, that moment did in actual fact exist for well over a decade.
Between 1978 and 1992 Scottish football, at all levels, was at its zenith.
During those fourteen seasons the national side qualified for four consecutive World Cups, Aberdeen claimed two European trophies, Dundee Utd narrowly missed out on winning one and Scots crammed all conquering English sides like Liverpool and Nottingham Forrest.
International and European success aside, our top league was also a hell of a lot more exciting. During those fourteen seasons Celtic and Rangers both won the league five times each, while Aberdeen managed to win three titles and Dundee Utd chipped in with one. Hearts would even have grabbed the trophy once were it not for a final day goal difference swing.
Interestingly, over that same period, the Old Firm only finished, the season occupying both first and second spots twice. In fact on occasion there were as many as five sides fighting it out for the right to be the top side in the country. Exciting stuff eh?
So what went wrong?
You could point to the Bosman ruling depriving smaller sides of valuable income. You could argue the Old Firm attracted sugar daddies happy to bankroll success (disastrously in thecase of Rangers). You could look at the introduction of (and the unfair distribution of) television money. You could also make a case for the fact teams like Aberdeen and Hearts, while in a position of power, failed to capitalise on their success. And you’d definitely have to say the influx of expensive but not necessarily gifted overseas players hasn’t helped.
In short, everything possible went wrong and as football became more of a business and less of a sport the bigger clubs flourished and the smaller sides fell away. The gap in recent years between first and third has been brutal, and while it could narrow because of the recent crisis, any real balancing out will take seasons to secure.
With Rangers being out of the way for the next three seasons, only the overly optimistic or dangerously drunk would bet against Celtic winning the league at a canter over that period. And why shouldn’t they? Manager Neil Lennon can currently field a side which cost him more than £20 million and boasts a striker reportedly being paid close to £30,000 a week. The last (and only) time a non-Old Firm side spent £1 million on a player was in 1995 and you’d struggle to find a top player at the likes of Dundee Utd, Hibs or Motherwell on even as much as 10% of £30,000a week. Celtic’s success has already been bought.
How do the others close the gap?
Purchasing rather than nurturing talent isn’t the way to go. The successful sides of seasons 1978 to 1992 largely bought young inexpensive talent from lower leagues while also training their own. Back then, purely Scottish starting elevens were the rule rather than the exception and the national team reaped the benefits of this.
Of the 22 man squad to face the USA in a recent Scotland friendly only Shaun Maloney, Charlie Mulgrew and Allan McGregor came through the youth ranks of either Old Firm club. Even when perusing a list of players excluded from the game through injury we could only find three others who may have been included, namely Charlie Adam, Alan Hutton and James Forrest.
Since it opened in 2001 Rangers’ Murray Park has offered fans of the Glasgow club a rather underwhelming return. Not that city rivals Celtic can boast about their commitment to blooding youngsters. Last season CIES Football Observatory noted that the Parkhead Club had the lowest amount of domestic players of any side in Europe, with 84 per cent of their players coming from overseas. For the national team to flourish, more Scottish players need to be getting games for our top sides.
And don’t believe the pessimists when they say there isn’t talent emerging across Scotland. Anyone who has seen Motherwell’s Jamie Murphy, Heart’s Craig Templeton, Aberdeen’s Ryan Jack, St. Mirren’s Kenny McLean or Johnny Russell at Dundee Utd will be well aware of the fact the talent exists.
With Rangers now in the Third Division it’s likely that any financial ramifications will discourage teams, Celtic included, from buying in overseas talent. The hope is that all sides in the top flight will be encouraged to offer chances to their youth players rather than imported journeymen.
Of course there are other issues which need to be addressed alongside the stagnation of our youth players. Perhaps most pressing is the need to change the SPL voting system. In previous seasons either Old Firm side could essentially veto league changes thanks to the need for an 11-1 majority. An 8-4 system would be much fairer and help increase the sway of all clubs.
With that out the way there’s a very real possibility that prize money, as well as sponsorship and television revenues, could be redistributed more evenly across all twelve clubs. While these figures aren’t going to alter the footballing pecking order overnight an extra £100,000 to Dundee or St.Mirren will certainly be a welcome extra.
The addition of some more sides to the top flight would also be welcomed by fans and players. Of last season’s First Division Falkirk, Hamilton Academical, Partick Thistle and Raith Rovers would all add something to the league. Falkirk and Hamilton in particular have recently focused on good football and giving youngsters a game.
The winning formula which keeps the SPL interesting from top to bottom for the full season won’t be discovered overnight, but the SPL’s commitment to reconstruction is encouraging and maybe, just maybe, the fans will be given something which actually works for the benefit of the game.
Till any of this transpires, fans of all our teams need to recognise that while there may be tough times ahead for Scottish football finances, with your backing in the stands and terraces there’s every chance the game could start to move in the right direction and deliver the leagues and national sides we’ve been sorely lacking since the early 1990s.