BY PAUL BREEN
It’s a sign of the times up in Scotland when nobody seems all that bothered about one of the most newsworthy deals of the January transfer window. Rangers Football Club have finally found a near namesake of the Dutchman they’ve been singing about for decades. And this is no Pierre van Hoojidonk, or Giovanni van Bronckhorst. Young Billy King has joined the ranks at Ibrox, after decades of his namesake featuring in tattoos, verse, and T-shirts on the terraces.
Billy King’s signing has been pushed out of the headlines by the performances of some of Scotland’s lesser lights and former giants rising up again to the froth of the Premier League. In the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014, Alex Salmond and others in the Yes Campaign often spoke about Scotland being a more equal society as an independent country. Alex Salmond’s team lost that campaign with a burst of pace from the opposition in the days just before the referendum, after things seemed to be getting as tight as they presently are at the top of the Scottish Premiership table. Aberdeen are the new pretenders to the Scottish throne and Ross County will soon do battle with Hibernian for the League Cup.
There are two ways of looking at this state of affairs as I found this week when I suggested writing an article about how things are going in Scottish football. My own opinion is that it’s good for the Scottish game and for the Old Firm to have a more equal state of affairs up there, as it was back in the early 1980s when Aberdeen and Dundee United assembled teams to rival the very best in Europe. Then, Hearts too were a force to be reckoned with and for the first half of that decade any of almost half a dozen teams might well have won the league. But then along came Rangers with new money, Graeme Souness, and imports from England, and then Europe to dominate the league for nearly a decade.
During the 90s Rangers defeated Leeds in Europe, and Celtic beat Liverpool, as some of Scotland and Europe’s best players graced pitches from Berwick’s borders up to Inverness. But slowly the trickle of wealth coming into the English game grew to a flood and the gap in television money left Rangers spending cash that they didn’t have, as the rest became poor relations of their southern neighbours, apart from Celtic and aberrations like Gretna’s brief flirtation with an English businessman’s riches. Of course there were exceptions here and there such as Kirkcaldy’s capture of the 1994 league cup, which inspired one of Scottish football’s most famous lines about “dancing in the streets of Raith tonight.”
Then in the late 2000s came the fall of Glasgow Rangers, and the separation of the Old Firm for half a decade, probably up until next season. During the time of Rangers’ absence from Scotland’s top table, Celtic have dominated in the league but we have seen a scattering of the other domestic trophies, from Inverness down to Paisley’s St Mirren, and St Johnstone in between.
Rangers’ flight through the lower divisions too has brought attention to clubs long forgotten at the bottom of Saturday’s classified football results pile. There’s a new focus in Scotland then and it’s shifting away from the total dominance of the Old Firm.
When I mentioned this to more ardent fans of the Scottish game I expected great positivity, but some felt that it’s not just about the rise of other teams, but also about a slippage of standards at the top. One former colleague based in Dingwall, the home of Ross County, suggested that a few years back Celtic could have competed in any league in Europe. He now reckons “they’d be fine in Norway but might even struggle in the Welsh league.”
His latter reckoning is slightly tongue in cheek, but the sentiment’s there. Another friend, from Ireland, suggests that the Celtic board are modelling themselves upon Scandinavian clubs rather than their English neighbours, as before, because they realise they cannot compete, even with clubs in the English Championship. You only have to look at the ebb and flow of players through the Scottish game these days. Every transfer window Southampton come calling to Parkhead as regularly as Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool used to visit the south coast. That smacks of a three-tier system where clubs like Southampton are feeders for Liverpool, and clubs like Celtic, and those in the English Championship, are a feeding system for anyone who breaks into the Premier League.
That’s a far cry from Graeme Souness raiding the English League like a border reiver of olden days for players like Gary Stevens and Chris Woods, or the times when there was talk of Rangers and Celtic competing in the Premier League. These days, the Old Firm have to hunt in the mid to lower reaches of the Championship, and perhaps that’s why Rangers have been cunning in appointing Mark Warburton as their manager. Aberdeen’s operations have been shrewd too in this area, capturing the likes of Niall McGinn and Simon Church. Others like Ross County have gone to the Irish Leagues to find talent such as Liam Boyce, formerly of Cliftonville, or picked up players whose early careers were spent there.
Many of those players might have been in the English Championship in the days before TV money trickled down there too, and brought in a wave of highly paid foreign imports. There’s a huge gulf then between England and Scotland in terms of money, prestige, and the standard of players in the top divisions.
This, for Celtic, is having a knock on effect in terms of how they’re getting on in Europe these days. Their decision to emulate the likes of Rosenborg, and try to squeeze into the Champions League on a tight budget, hasn’t really worked. But at the same time, from the viewpoint of other clubs’ fans, it’s better to have domestic competitions that generate excitement 40 weeks a year, than to see Celtic in the spotlight for half a dozen Champions’ League games. The downside is that without good displays by the top teams, the country becomes increasingly marginalised in European football.
However, it could also be argued that the confidence of domestic success for Scotland’s lesser lights will eventually translate into European results. If Celtic can beat Barcelona, and Aberdeen can pip them to the title, then why can they not go out and try to replicate that same success in the Champions League?
There has to be a growing confidence on the part of Aberdeen that they can actually take the title from Celtic this season. Any team that can dish out 8-1 hammerings when they hit peak form is going to be hard to stop, but that Celtic team only turns up sporadically. In seeing the Scottish League as something of a walkover, a few of their players have maybe become complacent and slipped into the habit of playing complacently, dropping points here and there. After their recent league cup semi-final defeat to Ross County, Pat Nevin mentioned that Celtic have got into the habit of dropping points in the league and still winning.
When they carry this attitude into the cups it doesn’t work. It’s this same habit or attitude that Aberdeen can now capitalise on, if they’re up for the fight to win their first league title since 1985. It’s probably important for the Dons to make a real fight of it too for the sake of confidence and re-establishing themselves as genuine contenders, not just keeping the seat warm for Rangers’ return. There’s a danger for the other clubs that next season, normal service is going to resume and it’s all going to be about the Old Firm once more, with blue and green ribbons on all the trophies.
But hopefully, with or without Billy King in their ranks, they’re coming back to a changed league where the old certainties of history are gone. In the long run, I’m sure normal service will be resumed, of sorts, and this season Celtic will possibly emulate the No campaign of the Scottish referendum and race ahead in the dying stages. But whether or not Aberdeen wins the league, this new equalisation has to be good for Scottish football.
They’ve already been dancing in the streets of Dingwall this season. Even fans of the Old Firm might have to admit it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if there’s dancing by the sides of the River Don too before the season’s out. It would be good for the profile of the Scottish game, and create a buzz about next season that’s not just limited to the prospect of Celtic and Rangers battling like ancient kings by an Irish river, and sharing out the spoils of war.
PAUL BREEN – @CharltonMen
Paul Breen’s first novel The Charlton Men is available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Charlton-Men-Paul-Breen/dp/178308166X and a second work is in progress.