CRAIG STEPHEN was under the impression a Scottish club reversing the trend of glorious failure in European qualifying competition would be a good thing, but he seems to be completely wrong.
Only one Scottish club has played European football past the first week of August this season, a dismal record for a nation with such a proud history on the continent, but not surprising looking at the recent records.
Scottish teams have won three trophies in Europe, one more than so-called superpower France, and while it’s more than three decades since the last one (Aberdeen in the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1983), both Celtic and Rangers have reached the UEFA Cup final in the past 14 seasons, while Aberdeen had a fine run in the same competition in 2006.
Against such relatively modest achievements, the past few seasons have offered nothing but woe, with sides from Malta, Lithuania, Cyprus and Iceland dealing hefty blows to Scotland’s representatives in Europe. This year’s embarrassment was delivered by Rangers, who came a cropper against part-timers Progres Niederkorn, Luxembourg’s fourth ‘best’ team, quite possibly the worst result in history – and there’s been many a contender in the past.
Some joy, not to say relief, would be expected to be emitted from the Scottish media and footballing fraternity at Celtic’s saving grace as they qualified for the group stage for the first time since the 2013-14 season; a 5-0 thumping of Astana at home effectively wrapped up the tie in one fell swoop.
Instead, there were some gripes. The view of some was that having one team so dominant domestically, and doing so well in Europe, meant there was no level playing field, with one team grabbing all the cake and leaving everyone else with the sprinkles.
Ewan Murray, one of the few Scottish journalists who has made it south, bemoaned in the Guardian: “When a club – or two clubs, let us be clear – with fiscal power to dwarf all before them earns another £30m advantage, the case for broader benefit is virtually non-existent. Only two factors serve as counterpoints: other clubs receive a small and variable consolidation payment from UEFA because of Celtic’s progress, and if indigenous players are afforded more game time against top-level opposition then no harm can be done. Beyond that, the benefit is entirely Celtic’s, as they should be perfectly happy to admit in celebration of their own efforts.”
In other words, let’s bring the Glaswegians down a peg or two, because if everyone else are bottom feeders why should one team escape the starving pack.
Celtic are derided when they lose in Europe, as it hinders the country’s UEFA co-efficient, and given short shrift for qualifying as that creates a division between it and all other clubs. A lose-lose situation for the club.
To make it a more level playing field, the Daily Record’s Gary Ralston suggested Rangers should take away the bulk of the tickets afforded to their Glasgow rivals in derby matches to stop the “gloating” from the Celtic End and give the Ibrox side an advantage.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Football Association president Alan McRae voiced his concern, at the end of last season, of Celtic winning the treble as “boring” and insisting that Scotland needs a “strong Rangers.” Mr. McRae is far from the first to issue such a wish, but he is the most senior official to do so.
It’s hard to imagine the English FA’s Greg Clarke saying, for example, that a Chelsea domination was bad for the game without being greeted with derision for trying to cast some influence on who should be lifting the trophies.
As a Montrose fan (sympathiser may be a better term) with a soft spot for any north-east side that does well, my interest is not in defending the champions but, like many fans around the country, I fear for the ambition and desire of the authorities in even attempting to wring Scotland out of its perpetual slump.
To take the logical conclusions of elitism, would Usain Bolt be accused of destroying Jamaican athletics for going so fast? Would Chris Froome be told he is bad for British cycling because he keeps winning the Tour de France? Has anyone ever attempted to bring Ajax down a peg or two so that the Dutch league is more even?
Celtic’s success is a measure of how well the club is run, and how poorly some of the others are. Liquidation and administration have been the tale of many clubs in Scotland since the early 90s, with Celtic itself almost being a victim as it tried to follow the riches-beyond-reality at Rangers.
A prudent financial programme over two decades has ensured healthy coffers at Parkhead against a backdrop of modest television payouts in the Scottish league. An outline plan for a hotel and museum complex outside the stadium was lodged in the new year, and the £30 million cash jackpot gained just by qualifying for the group stages of the Champions League will go some way to aiding Brendan Rodgers’ squad-building ambitions – should he need it.
As much as it pains the 11 other SPL clubs to see one side so far in front, it should be the spur to improving their lot. Aberdeen have made a good fist of being the main challenger, finishing league runners-up for the past three seasons and in both cups last season; Hearts and Hibs are now prudently-run clubs, while St. Johnstone are natural bantamweights competing effectively in the welterweight division.
All of them will benefit financially to the tune of £365,000 each due to the windfall from Celtic’s qualification.
If Scotland needs a contender to Celtic, why can it not be one of the above and not a club that has traditionally been Celtic’s counterpoint.
Scotland’s clubs’ demise in European competition mirrors the national team’s slide in the rankings. Not since 1998 has Scotland qualified for a major tournament, and even UEFA’s expansion of the European Championships to 24 participants failed to muster an effective campaign from Gordon Strachan’s troops, as they watched traditional ‘minnows’ Albania and Iceland grab places instead.
A rational response from the national football authorities would be to tackle the malaise and mediocrity afflicting the game, from top to bottom. A ten-year plan should be created to bolster the sport at every level. The youth development programme should be revisited, as it obviously isn’t bringing new talent to the fore.
The SFA and the SPFL should set achievable targets, on boosting TV money, on reconnecting with ordinary fans, and changing the culture of the ‘up-and-at-em’ playing style that exposes the teams in Europe.
If clubs are unprepared for European qualifying ties that begin in late June, then realign the footballing season, beginning earlier and finishing later. A pre-season tournament for those in Europe, or an early beginning to the League Cup could get the teams battle-ready.
Alas, these simple ideas seem beyond the scope of the blazer brigade in Glasgow whose energies seem to be used more in keeping the natural order of things and repelling the upstarts than on raising the standards. That would threaten their own powers, and we just can’t have that.
The game is dying in Scotland, and just when some feel it can’t get it any lower, well it can. How is Hungarian football doing these days?
FOLLOW CRAIG ON TWITTER @Porkysprimecuts