BY CRAIG STEPHEN

On the final day of last season, supporters shuffling their way to their seats at White Hart Lane laughed and branded the Scottish Premier League a “mickey mouse league” on hearing that Hibernian and Rangers had just drawn 5-5.

They would then watch Spurs battle to a 5-4 victory over Leicester City. It is not known exactly how those same fans reacted to this ‘mediocre’ display but I suspect few left the stadium feeling short-changed.

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A case of double standards? You bet your Royal Bank of Scotland fivers it is.

This, however, is not an article that will argue that there is little difference between the two leagues: there’s always been a gulf and Scottish fans have long accepted that. There are logical reasons, after all, why so many Scottish footballers have drifted south for well over a hundred years.

But what Scottish fans can’t abide is the incessant downgrading of their sport by ‘experts’ in England and the continual denigration of the game over the border.

Scottish football is a different beast, one that has adapted to a small population, the decline of the national team and the movement of swathes of footballers and coaches to England for decades. You could even argue that English football wouldn’t be as strong as it is if Hughie Gallacher hadn’t gone to Newcastle United, or if Alex Ferguson hadn’t swapped Pittodrie for Old Trafford, if Bill Shankly .. and on it goes.

In recent years it is the poor form in Europe that has left fans reeling. Heartbreakingly for a nation that has won more European cup tournaments than France, it has become the norm for clubs by the beginning of August to already turn their focus on the domestic campaign after the annual inability to get past even modest opposition.

As recently as 2017 St Johnstone – slayers of Rosenborg a few seasons beforehand – fell to a Lithuanian outfit and Rangers were ousted by Luxembourg’s fourth-best side. The year before Hearts had the ignominy of falling to Maltese side Birkirkara and teams from Armenia, Iceland and Ireland have enjoyed success against Scottish sides.

But this year all three Caledonian sides having to do so overcame their first-up foes, albeit modest opposition from Armenia, the Faroe Islands and Macedonia. Those same three sides – Celtic, Hibs and Rangers – then defeated tougher opposition from Norway, Greece and Croatia respectively in the second stage of qualifying.

For one of those clubs, Scottish champions Celtic, overcoming Rosenborg was expected. But for Hibs the 4-3 aggregate success against Asteras Tripolis partly atoned for decades of early qualifying defeats, culminating in the 9-0 aggregate thrashing to Malmo in 2013, with all but two of those goals being conceded at Easter Road.

Even before the second legs were completed, one journalist was celebrating the upturn in fortunes – and there was also the impressive but valiant performance of Aberdeen against Burnley – without pinpointing any reason why there could be an improvement. Even if those three clubs hadn’t progressed there was at least the feeling that Scottish clubs hadn’t embarrased themselves again.

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I write as the third-round ties involving Celtic, Hibs and Rangers are delicately poised and all three could tumble out of their respective competitions – though a loss by Celtic against Greek champions AEK Athens would allow them a second bite through the Europa League.

Continued progression will, naturally, give Scotland’s woeful coefficient a boost. And it needs it after the country sank to its lowest spot, 26th, for 21 years.

Former Chelsea and Celtic star and now respected and opinionated pundit on both sides of the border, Chris Sutton, is well-placed to make an observation. And after the so-called Battle of Britain in Aberdeen, Sutton described the tie as a mismatch off the pitch but very close on it.

“We talk about the budgets, the markets that both teams work in and there are some knockers down south of the Scottish league; but Aberdeen did Scotland proud.”

To put it in perspective, Burnley earned £120m from TV rights alone last season, after finishing seventh in the English Premier League. Aberdeen gained just £2m due to a poorly-arranged television deal.

This summer alone there was anguish about Aberdeen striker Adam Rooney choosing up and coming Salford City – still a National League side despite the millionaire former players Manchester United driving it – over staying in the north-east due to a better offer. There was much gnashing of teeth but Rooney is 31 and doesn’t have many more money-making years left.

A better example is John McGinn the Hibs star who has just moved to Aston Villa in a million-pound deal.

Or to look at the names of the mangers in the SPL – Brendan Rodgers at Parkhead, Steve Clarke at Kilmarnock and one Steven Gerrard at Ibrox, a move that allowed the agreedly Rangers-friendly media a further opportunity to drool at happenings on Glasgow’s southside. The first two have managed in the EPL and could have been tempted by big-money deals elsewhere, while Gerrard has the name to generate income and publicity after such a long and prestigious playing career. It’s largely been forgotten in the swirl of celeb-gazing that he has only managed an under 18 team, and that for just one season.

While the aforementioned mainstream media writers hailing these surprise performances were unable to explain the upturn, Chris Sutton certainly can.

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“You’ve got Hearts on the up, Hibs on the up. Steven Gerrard has gone to Rangers, you’ve got Brendan Rodgers at Celtic… the game is on the rise, attendances are on the rise. It’s not all about money.

“I don’t like the flak that flies both ways, from Scotland to England and vice versa. They’re both good leagues in their own right. They both have things going for them.”

Watching Hibs play in Greece against Asteras Tripolis, it was noticeable that the team didn’t seem overawed, nor did it play with the same naivety that seems to have been the way clubs did in the past. Perhaps, the learning curve is being bent in their favour.

FOLLOW CRAIG ON TWITTER @Porkysprimecuts

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