Following the confirmation that Rangers will soon be plying their trade in the top-tier of Scottish football, it seems an appropriate time to discuss the current state of our nation’s premier division.
Four years ago, the SFA’s chief executive issued a bleak warning. If rival chairmen voted in favour of Rangers being banished to the basement of the Scottish leagues, a ”slow and lingering death” would befall various top-flight clubs. Within a matter of weeks, numerous clubs would meekly succumb to the inevitable fate of administration. Stewart Regan’s ominous forebodings were echoed by Neil Doncaster. In turn, a number of national media outlets would gleefully jump upon the bandwagon and salivate in anticipation. ‘Armageddon’ was coming. Or was it?
Four years later, Rangers won’t be emerging into some sort of barren wasteland. No supporter has witnessed their club’s untimely demise. In fact, the Scottish Premiership is in remarkable health. Attendances have only fluctuated slightly, with some top-flight clubs even seeing a rise in figures. Celtic have, understandably, suffered the most. Their average home support has seen a significant decrease. Poor on-pitch performances won’t have done much to aid this situation throughout recent months, but Rangers’ promotion could nonetheless act as a revitalising boost for their Glasgow rivals.
Since 2012, comparatively ‘small’ clubs have enjoyed the most successful periods in their history. St. Johnstone, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Ross County have won their first major trophies. Saints and Caley have represented their country in the Europa League. The former, remarkably, are currently aiming to achieve their 5th consecutive European qualification. Without the stranglehold of the Old Firm, seven clubs have won major trophies: Hearts, Kilmarnock, St. Mirren, Aberdeen and the three clubs already mentioned.
The top league is more competitive than ever, whilst lower-league finances have undoubtedly benefited from the travelling Rangers support. Apart from Celtic, it’s a fairly level playing field at the peak of the national game. Since the start of the current season, supporters of most Premiership teams have taken a moment to glance anxiously at the bottom half of the league table. Nobody’s safety is guaranteed.
Although I believe this to be a positive thing, some high-profile pundits have taken the opposite view. During the televised pre-match discussion in the build-up to last month’s League Cup final between Ross County and Hibernian, Gordon Strachan seemingly thought it was a sensible time to voice his opinions on the matter. Rather than discussing the show-piece occasion itself, the Scotland manager decided to bemoan the fact that Hibs aren’t a Premiership team anymore. Fair enough. But then he took it one step further. There must be some way, he said, to avoid this in future. Too many big clubs are falling out of the big league. Rangers, Hearts and Hibs have already fallen out of the big league. Dundee United might fall out of the big league soon. The league system needs to be restructured so we don’t lose our best teams from the big league.
I am paraphrasing, yes, but that is roughly the gist of what he said. Unlike Strachan, most people surely realise that we haven’t lost our best teams from the Premiership. Hibs were relegated because they were the second-worst team in the Premiership. Rangers and Hearts paid the price for financial misdemeanours. The latter didn’t possess a strong enough team to recover from a points deduction. Funnily enough, Dundee United are currently bottom of the league because they haven’t been as good as anyone else. The size of a club isn’t remotely relevant to its present-day quality on the pitch. The twelve teams which currently inhabit the top-tier of Scottish football are, believe it or not, the twelve best teams in the country. The bigwigs may be desperate to promote our national game to rich television companies, and they may consider our product to be more financially viable when the ‘big’ teams are involved, but the quality of football is surely the most important thing. Any attempt to fast-track those clubs to the top-tier would make a mockery of Scottish football.
As we approach the final weekend of pre-split fixtures, the Scottish Premiership remains as tight and competitive as it’s ever been. Dundee United could yet escape automatic relegation. Hamilton Academical and Kilmarnock are also in danger. At the other end of the table, Aberdeen remain within five points of league leaders Celtic. With one match remaining before the post-split schedule is announced, Motherwell, St. Johnstone, Dundee, Partick Thistle, Ross County and Inverness Caledonian Thistle still don’t know whether they’ll finish in the top six or bottom six. At a stage of the season when a lot of clubs are generally aware of their destiny, this present-day uncertainty is refreshingly intriguing.
Next season, the Scottish Premiership will receive an influx of media attention. Will Rangers be able to forge an immediate challenge for the title? Should this be their initial priority?
Neil Doncaster has proclaimed that Rangers’ participation in the top-flight will be a good thing for their Premiership rival clubs. It might be. We don’t know yet. With any significant change, there is always that element of doubt.
Things have been looking increasingly rosy. Contrary to Doncaster’s belief, the reputation of Scottish football hasn’t been tarnished by the absence of the Old Firm rivalry. When he constantly repeats this tedious sound-bite, suggesting that the game isn’t marketable without Celtic and Rangers, it ironically tarnishes the game’s reputation more than anything else does. We have a reasonable television deal and, most importantly, we have an unpredictable and entertaining product.
TalkSport’s Adrian Durham yesterday asked the question: “Have Rangers FC just saved Scottish football?”
With no disrespect intended, the answer is a resounding ‘no’. We don’t need to be saved. For some of us, things probably couldn’t get any better.
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