It is fair to say that talk of the Old Firm joining the English Premier League has been something of an elephant in the room over the past decade or so. Both Rangers and Celtic have expressed a desire to break free from Scottish football and ply their trade against the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool. Just last month, Rangers owner Craig Whyte, when asked if Rangers would ever play in the English Premiership, stated, “It is something we are working on behind the scenes”. However, what is hardly ever mentioned are the potentially negative consequences of such a move were it to occur. You must ask yourself, is this simply a black and white case? Would it really matter if Glasgow’s giants decided to compete with the best of English as opposed to the mediocrity of Scottish? Could anyone blame them for desiring the financial gains such a move would inevitably bring?
Scotland is as passionate about its football as any other nation; in fact, per head of population, more people go to watch live matches in Scotland over a weekend than anywhere else in Europe. However, a less boastful statistic is that, along with Ukraine, the Scottish Premier League is the most uncompetitive in Europe. No team outside the Old Firm has won the title since Aberdeen in 1984/85. That means that for 26 consecutive seasons, either Rangers or Celtic have picked up the trophy (in Ukraine, only Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk have won the league over the last 19 seasons). As a result, this has enabled both Old Firm sides to mould themselves into a global brand. Not only are they well supported at home, but all around the world people follow the endeavours of these footballing heavyweights.
Like any debate, it is essential that both sides of the argument are heard; and it is undeniable that there are laudable points on both sides. But first, let us begin by trawling through the justifications offered as to why the Old Firm should set off for pastures new down south. Celtic’s majority shareholder, Dermot Desmond, has stated that he believes the move will happen due to the increasing influence of media organisations. Unquestionably, the TV revenues the Old Firm would likely enjoy are a huge factor and pack a significant punch in the argument. Moreover, the knock on affects would be monumental; for example, a higher calibre of player could be persuaded to up sticks and move to Glasgow.
It has been a few years now since the Scottish giants could call upon the talents of top European footballers. There has been a noticeable lack of Henrik Larsson’s, Michael Laudrup’s and Paul Gascoigne’s gracing the fields of Ibrox and Celtic Park. Cheap, risky and obscure foreign purchases have been the norm in recent times, for both clubs, as both finances and reputation have dwindled. The English Premier League has had no such worries in attracting the greatest talents from across the continents. A permanent move to England would certainly prove lucrative for the Glasgow duo. On that, there is no doubt. The other feasible argument for a move is that it would greatly benefit the other sides within the Scottish Premier League.
Scotland national team manager Craig Levein weighed in on the argument whilst head coach of Hearts of Midlothian back in 2002. He asserted, “I think if Aberdeen had an opportunity of winning the league and ourselves, Hibs and Dundee, then okay the TV money wouldn’t be there, but I would like to think that we would get more people through the turnstiles”. This theory, bolstered by its endorsement by the head of the national team, has predictably featured rather heavily in the ongoing discussion. The conventional wisdom is that by removing the Old Firm from the top tier, the league would become more open and competitive. Suddenly you would be looking at four or five, maybe even six or seven, teams with an equal chance of ending up victorious. But are these understandable viewpoints omitting the wider picture?
Football is more than just a game in Scotland; it is a phenomenon, a cultural identity and, perhaps more importantly, a metaphor for our society. Scottish football carries large economic benefits, heightens our reputation globally and provides us with the occasional feel-good factor. Naturally, the Old Firm account for the vast majority of that. Their derby matches attract worldwide audiences of millions. Their Champions League adventures have provided Scotland with considerable tourist takings. So why would we want to lose that? There is an argument to be made that the level of football is actually improving at long last within Glasgow. Players such as Nikica Jelavic, Scott Brown and Allan McGregor have recently turned down tempting contract offers from English sides in order to focus their attention on improving the standard of Scottish football. This can only be interpreted as encouraging.
Taking a step away from the on-field antics, let us look at the societal implications of such a move. What would a break away by our two biggest clubs say about Scotland in general? It would suggest that Scotland is too small, too insecure and too insignificant to make it alone. It would be utilised by astute Unionists as a symbol of Scotland needing England. After all, if Scotland fails to manage its two biggest football clubs, how can it manage as a self-governing nation? Independence would be called into question; with the Old Firm institutions used as Exhibit A for the prosecution. Football would provide self-doubting Scots with an excuse to oppose independence and question our place in the world at large. We must not allow this doubt to manifest. Instead, we must argue for the maintenance of a Scottish league that includes both Celtic and Rangers.
This can be achieved through persistent challenges to the conventional wisdom. Whilst Craig Levein’s thesis is intriguing, it is anything but water tight. A counter argument could be made that, in fact, the Old Firm increase ticket sales when travelling to Tannardice, Rugby Park and Tynecastle. Their presence ignites an ambience of excitement and endless possibilities. What better than the notion of beating the Old Firm on your home turf? That alone brings in the crowds. Similarly, a trip to Ibrox or Celtic Park can be just as exhilarating for an away supporter. From a player’s point of view, what better way to display your talents than by competing against Scotland’s finest and departing triumphant. This is what strengthens Scottish football. In England, the equivalent scenario would be the FA Cup, where spectators long for an upset, cheer on the underdog and unite in their desire to bring down Goliath.
Whilst Rangers and Celtic are justified in their continued interest over an English expedition, for the good of Scottish football, and Scotland in general, it is imperative that they remain within their homeland. The narrow sited consensus is that every element within this entangled triangle would benefit greatly; the Old Firm would increase revenue and expand (having been strangled by the limits of Scottish football), the other Scottish teams would profit from the sudden emergence of an open, unpredictable league and England would gain two of the worlds greatest footballing institutions. But I am not interested in short-term gratification and narrow-minded predictions. A wider perspective is required. Scotland would suffer as a nation, a society and a culture were Rangers and Celtic to journey south.
A better solution would be for the Glasgow giants to commit long-term to the Scottish Premier League. Admittedly, the league itself needs alterations and modernising but this is achievable and would be wholly worthwhile. The current 12 team format is failing and a move to a 20 team league would be warmly welcomed. That way, whilst the Old Firm may continue to tussle for the title, 18 other sides could compete for more significant scraps (i.e. greater financial gains for finishing in top half). By strengthening the league, the medium to long-term gains would be sizeable for our two biggest sides. A stronger league would lead to a more competitive contest, thus leading to an improvement in the overall standard of the Scottish game. The knock-on affect would be beneficial in terms of both revenue and squad capabilities.
Whatever the Old Firm choose to do will cause ripples within Scottish society in one way or another. Let us pray they are positive. This scenario plays as a mirror to Scottish society. It highlights our frailties, our dreams and our options. Scottish independence may well hinge on the state of Scottish football come the time we go to vote in the fast-looming referendum. If Scotland can prove that it can cater for our two biggest sporting institutions, whilst demonstrating a greater understanding for the situation at large, then credibility would raise and hopes would rekindle. But the final decision will rest at the feet of the clubs themselves. Whether they understand their importance within the wider context of Scottish society is crucial; for if they don’t, the repercussions could be huge for the nation and its people.