Old Back of the Net articles here


The Old Firm set to rule once more.











For four brief days at the end of October we were offered a tantalising glimpse of what a truly competitive League looked like. Aberdeen travelled south to Glasgow and - in the style of the great sides of the 1980s - returned from Celtic Park with three points in the bag.

The Dons swept into a two-goal lead inside the opening six minutes and then felt the full force of the Celtic barrage as the home side dragged themselves back into the match at 2-2. When four minutes of injury time were announced it seemed it was the cue for a home win but with the last kick of the match the Dons scored the winner to leave them six behind Celtic and just two points away from Rangers in second.

Four days later Aberdeen returned to Glasgow - this time to Ibrox. Victory and they would have split the Glaswegian teams in the table. A draw would have kept them in touch. But it was all too horribly familiar. This time their performance was more reminiscent of Ebbe Skovdahl than Alex Ferguson and the Dons were thrashed by a humiliating 5-0.

Game over. Barring a miracle the Scottish title will stay in Glasgow for the 20th season in succession.

There have only really been two eras in Scottish football when it was ever any different. In the first fourteen years of the League's existence six sides won the title, exactly the same as in England. And from 1947-48 to 1964-65 eight championships were won by five clubs outwith the Old Firm.

Apart from those two periods it's been a grim and unrelenting struggle for everyone except Celtic and Rangers. Between 1904-1948 only Motherwell, in 1931-32, broke the Old Firm domination. Since 1965 life has been easy for the big two other than for a brief spell in the early 1980s when Aberdeen won three titles and Dundee United one.

Oddly enough it's when they've been at their worst that the Old Firm have upped the ante. In 1926 Rangers finished sixth - their lowest ever position. Their response was to win eight of the next nine titles and throw off a 25-year drought in the Scottish Cup for good measure.

In 1965 Rangers were fifth and Celtic eighth - the only occasion in history that neither finished in the top three. Yet the following season saw them take the top two places in the League and play each other in both domestic Cup finals.

1965-66 remains the only season when the Old Firm's domination was so absolute that they finished one-two in all three domestic competitions.

Their twenty-year stranglehold is the second longest stretch (1904-32 being the longest) and it too started after a fallow period. The only time the League flag has fluttered elsewhere than Ibrox or Parkhead for three years in succession was from 1983-85. It should have been four. Hearts were seven minutes from the title in 1986 when they blew it at Dens Park in 1986, allowing Celtic in to steal the crown.

Of course that was 'year zero' at Ibrox, the start of the Souness revolution and a move into the era of big spending on big names which culminated in the huge debts our clubs carry today.

We're not blaming Graeme Souness for this. In fact Souness improved the standard of the game in Scotland. Cleverly, he took advantage of the ban then in force preventing English clubs from playing in Europe to lure top stars to Rangers. It would be a fool who claimed that reversing a century-old trend and importing players like Chris Woods and Terry Butcher lowered the standard of Scottish football.

At first it appeared that the rest could at least live with the raised stakes if not quite overturn the Old Firm grip on the game. In both 1986 and 1987 we had successive non-Old Firm Scottish Cup Finals for the first time since the 1950s. In that latter year Dundee United became the first Scottish team to reach the UEFA Cup Final.

And it's no disrespect to the Celtic team of 2003 to say that United's was by far the better achievement. In those days only one club per country entered the European Cup and many reckoned the UEFA Cup to be of a superior standard, containing, as it did, several sides from Europe's big leagues. The teams, in fact, who contest the Champions League today.

In 1989 Hearts reached the last eight of the same competition. Today they are delighted to be in the last forty.

And the national side boarded the plane for Italia '90 for their fifth successive World Cup Finals.

With hindsight of course we can see that this was merely the overlapping of two eras. A last gasp of native success before the onset of the grass roots failures, calamitous and costly importations and mountains of debt which consume our clubs today.

It certainly wasn't a 'golden age.' It never felt that way at the time and the 1980s also saw the game reach its nadir at Heysel, Bradford and Hillsborough. If we escaped the horrors of Heysel in Scotland it was only because the Safety of Sports Grounds Act tempered decades of hate and violence.

The 1980s was also the time when Scottish football attendances reached their lowest point since the First World War.

The point when one era passed on and the other emerged triumphant was probably some time in the early 1990s. In 1989-90 FIVE different teams led at some stage of the season. A year later Aberdeen went to Ibrox on the last day of the season needing just a draw to clinch the title. They didn't get it of course but no one has come as close since.

There was a respectable challenge from Aberdeen and Motherwell in 1993-94 and Hearts gave the Old Firm a run for their money in 1997-98 but the creation of the SPL that year accelerated what everyone knew was happening anyway - that the two clubs that had dominated the game for much of the 20th century were pulling even further away from their rivals.

The debt burden that Rangers recklessly acquired in the Advocaat years and Celtic's refusal to go the same road ensures that the days of 45 point gaps between first and third are gone but the OF still maintain a decisive margin over the rest. Aberdeen's crushing defeat at Ibrox more or less guarantees that for another term. In addition to the two decades long control of the flag it now looks like the OF will share first and second place in the table for the TENTH season running.

Previously, five years was the worst such sequence.

The price of such stifling hegemony is always too high but in the past it has been offset by the Glasgow pair's successes in Europe and their contribution to a decent national side.

Nowadays we don't even get that.

Perhaps the worst aspect of it all is that no solution appears to be in sight. Forget the chimera of the OF moving to England. The English don't need them. The only foreseeable circumstances in which England would admit the OF would be if the English game was in such dire straits financially that the milk cow of 10,000 travelling fans was required to give an ailing game a boost. And in those circumstances the pots of gold at the English rainbow would turn to crocks of rather less pleasant stuff for the OF.

In short the OF want the English money and the English only want the OF if the money runs out.

Forget too the pipedream of a healthy, thriving League denuded of the Glasgow clubs. Think instead of a game struggling to make the inside back pages of the press. Think of a game that TV companies would be reluctant to throw peanuts at, let alone hard cash. Only Aberdeen, Hearts and Hibs are capable of generating average five-figure gates if the OF are taken out of the equation and even then 13,000 appears to the absolute maximum average. Forget the illusion that greater competition in itself automatically means bigger gates. It doesn't. There is no more competitive division in football than the Scottish second division. 40% of its membership changes each season. Yet in the absence of a 'big' club fallen on hard times, like Morton or Partick Thistle, in its number, crowds at that level are as bad - and sometimes worse - than those in the third.

There are no easy answers to the conundrum. Maybe someone will come along, like Jim McLean and Alex Ferguson did, and shatter the OF supremacy. That's the optimistic outlook. After all, prior to McLean and Ferguson, the duopoly looked impregnable. Yet the portents aren't good. Not when bosses like Bobby Williamson and Craig Levein join clubs like Plymouth Argyle and Leicester City. It's painful to admit, but true nonetheless, that these were steps up from managing Hibs and Hearts.

Perhaps we can make a modest start on the road back to sanity in our game. The SPL has done nothing good for the game and much that is bad. Few of its founders are still running the member clubs today and in any case there's no shame in owning up to mistakes. Club administrators should remember the advice given to those in a hole - stop digging.

Scrapping the SPL would be a symbolic laying aside of the shovel.


Back to homepage Click here to download sample pdf files BLUE-WEB INTERNET DESIGN