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
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
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
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.