PLUS CA CHANGE?
With just over three weeks until the start of season 2002-03,
Scottish football remains a game in turmoil. The World Cup may
have allowed us all to forget the troubles which afflict our game. But
as the new season draws ever nearer, a stock-take of the Scottish game
reveals precious little cause for optimism.
Let's take the Old Firm first. You might be forgiven for thinking
that, despite all the headlines of the past fortnight, little has changed.
Martin O'Neill is still manager of Celtic and David Murray
still owns two-thirds of Rangers. But, for once, all was not just
the usual sensationalist summer gossip designed to sell newspapers. Changes
In O'Neill's case, his less than enthusiastic commitment to Celtic has
started to divide the fans. There are those who are now suggesting that
if the Irishman won't sign a new deal then maybe it would be better for
all concerned that he move on.
Celtic are in a difficult position. O'Neill is clearly their most successful
mamager since Jock Stein. Should they win the title for a third
successive year, it would be for the first time since the Stein era.
But the speculation over the Leeds job has let Celtic know in no
uncertain terms just how much in demand their manager is.
It is uncomfortable for their supporters to realise that when it comes
to management that there ARE bigger jobs than the one at Celtic
Park. If Leeds reckoned that they had a fair chance of luring their manager
then any other top six Premiership side must think the same. Martin O'Neill's
name has been linked with Old Trafford since the day he took over
at Parkhead. Celtic fans could live with that. But what happens if Newcastle,
Villa, or Chelsea come calling?
Even if Martin O'Neill does sign a new contract, there is no guarantee
it would keep him in Glasgow if a tempting offer arrived from south of
the border. If the Celtic board are as capable of transplanting their
business acumen to football matters, they should be thinking of Plan B
Over at Ibrox, the runes are still being read to discern what David
Murray's decision to stand down as Chairman means. Murray is still
far and away the majority shareholder at Rangers and no major decisions
can be made without his say-so. Even so, it seems highly unlikely that
John McClelland would step into the Chairman's job if Murray's
de facto title was chief organ-grinder!
Perhaps Murray has finallly accepted that his dream of placing Rangers
among the elite of Europe is dead. The year before he took over as Chairman,
Rangers were disappointed to only reach the last eight of the European
Cup. Last season reaching the last sixteen of the UEFA Cup
was hailed as a triumph. That's how much the game has changed. Even a
man with Murray's wealth can no longer single-handedly compete with the
corporate capitalists who control Europe's top sides.
With the road to England closed for the foreseeable future, Murray finds
Rangers in much the same position as he found them, playing-wise. Perhaps
even worse-off. I realise this is akin to heresy, as David Murray can
do no wrong in the eyes of so many Scottish journos, but the facts speak
for themselves. When Murray took over, Rangers had English internationals
like Chris Woods, Graham Roberts and Terry Butcher on their
books. Today's equivalent would be to have signed Nigel Martyn, Danny
Mills and Rio Ferdinand. Not a chance. The only players that
make their way to Ibrox from south of the border are injury-prone troublemakers
like Michael Ball or Nationwide free transfers like Kevin Muscat
who is more of a new Terry Hurlock than anything else.
This pattern has been apparent for some time now. Even Gazza -
the most naturally talented British player since George Best -
only ended up at Ibrox by default. No one in the Premiership wanted his
Yet Murray has done much that should be admired. He attempted,
even if unsuccessfully, to place Rangers in the top rank of Europe.
Others would not even have tried. Unlike many club owners, he was
loyal - probably too loyal - to his managers. Certainly no one could accuse
him of being a Ken Bates, let alone a Jesus Gil. He has
provided training facilities that are the envy of others, even if it could
have been done years ago had his cash not been squandered on the Prodans
and Rozentals of this world.
But his decision to take a back seat is still perplexing. There are rumours
circulating that it was at the behest of the bankers. Whether true or
not, I do not know. But I will say one thing: David Murray does not seem
the type to be a back-seat driver. It is difficult to envisage him owning
66% of Rangers and not contesting decisions he believes to be wrong.
I would predict that, within the next twelve months, either Murray comes
back into the front line, or he sells up. That would put Rangers into
corporate ownership, something Murray has always pledged to avoid. Either
way, the calm that has reigned in the Ibrox boardroom for fourteen years
is about to be shattered.
TWO DOWN....? TO GO
The long-predicted shake-up of Scottish football is under
way and when and where it will end is anyone's guess. In almost half a
century since the demise of Leith Athletic, just one club - Third
Lanark - went to the wall. In the past two months we have lost two
more - Airdrieonians and Clydebank.
League football has been retained in Airdrie by the new club Airdrie
United but only at the expense of Clydebank. Hamilton too are
in crisis. Staff have walked out, wages haven't been paid for weeks and
a bid from Jock Brown remains on the back burner. Motherwell
are in administration yet the smallest, poorest and weakest of the Lanarkshire
clubs - Albion Rovers - will start the new season with over 50
players in their ranks!
This is the strangest aspect of the situation. It is not the minnows who
are in danger of going under, rather it is those in the middle strata
of Scottish football. Both Airdrie and Hamilton invested in new stadia
and that has landed them with debt. Clydebank have been homeless for six
seasons and support has drained away.
I've said before that the way in which Airdrie United have been allowed
into the second division two weeks after being rejected as not good enough
for the third is a scandal. I won't dwell on it here other than to say
that there are other ways to maintain a football club's identity. Wimbledon
supporters have shown the way. Over 5,000 of them turned up to
watch the new AFC Wimbledon's first match as they begin the long struggle
to regain League status in SW 19. And they haven't had to kill off any
other club to do it.
I always suspected that the claims that a third of Nationwide
League clubs faced closure were highly exaggerated. And now there
is proof. Long BEFORE they signed their new deal with Sky,
clubs from the Nationwide were raiding in Scotland. Robbie Winters
has gone to Stoke, Shaun Elliott to Hull, Nathan Lowndes
to Plymouth and Tommy Johnson to Gillingham. Scottish
clubs didn't want to lose these players but couldn't afford to keep them.
Yet they have obviously found better terms than what was on offer in
Scotland at their new clubs.
Apart from proving that at least some Nationwide teams have plenty of
spare cash, it is dispiriting to see that this quartet - all regarded
as stars in Scotland - have improved their salaries with moves to clubs
who can hardly be regarded as knocking on the Premiership door. What
does it say about the players left behind?
That Nationwide deal is virtually the same as was on offer
to the SPL. The same amount of cash per season. The same four-year
deal. The same Saturday evening televised slot. Now it looks like the
Ugly Sisters and the Ten Dwarves have kissed and made up,
what will be on offer to them?
For a start about half as much money for half as long a contract if the
figures being bandied around are to be believed. The Old Firm will take
a smaller percentage but the others will get a bigger slice of a smaller
cake. The words 'baldies', 'comb' and 'fighting' spring
Also, if the BBC deal is accepted, when will the live games be
played? And who will get to see them? BBC Director-General Greg Dyke
has shown a welcome change of attitude from the Corporation by saying
that Old Firm games will be shown UK-wide. Good. But that's only a start.
Why not show the rest too? The BBC's football portfolio isn't that strong
that it can afford to pay millions for a product that is restricted to
under 10% of its viewers
There are hundreds of thousands of Scottish licence payers in England,
Wales and Northern Ireland. And many of us don't support the Old Firm.
Surely we should be allowed to watch our teams in action? If not, then
let us hope that rumours of a Channel 5 counter-bid are true. That
way, all the games would be screened across the UK.
How to Come Second and Win the
James Mechan, Ayr
United webmaster, responds to last week's article.
"David, superb historical report on Clydebank.
I agree entirely about the admission of Airdrie Utd to Div 2 and
feel for Morton who, in my view, should have been allowed to remain
there. Its a double blow for Morton as they also lose out on any revenue
from Clydebank playing at Cappielow and I fear for their future
That aside I can only see that Airdrie were the League's second choice
to Gretna and the chance to have them take the place of a very
weak and insolvent Clydebank must have been strong, although not to go
to the 2nd Div.
Where will it end? As you said this decision opens up possibilities and
I suspect that the next season may well bring hints of such changes and
dodgy dealings to come.
But money is power. Poor Gala have tried for 30 years to enter
the league by fair means and for the sake of a small investment they may
themselves be contemplating 2nd div football next season. Of course the
league may have found good reason why they couldnt do what Ballantyne
and his cronies have done."