Old Firm - New Set-up

A new Chairman at Rangers. O'Neill's Celtic future. Clubs going bust. TV deals north and south of the border. A neutral view on Airdrie/Clydebank.

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 are afoot.

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 - now!

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 baggage.

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.

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CRYING WOLF

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?

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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 to mind.

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
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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.

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How to Come Second and Win the Bigger Prize!

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 also.

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."

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