It was, according to virtually every newspaper, radio
and TV station, the best, most exciting and closest end to a title
race Scotland has ever seen. Here at scottishleague.net we beg
The 2002-03 SPL was undoubtedly both close
and exciting. But the best? Not by a long chalk. Certainly, after
the one-horse canters of the past four seasons it made a refreshing
change for both the Old Firm to be involved right up until
the final minute of the final day. And for supporters of Rangers
and Celtic the uncertainty of the past few weeks must have
made for a gripping finale.
But, as Rangers celebrate winning the flag by a single goal, their
followers will know it should never have gone to the wire. On more
than one occasion the title was in the Ibrox bag, only for the players
to throw it away. Defeat by Celtic when a draw would have knocked
their rivals out of the chase, followed by dropped points at Dens
Park after Celtic had seemingly surrendered after defeat at Tynecastle.
In the end Rangers nerve held and they thrashed Dunfermline
6-1 on the final day while Celtic won 4-0 at Kilmarnock.
And those final day results demonstrated the paucity of the SPL.
Those humiliating one-way traffic thrashings would not happen in
a League which had any depth of talent in it. Imagine, if you will,
a similar scenario in England. Man Utd putting six past Liverpool
at Old Trafford while over at Stamford Bridge, Arsenal are scoring
four times without reply against Chelsea?
See. Laughably implausible. But not in Scotland. The last day wasn't
a mano a mano encounter between the title protagonists
but a turkey shoot against hapless opponents who were supposedly
the fourth and fifth best sides in the country.
Celtic's Chris Sutton accused Dunfermline of lying down
at Ibrox. Sorry, Chris, but there is no air of suspicion around
this result. No lingering whiff of corruption as there would have
been had this game been played in Italy, England or Spain. Rangers
6 Dunfermline 1 is a perfectly ordinary scoreline in Scottish football.
Ironic though that such claims could come from Sutton - the Greg
Louganis of Celtic Park. This is a player apparently
so frail that the passing wind tends to knock him over anytime he
is within 30 yards of the opposing goal!
And it should come as no great surprise either that the final day
was riddled with refereeing decisions that favoured the Old Firm.
Apart from the numerous free kicks won by Sutton, Celtic benefited
from two dodgy penalties at Rugby Park while over at Ibrox a similar
weak award rounded off their season in the final minute as Neil
McCann made a late challenge to Sutton in the 'artistic impression'
Even the sainted Henrik Larsson was reduced to a brutal two-footed
challenge which, had it been ON Larsson rather than BY
him, would surely had been a red card offence. But Henrik is
a protected species. His transgression merited not a single word
of admonishment from referee Kenny Clark.
So Rangers take the title and Alex McLeish has now won four
domestic trophies in just over a year. For the sake of the game
it would be good to see Dundee deprive Rangers of the treble
in the Scottish Cup Final. The Dens Park side certainly have the
ability to trouble Rangers as they have shown in the League but
they go into the Final without a win of any kind since beating Inverness
CT in the semi-final and with only a victory over bottom team Motherwell
in their last ten League outings. Hardly the best of preparations.
OK, the 2003 championship went down to the wire but so too have
others in our past. The very first Scottish League in 1891 ended
in a tie after a play-off between Dumbarton and Rangers.
Celtic won a play-off against Rangers in 1905.
Since the second world war there have been several thrilling finishes,
with last day denouements more exciting than channel-flipping to
see who can score the most goals against pathetically weak opposition.
In 1949 Dundee collapsed 3-0 at Falkirk as Rangers overcame
Albion Rovers to win by a point. Four years later Rangers
deprived Hibs of a third successive title only on goal average.
In 1962 Dundee's away win at St Johnstone not only ensured
the flag would fly at Dens park but relegated the Perth team as
a consequence. Then in 1965 Kilmarnock won 2-0 at Tynecastle
to wrest the title from Hearts' grip. The Ayrshire team won
the championship by 0.04 of a goal - a margin that
makes Rangers 2003 title look like a runaway success by comparison.
1983 saw Dundee United take the title with a win away
to rivals Dundee with both Celtic and Aberdeen waiting
to pounce on any slip-up. Think about that for a minute. THREE
clubs all in with a chance of the title on the last day. In
2003 the third-placed club lay a record 34 points behind the second.
In 1986 Hearts were within seven minutes of the League when
Dens Park became the graveyard of their ambitions as two late goals
ensured Albert Kidd's place in the record books. And in 1991
Aberdeen went to Ibrox needing a point but left empty-handed
as a 2-0 win brought Rangers the third of their nine in a
Each and every one of those campaigns has a better claim to to
the mantle of best, closest and most exciting than the contest that
ended on Sunday May 25th 2003.
As for Celtic, a season that promised so much has ended potless.
They put up a terrific fight in the UEFA Cup Final against
Porto but were beaten 3-2 in extra time. While Celtic's performance
was a sharp riposte to their critics it is only fair to say that
Porto looked the better team throughout.
Nevertheless, Celtic did Scottish football proud. Considering the
fate of our other European representatives, it was, as Martin
O'Neill might say, an "astonishingly brilliant"
achievement to reach the Final. Back in autumn as Rangers were
losing on away goals to unheralded Zizkov, Livingston ignominiously
progressing past a club from Liechtenstein by the same method and
Aberdeen hanging on grimly in Moldova, you would have got long odds
on a Scottish club playing in a European Final. Longer still, after
Celtic were eliminated from the Champions League by Basle.
One of the most distressing yet laughable aspects of this season
has been watching some Rangers supporters attempting to belittle
Celtic's achievements. So partisan and so petty. For all Scottish
clubs will benefit from Celtic's progress this season as Scotland
rises up the UEFA rankings.
Just as it was largely Rangers past results that means two teams
go into next season's Champions League qualifiers, so it is down
to Celtic that from 2004-05 one Scottish team will qualify for the
Champions League directly.
While Rangers revival was perhaps to be expected after the inexplicable
failure of Advocaat's last two seasons, Celtic's European adventure
was as surprising as it was enthralling. They were the first Scottish
club to reach a European final for sixteen years. Fans should savour
the experience. For no one can say with any confidence when we
shall next, if ever, see a Scottish club reach such heights again.
A shame too that such achievement has resulted in a trophy-less
season. But, as we said here a couple of months ago, O'Neill might
come to rue the overconfidence that led him to field a virtual reserve
team at Inverness in the Scottish Cup.
That has come to pass. Disappointing then that there is no silverware
on display at Celtic Park but, paradoxically, fitting that O'Neill's
demonstration of contempt for the lower orders of our game has resulted
in this outcome.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of all has been the Parkhead
club's reaction. Apart from Sutton's outburst (for which he should
be heavily punished. Our suggestion is that he is forced to stand
in the centre circle at East End Park and publicly apologise to
the players, officials and supporters of Dunfermline Athletic
FC - a much more fitting atonement than fining a wealthy man
a few quid) there was O'Neill complaining about Porto's time-wasting
in Seville. Really, Martin, like your players would never have contemplated
doing the same? The Portuguese feigned injury and dived, did they?
Perhaps they have bought one of the many videos available from Celtic
Park and studied Messrs Sutton, Larsson and Thompson in
It was insulting to deserved victors and a sour end to a great campaign.
Whatever happened to that Celtic mantra 'No Excuses?'
Speaking of which, we have no excuses of our own for the predictions
we made at the start of the season which we got spectacularly wrong.
Just as we claim full credit for those we got right.
For the SPL title we said "We expect Celtic
to take the title...but we also think that Rangers will push them
harder." Below the OF we confidently predicted "Hearts...should
be good enough to battle it out for a Euro spot with Livvy, Aberdeen
Right about Hearts and Kilmarnock. Disastrously wrong about the
other top six pairing. We thought neither Dunfermline nor Dundee
would be good enough to make the cut.
We called Hibs right, saying they would improve but wouldn't make
the top six but got Dundee United wrong, insisting they wouldn't
be troubled by relegation.
Unlike many we thought Thistle would be good enough to avoid the
drop but said of Motherwell: "they look like the ones to
And so they would have. Except for one other prediction we called
right back in August. In the First Division we said: "The
Bairns should win the title. Whether they'll be able to enjoy the
prize of promotion is another matter."
Many feel that Falkirk have been given a rough deal by being
denied promotion to the SPL. While this website believes it to be
unhealthy for there to be no promotion/relegation we have little
sympathy for Falkirk's current plight.
Firstly, Falkirk were damned lucky to be in the First Division in
the first place. Had it not been for the collapse of Airdrieonians,
they would have been playing Second Division football at Brockville
in the season just finished. Not content with being reprieved from
relegation, thanks to Airdrie, Falkirk now want to use their ground
to play in the SPL!
We have no objections to ground-sharing as such. But Falkirk's audacity
is breathtaking. This is a club that has twice won promotion to
the Premier since the publication of the Taylor Report. While
every other club with ambitions to play in the top flight has either
converted their ground to an all-seater or built a new stadium,
Falkirk have done nothing.
The argument over the SPL's 10,000 all-seater rule is a red herring.
This rule was actually IN FORCE before the SPL came into
being. The old Premier Division was subject to the provisions of
the Taylor Report which gave clubs five years after promotion to
construct a suitable ground. Had Falkirk managed to survive for
that long in the top flight the issue would have been forced long
In 1991 when they won the First Division title the following
clubs all finished below Falkirk: Airdrieonians, Dundee, Partick
Thistle, Kilmarnock, Raith Rovers, Meadowbank/Livingston. All
these clubs have managed to convert or build suitable grounds over
the past twelve years. In most cases several years ago. In addition
Hamilton, Clyde, Stirling Albion, Dumbarton and East Fife
have all built smaller but new all-seater stadia during this period.
Of the ten teams in the Premier in 1991 only three - Rangers,
Aberdeen and St Johnstone - had grounds which met with
the Taylor recommendations. The other seven - Celtic, Dundee
United, Hearts, Motherwell, Dunfermline, Hibs and St Mirren
have all subsequently met the requirements.
In total therefore, THIRTEEN clubs have made their grounds
Taylor-compliant over the past twelve years and another five have
built new grounds. Falkirk, by contrast, have done nothing to improve
the rotting dump called Brockville. No amount of whingeing can avoid
the basic truth: while others have got on with the job, Falkirk
have done nothing.
Nor is this problem a new one. Falkirk missed out on a play-off
in 2000 for the same reasons as they have been denied promotion
now. Surely that was the time to vow 'never again.' Instead, Falkirk
continued to do nothing. Only when it became clear that they were
likely to win the First division did they begin to explore a ground-share
agreement and think about a new stadium.
Of course the current situation is a farce and must be rectified
soon. It is not healthy for the game to have a situation whereby
only a small number of First division clubs are eligible for promotion.
But Falkirk have to accept their share of responsibility too. No
amount of special pleading can alter the fact that they were aware
of the requirements in 1991 when they were promoted and again in
1995 when they were also promoted. Nothing had altered by 2000 when
they finished in a play-off spot. Yet it was only late in 2002 that
they actually started to do something about it.
Finally, there is rich irony from those who claim that merit
alone should determine the issue. No one from Falkirk FC was making
that claim twelve months ago when, had merit been the sole issue,
they would have been relegated from the First Division.
In Falkirk's case the breaks have evened themselves out.