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Season's end

Rangers Treble

Celtic's UEFA Cup Final

Falkirk denied promotion











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 to differ.

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' stakes.

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 row.

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 action.

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 and Killie."

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 go down."

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 before now.

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.



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