With Celtic recently cruising to a 45th league title in Scotland and Rangers already securing promotion to the second tier in their continued quest to reach the top again, Eion Smith considers where this leaves Scottish football and what the future may hold…
2013/14 was easy for the Old Firm. Yet again, they swept past the competition and dominated news headlines in Scotland despite one playing in the third tier and the other faltering on all other fronts. Both have their titles wrapped up before April has even begun and so the jabbing has begun between the two sets of fans – “you only won League 1” countered by “you won the title by default”. But are these jabs more than just that and do they actually ring true? Will Rangers return to the top tier and join Celtic as the big dog? Are Celtic guaranteed the title every season Rangers aren’t there?
Firstly, I want to go on record as saying that I am a fan of neither. They are both as bad as each other and I have never had the time nor the patience to support one or the other. That being said, I do have great sympathy for Celtic fans who are finding it hard to defend their club from the accusation that they are champions by default now Rangers have gone. A quick glance at the table would tell you as much with Celtic a massive 26 points ahead of second placed Aberdeen. But consider this before jumping to the same conclusion as Rangers fans: Celtic have been phenomenal in the league all season. Factor in the loss of big players such as Kelvin Wilson, Gary Hooper and Victor Wanyama to clubs south of the border as well as the reinvestment in unknown players from the continent and that point gap is very impressive. Celtic might make a lot more than other Premiership sides but they are very prudent in their spending and Neil Lennon has proven himself able to make shrewd moves in the transfer market which has continued Celtic’s dominance. Also factor in that the other Premiership teams, most notably Aberdeen and Motherwell, have themselves been excellent this season. Aberdeen recently won the League Cup and under Derek McInnes they have been the best team in Scotland bar Celtic. As Tom English on the BBC website points out here, the Dons, Motherwell and Dundee United have won a greater proportion of their games this season. The other teams have upped their game which has caused Celtic to up theirs consequently. Fraser Forster has been so good this season that there is a very real possibility that he could end up in the England squad for the World Cup this summer; Virgil van Dijk has been a masterstroke signing by Lennon at the heart of the defence while Kris Commons has banged in a remarkable 27 goals from midfield this season. Celtic have a system in place that is working and is keeping them ahead of the ever-improving pack. They’re heavy favourites for the title every season but they are being made to work for it.
As for Rangers, there is, in my opinion, a shocking amount of arrogance permeating from Ibrox. They are undoubted favourites to sweep the Championship next season and they have the quality to do it in the shape of players like Lee Wallace, Cammy Bell, Jon Daly and Nicky Law. However, the idea that they will stroll back into the Premiership and be challenging for the title immediately is laughable. They were poor away from home in the Third Division (a problem rectified a bit this season) while they have been humiliated when they faced top level opponents. Obviously, they can still strengthen in the next couple of years but recent accounts have shown that they are in the red and with all the upheaval around the boardroom table it seems like the club is stuck in an ongoing legal nightmare. Their financial state isn’t helped by throwing extortionate amounts of money at Premiership players that do nothing for them (Kevin Kyle and Francisco Sandaza) instead of giving the opportunity to some youngsters from the academy. Rangers and their fans have handled the whole climbing back up the leagues business in a horrible manner that has made them even more detestable to the casual observer. The notion that without Rangers there is no Premiership is laughable as well. If anything, the Premiership this season has been more competitive and of a better quality. Young talent is being given an opportunity and is flourishing without the preying Old Firm about to snatch them up to one up the other. Rangers are a great, historical club ruined by an air of arrogance that sees them believe that they can do as they please and when it doesn’t go their way, they throw their toys out of the pram screaming “you’re nothing without us”.
Yet, the future looks bright and exciting for Scottish football. For all of Rangers bad points (and there are many), their demise has presented Scotland with a chance to step back and actually look at its other teams for a change. And they have to be somewhat impressed. Motherwell are working on pennies but Stuart McCall is able to get them into position for European places, Aberdeen have lifted the doom and gloom around Pittodrie under McInnes while Dundee United are proving themselves to be the developers of some of the best young talent in the country. The quality of football is improving slowly too. Passing is the order of the day now for most sides and, while the goal tally could do with a top up, there is some real promise which can only offer Scotland boss Gordon Strachan hope for the upcoming Euro 2016 qualifiers.
Perhaps the biggest issue facing Scottish football is getting the Scottish people interested again. Attendances are still on the bad side of OK and the Premier League is still a bigger draw in Scotland. This new technical Premiership could reignite interest for some but the biggest draw will probably come when Rangers return to the top tier. Regardless of what you think of the club, they are still a big name in Scotland and can interest the casual fan again.
Overall, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about Scottish football at the moment. Sure, Celtic and Rangers are still dominating but it’s not like it once was and now there is a greater chance than there has been in a while that one of the other sides could conceivably go on to win the title. Celtic will continue to dominate for a few more years until someone eventually catches up and when they do, Scottish football will already be stronger than ever before.