There’s a summer saga brewing, having said adios to Euro 2008 last year and the World Cup in South Africa another year away, football supporters across the UK will be looking for something to debate endlessly about in beer gardens up and down the country. Thank heavens then for Bolton chairman Phil Gartside and the latest scheme to seat Rangers and Celtic at the top table of English Football. A move should it happen would come into effect in time for the bidding for the 2013 Premiership football rights.
Unlike previous plans however there is rumbling’s of momentum behind it. Gartside has proposed the formation of a Premiership 2, if I was Lex Gold and the SPL I would be suing for copyright about that, consisting of two leagues of 16 teams. The plan being to parachute the Old Firm into the new secondary league that would be formed. The move is seen to protect the interests of Premiership sides outside the top five or six while allowing those teams at the top of the Championship to compete at the same level. Though if you ask Crystal Palace chairman Simon Jordan he’d much rather have the £15m compensation for potential loss of earnings, Mr, Jordan your team finished 15th this season, you wouldn’t be involved.
There is no doubt that a move would be beneficial for Rangers and Celtic financially, and it appears both teams seem willing to give up on a couple of seasons in Europe for a chance to establish themselves in England. Rangers Assistant Ally McCoist has already voiced his support and any Scottish football fan will know that Celtic Chief Executive Peter Lawwell will have a marketing field day in establishing Celtic as a true world brand.
It’s fair to argue that the Old Firm have out-grown the SPL and for clubs of their stature to be out manoeuvred by teams such as Bolton Wanderers and Wigan Athletic must grate against there very existence as supposed successful clubs. However should this move happen what will happen to those left behind?
In the short term would the SPL feel the effect of a world without regular Old Firm competition? The TV deal will be drastically reduced, if there at all, especially with the current rumours about Setanta being in financial difficulty, but maybe the BBC or STV could stick their hands deep enough into their pockets to get our national sport on terrestrial TV again. You have to believe that with BBC Alba showing live First Division football that should such a situation occur the Beeb may be in a position to offer a deal to the SPL.
Another argument often heard is if the Old Firm leaves Scottish football it would lead to a drop in attendances in SPL grounds and therefore a decrease in match day income for clubs. However in recent seasons with the introduction of kick off times not at 3pm on a Saturday and general apathy to watching your team being dominated by Rangers or Celtic, the Old Firm effect has diminished when the Glasgow clubs come calling.
If you were to ask fans and boards of Hibernian, Dunfermline, St. Mirren and most recently St. Johnstone they will all tell you that being on top of a division was far more appealing to being at best third. It’s fair to argue then that if most teams feel at the start of the season they have a realistic chance to win the league then attendances overall could in theory go up as a championship challenge could be made. In turn this could lead to a more exciting league, imagine a last week of the season with still three or four teams in the hunt for the title instead of the traditional tail off of one or two teams in January as the Old Firm pull away, surely it would only be good for the game.
A suggestion made to compensate should the Old Firm move would see second string Rangers and Celtic squads competing in the SPL. This as a gesture or notion is an insult to the other member clubs, if they don’t want to be there in totality, a shadow squad would just be a slap in the face, and imagine what it would do for the confidence of the game in the rest of Scotland if the Old Firm Reserves still win the league, we would all pack up and go home. It would be surprising if Old Firm prospects did not end up going on loan to SPL clubs as a way of giving them first team action, but that is where an Old Firm involvement in the league should stop.
The SPL could turn into a breeding ground for young Scottish talent much in the same way the Swedish, Dutch and Norwegian leagues work in establishing quality young players who get to compete at a level with a chance of winning top domestic prizes before moving onto bigger things. Players such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Malmo/Ajax and John Carew at Tromso/Rosenberg started their development in their respective home leagues before earning a move to The Premiership, La Liga or Serie A.
If the Old Firm are playing in The Premiership or a Premiership 2 instead of the SPL perhaps they would not feel compelled to poach some of the best young Scottish talent from SPL clubs only for them to not get game time, that alone would surely benefit the Scottish National team in the long term, where would the likes of Derek Riordan be now if they hadn’t been bought to bench warm, and that’s if they’re lucky.
There is so many other questions should the move occur, would the Old Firm leaving open up the possibility of summer football? Scottish teams would not be expected to go deep into European competition and therefore a season running March to October could be seen to help combat the fixture traumas of recent seasons.
Could we see a total league restructure? Two top leagues of 16 or 18 teams, with the Old Firm leaving the greed about television money would subside and reducing the fixture list would allow League Cup games to be played on Saturdays to try and re-establish some much needed pride in winning the so called ‘Diddy Cup’. There is reason to think that if the game gets restructured at the top could it get restructured at the bottom, possibly a pyramid system or regional leagues to cut down costs. These are big ideas but if the Old Firm leaves that would be the time to implement them.
There is an air of inevitability about an Old Firm move down south these days. UEFA and FIFA may be posturing about not supporting the idea but there’s also a feeling that this time round posturing is all they are doing. It may be harsh to say but the SPL is boring and so to an extent is The Premiership and maybe an Old Firm move would benefit both leagues. The SPL may lose they’re two biggest commodities but in its place is the potential for a new competitive league which could attract fans back, improve the future of Scottish football and make our game exciting again.