It’s the greatest love story ever told; The peasant folk who try to make ends meet with their trusty band of misfits falls for the rich and handsome neighbour with the world at their feet and fortunes abound. This isn’t Snow White, and despite what Peter Lawwell would have you believe this isn’t the ‘Celtic Story’ either, this is the story of two clubs and their attempts to breakaway from the league that made them.
A while ago I discussed what could happen to Scottish football if the Old Firm left, if you want to read it then just follow this link http://www.pieandbovril.com/spl-news-and-views/323-2013-an-spl-odyssey. Well the saga that has continually lingered in the background amidst the hot topics of poor referees and dwindling attendances is back on the agenda. However this time lets look at what English football could gain from the migration south of the Green and Blue two.
The proposal and proposer remain the same, Phil Gartside’s plans will see the formation of a Premiership 2 encompassing the top teams in the Championship and the Old Firm, and now apparently an Irish franchise team. An Irish franchise team!?!? Quick, somebody contact Robert Duvall and tell him his script for ‘A Shot at Glory’ has been hijacked. The Premiership has reservations about the Old Firm but a totally new franchise, welcoming arms will be swung wide, I think not. Show me a fan who thinks a franchise is a good idea for a football club and I’ll show you millions more that wouldn’t. Then again those of a more cynical nature would say why bother looking for an Irish franchise when the Old Firm have both Northern and Southern Ireland covered. That is a debate saved for a bit later, but what else would they bring to the Premiership table?
Well honestly, not a lot. You can argue that despite their dwindling competitiveness on the European stage Rangers and Celtic are still two of the biggest names on the continent, but the Premiership is the biggest league in the world and for Rangers and Celtic to enter it would barely raise a ripple in Beijing or a snigger in the Soweto where Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United shirts are considered everyday wear. In the UK no doubt interest would be high for the debut seasons of the Old Firm, fixtures like Celtic v Liverpool and Rangers v Chelsea would prick the imagination but on the world stage at present it would be perceived as just another fixture.
Something that the Old Firm, Rangers in particular, will need to address is their global appeal if they are to make a splash. Football is increasingly about business and it is clear that as a PR machine Celtic are light years ahead of there blue nosed rivals, something which in the cutthroat world of the Premiership will instantly give them an edge. To use a cliché, the world is getting smaller, and being part of the Premiership is not just about 38 games a season. It’s about pre-season tours to the Far East, America and Australia something which Celtic have strategically attuned themselves to over recent seasons. How else could they explain Du Wei?
Celtic and Rangers have supporters across the globe but what has appeared of paramount concern to those that police the Premiership is the impact supporters from north of the border will have on matches in England. A problem that was already being looked upon with some trepidation down south was only exacerbated further with the behaviour of Rangers fans in the UEFA Cup Final in Manchester. Add that to recent scenes in Bucharest and it all points to a very real and relevant hooligan element that has become associated with Rangers. Martin Bain can argue that it was Burberry clad casuals with funny accents who were charging down the apple and pears getting mugged off by the local fuzz (Danny Dyer you have found a use), but the fact is they still find themselves deeply integrated with the true(?) fans.
By all accounts conditions in Bucharest were akin to those found at Boghead circa. 1975 but Motherwell had visited the same ground earlier in the season to take on Steaua Bucharest in a Europa League qualifier. Was there any trouble? Perhaps very minimal but nothing compared to the scenes at half time against Unirea Urziceni. The situation may not of been handled well by Romanian authorities but what excuse is there for hurling plastic seats in there direction. You guessed it, none. There will be those that say, ‘ah, but Rangers are a bigger club’, ‘we have more fans’, that may be true but that is no excuse for idiocy. And for a team striving to make a good impression on their more affluent neighbours it does nothing but show them in a bad light.
It’s easy to attribute any future crowd problems during the Old Firm’s hypothetical tenure in the Premiership on the Glasgow two but it would be hard to ignore the influence that their arrival would have on the hooligan element attributed to Premiership clubs. As shown during the League Cup match between Millwall and West Ham United, hooliganism is still a living, breathing part of the English game. The chance to tangle with their Tartan neighbours could provide to great a temptation for some. It would be idealistic to suggest that there would be no trouble. The chief of Birmingham Police has said he would be fiercely against the Old Firm’s arrival in the Premiership, an opinion shared by his colleague at the Met. describing it as a logistical nightmare.
Much has been much made of the sectarianism that the Old Firm would bring into the English game, and yes there is mindless minorities in both camps. However what once was vicious bile screamed with true venom and disgust is now no more than words and that is all it should be taken as. The notion that Rangers and Celtic fans hate each other is archaic. Just like any other major rivalry in world football on a match day for those 90 minutes groups of friends will separate to reunite later to discuss the match. Unfortunately, there will always be those, no matter what Peter Lawwell and Martin Bain attempt to prophesise, who will use Rangers and Celtic as platforms to help maintain misguided beliefs of which they do not even understand.
The point remains though that for all the sectarian behaviours associated with the Old Firm is it any worse than the rivalries and what fuels them in North London, Birmingham and Lancashire? When Burnley played Blackburn at Ewood Park earlier this season, a Blackburn living Burnley fan had to travel to Turf Moor to get his ticket and travel with Burnley fans for fear he find himself in danger. While rivalries bring their issues they can also bring added drama and excitement to a competition. In terms of the Old Firm it may also add a greater edge and freshness to a fixture that if both teams are going well can happen 5 or 6 times during a typical Scottish season, making the rarer times they do meet even more special.
There is however one overriding factor that will have an effect on whether or not the Old Firm makes it to the land of champagne and sheikhs and that’s television. If Sky feels there is money to be made from having the Old Firm in the Premiership then the likelihood of it occurring increases by an infinite amount. As great as the Premiership is, its success, current and continual, has become solely dependant on the multi million pound deals that they agree to broadcast their programming. If in 2013, when the next rights are up for grabs, Sky decides they need a new angle to draw in more armchair fans then you can bet the powers that be in the Premiership will be knobbled into inviting the Old Firm to the party.
As things stand, it is glaringly obvious that the Old Firm need the Premiership more than the Premiership need the Old Firm. Rangers are in massive debt struggling to find a buyer, while Celtic aren’t far behind even if things appear steady just now. A debt the size of Rangers’ would be considered a drop in the ocean in the Premiership but are the Old Firm really wanted? While Martin O’Neill and Harry Redknapp have voiced there support will there be 12 others that they will progress the league further?
Whether this fairytale will be put on hold for the Old Firm this week we will have to wait and see, but one thing can be guaranteed, with or without them, the Premiership will still be the happy ever after that the storytellers at Ibrox and Parkhead will tell you they believe in.