November 2001

The Old Firm try and escape to England.



Slowly, the truth is beginning to dawn about the Old Firm's proposed move to English football. Forget Man Utd. Forget Liverpool. Start forming an orderly queue for these mouth-watering fixtures: Celtic v Sheffield United. Rangers v Crystal Palace. Doesn't sound quite so appealing, does it? But this is the hard reality of what an Old Firm move would mean.

Just as has been long suspected, the Premiership doesn't need the Old Firm. The 'full house' signs are up at the vast majority of matches and there's no way that the 50% of Premiership clubs whose sole ambition is to avoid relegation are going to vote to axe two of their number to accommodate the Glasgow giants.

So it's the proposed Phoenix League (stupid name) or nothing. And just what do the Old Firm stand to gain from joining a clutch of English First Division sides? Certainly not bigger gates. More people already watch Celtic v St Johnstone or Rangers v Dunfermline than attend European ties, so a visit from Norwich City or Birmingham City isn't going to boost crowds.

No, its the thought of TV cash which motivates the big two. And they could be on shaky ground. ITV Digital, which has exclusive rights to live Nationwide league fixtures has already televised games where there have been more people in the ground than there have been watching on the box. Don't expect the same lucrative deal to be on the table when the next contract comes up. The aforementioned clubs and the likes of Man City and Sheffield Wednesday are giants only in the mind of their own boardrooms. David Gold, Birmingham's Chairman summed up their attitude by claiming that Birmingham v Celtic was an exciting prospect.

Maybe it is for him. But is Celtic v Birmingham more exciting for the Parkhead fans than a visit from Ajax, Juventus or Valencia - all of whom have played in Glasgow this season?

I don't think so. Nor, I suspect, will the fans be willing to swap a midweek trip to the Stadio Communale for a visit to Carrow Road. And what if the Old Firm fail to gain promotion to the Premiership? Will their supporters be content to turn up in the same numbers as they do at present to watch a meaningless mid-table match against Barnsley?

No, the big boys in the Premiership have proved that they don't need the Old Firm and the best example of this is the plan to let the Glasgow sides enter the Worthington Cup. Such is the arrogance of the Old Firm that they treat the domestic equivalent with disdain (until they get within sniffing distance of the trophy).

Only last season Dick Advocaat called for the CIS Cup to be scrapped. Yet here they are almost begging to enter a tournament that the English giants can't be bothered with. Of the 22 players who lined up at the start of the recent Arsenal v Man Utd premiership fixture ,just two had taken part in a Worthington Cup tie between the same two clubs a fortnight previously.

Obviously the English teams would benefit from the inclusion of our big two - it might give fans of Burnley and Chesterfield the chance to relive their early 80s triumphs in the Anglo-Scottish Cup!


But let us imagine a future without Scottish football's two greatest institutions/biggest liabilities (delete as appropriate).

Some claim a breakaway will lead to a more exciting future for the rest of the Scottish clubs with championships shared out in an evenly-contested, exciting League. Others that Scotland will drop domestically to the same level as the Republic of Ireland.

Unfortunately, this website has to agree with the pessimists. If the Old Firm go it will be the death of Scottish football as we have known it for over a century. And here's why...

Firstly, our biggest clubs will have gone. Media coverage will still be heavily biased towards the Old Firm. Why should the habits of a century change just because the big two are playing in Sheffield or Birmingham rather than Aberdeen or Edinburgh? The others will fight for the scraps. SPL press coverage will shrink to that afforded the First Division today.

Secondly, the remaining clubs will know they are not the best in the country. Winning the championship will not win them promotion to the Premiership. They will be condemned to stay in their own backyard forever.

European prospects will shrink. If UEFA sanction an Old Firm move it can only be at the expense of Scottish participation in Europe, or a guaranteed place for the big two. Its time for the old coffee beans to hit the nostrils of anyone who thinks we will still be allocated four Euro-places domestically while the Old Firm languish in England.

Fans will be forced to pick one of the giants/ogres to follow when playing against the English. We will nearly all become Celtic/Rangers fans while retaining loyalty to our own domestic clubs. Impossible? What about junior football in Scotland now? There are thousands who follow a junior team and also a senior team where no clash of loyalties can occur. We will either become temporary Old Firm fans or carry our detestation of them as far as supporting the opposition against them. Even today there are many Scots who, perversely, want the Old Firm to fail in Europe, failing to realise that the worse the big two do, the fewer chances there are for the rest to play in Europe.

Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Wales already follow the pattern of supporting local teams and Premiership sides. If Scotland were to follow it can only be described as a tragic irony that in an era which has embraced political devolution throughout these islands, that a sporting hegemony is established by England.

What case do the optimists have? Those who think the departure of the Old Firm will bring a bright new dawn to Scottish football? None whatsoever. Which TV stations will fight each other for rights to our domestic games when BBC Scotland and STV can't even provide a highlights programme now when Rangers and Celtic have a week off?

Where will the support come from? Don't fool yourself into thinking that Old Firm fans will suddenly rediscover their local sides. As argued above, the reverse is much more likely. Look at the situation at present. The last Old Firm fixture was a sell-out with nearly 60,000 attending. On the same day, the total attendance for all twenty other senior matches was just 53,000. In 2000, a Sunday charity kickabout between Rangers and Celtic over-35s drew more than 40,000. The day previously just three fixtures survived the winter. Two of these were in Glasgow. The total attendance for the three games was just over 5,000.

There we have it. Old Firm fans will rather watch an old boys lark in the park than attend another club's games- even in the same city. Love them or loathe them, we need them. And, as they will find out should they make the move, they need us. For, as argued in the column opposite, what is on offer in England may satisfy their accountants but it won't please their supporters.

When it comes down to basics, will the same Old Firm fans who moan about too many easy games or about teams putting ten men behind the ball (but not when they do it themselves in Europe), be happy to watch tightly-contested no-score draws against Coventry or Southampton? Somehow, I doubt it. They're too used to winning.



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