Should the Old Firm Leave?

It is fair to say that talk of the Old Firm joining the English Premier League has been something of an elephant in the room over the past decade or so. Both Rangers and Celtic have expressed a desire to break free from Scottish football and ply their trade against the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool. Just last month, Rangers owner Craig Whyte, when asked if Rangers would ever play in the English Premiership, stated, “It is something we are working on behind the scenes”. However, what is hardly ever mentioned are the potentially negative consequences of such a move were it to occur. You must ask yourself, is this simply a black and white case? Would it really matter if Glasgow’s giants decided to compete with the best of English as opposed to the mediocrity of Scottish? Could anyone blame them for desiring the financial gains such a move would inevitably bring?

Scotland is as passionate about its football as any other nation; in fact, per head of population, more people go to watch live matches in Scotland over a weekend than anywhere else in Europe. However, a less boastful statistic is that, along with Ukraine, the Scottish Premier League is the most uncompetitive in Europe. No team outside the Old Firm has won the title since Aberdeen in 1984/85. That means that for 26 consecutive seasons, either Rangers or Celtic have picked up the trophy (in Ukraine, only Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk have won the league over the last 19 seasons). As a result, this has enabled both Old Firm sides to mould themselves into a global brand. Not only are they well supported at home, but all around the world people follow the endeavours of these footballing heavyweights.

Like any debate, it is essential that both sides of the argument are heard; and it is undeniable that there are laudable points on both sides. But first, let us begin by trawling through the justifications offered as to why the Old Firm should set off for pastures new down south. Celtic’s majority shareholder, Dermot Desmond, has stated that he believes the move will happen due to the increasing influence of media organisations. Unquestionably, the TV revenues the Old Firm would likely enjoy are a huge factor and pack a significant punch in the argument. Moreover, the knock on affects would be monumental; for example, a higher calibre of player could be persuaded to up sticks and move to Glasgow.

It has been a few years now since the Scottish giants could call upon the talents of top European footballers. There has been a noticeable lack of Henrik Larsson’s, Michael Laudrup’s and Paul Gascoigne’s gracing the fields of Ibrox and Celtic Park. Cheap, risky and obscure foreign purchases have been the norm in recent times, for both clubs, as both finances and reputation have dwindled. The English Premier League has had no such worries in attracting the greatest talents from across the continents. A permanent move to England would certainly prove lucrative for the Glasgow duo. On that, there is no doubt. The other feasible argument for a move is that it would greatly benefit the other sides within the Scottish Premier League.

Scotland national team manager Craig Levein weighed in on the argument whilst head coach of Hearts of Midlothian back in 2002. He asserted, “I think if Aberdeen had an opportunity of winning the league and ourselves, Hibs and Dundee, then okay the TV money wouldn’t be there, but I would like to think that we would get more people through the turnstiles”. This theory, bolstered by its endorsement by the head of the national team, has predictably featured rather heavily in the ongoing discussion. The conventional wisdom is that by removing the Old Firm from the top tier, the league would become more open and competitive. Suddenly you would be looking at four or five, maybe even six or seven, teams with an equal chance of ending up victorious. But are these understandable viewpoints omitting the wider picture?

Football is more than just a game in Scotland; it is a phenomenon, a cultural identity and, perhaps more importantly, a metaphor for our society. Scottish football carries large economic benefits, heightens our reputation globally and provides us with the occasional feel-good factor. Naturally, the Old Firm account for the vast majority of that. Their derby matches attract worldwide audiences of millions. Their Champions League adventures have provided Scotland with considerable tourist takings. So why would we want to lose that? There is an argument to be made that the level of football is actually improving at long last within Glasgow. Players such as Nikica Jelavic, Scott Brown and Allan McGregor have recently turned down tempting contract offers from English sides in order to focus their attention on improving the standard of Scottish football. This can only be interpreted as encouraging.

Taking a step away from the on-field antics, let us look at the societal implications of such a move. What would a break away by our two biggest clubs say about Scotland in general? It would suggest that Scotland is too small, too insecure and too insignificant to make it alone. It would be utilised by astute Unionists as a symbol of Scotland needing England. After all, if Scotland fails to manage its two biggest football clubs, how can it manage as a self-governing nation? Independence would be called into question; with the Old Firm institutions used as Exhibit A for the prosecution. Football would provide self-doubting Scots with an excuse to oppose independence and question our place in the world at large. We must not allow this doubt to manifest. Instead, we must argue for the maintenance of a Scottish league that includes both Celtic and Rangers.

This can be achieved through persistent challenges to the conventional wisdom. Whilst Craig Levein’s thesis is intriguing, it is anything but water tight. A counter argument could be made that, in fact, the Old Firm increase ticket sales when travelling to Tannardice, Rugby Park and Tynecastle. Their presence ignites an ambience of excitement and endless possibilities. What better than the notion of beating the Old Firm on your home turf? That alone brings in the crowds. Similarly, a trip to Ibrox or Celtic Park can be just as exhilarating for an away supporter. From a player’s point of view, what better way to display your talents than by competing against Scotland’s finest and departing triumphant. This is what strengthens Scottish football. In England, the equivalent scenario would be the FA Cup, where spectators long for an upset, cheer on the underdog and unite in their desire to bring down Goliath.

Whilst Rangers and Celtic are justified in their continued interest over an English expedition, for the good of Scottish football, and Scotland in general, it is imperative that they remain within their homeland. The narrow sited consensus is that every element within this entangled triangle would benefit greatly; the Old Firm would increase revenue and expand (having been strangled by the limits of Scottish football), the other Scottish teams would profit from the sudden emergence of an open, unpredictable league and England would gain two of the worlds greatest footballing institutions. But I am not interested in short-term gratification and narrow-minded predictions. A wider perspective is required. Scotland would suffer as a nation, a society and a culture were Rangers and Celtic to journey south.

A better solution would be for the Glasgow giants to commit long-term to the Scottish Premier League. Admittedly, the league itself needs alterations and modernising but this is achievable and would be wholly worthwhile. The current 12 team format is failing and a move to a 20 team league would be warmly welcomed. That way, whilst the Old Firm may continue to tussle for the title, 18 other sides could compete for more significant scraps (i.e. greater financial gains for finishing in top half). By strengthening the league, the medium to long-term gains would be sizeable for our two biggest sides. A stronger league would lead to a more competitive contest, thus leading to an improvement in the overall standard of the Scottish game. The knock-on affect would be beneficial in terms of both revenue and squad capabilities.

 

Whatever the Old Firm choose to do will cause ripples within Scottish society in one way or another. Let us pray they are positive. This scenario plays as a mirror to Scottish society. It highlights our frailties, our dreams and our options. Scottish independence may well hinge on the state of Scottish football come the time we go to vote in the fast-looming referendum. If Scotland can prove that it can cater for our two biggest sporting institutions, whilst demonstrating a greater understanding for the situation at large, then credibility would raise and hopes would rekindle. But the final decision will rest at the feet of the clubs themselves. Whether they understand their importance within the wider context of Scottish society is crucial; for if they don’t, the repercussions could be huge for the nation and its people.

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  1. soosider says:

    Should Rangers and Celtic leave? Yes absolutely, provided they take those of their supporters who are vile bigotted people with them. Actually this is not going to happen for some very simple reasons, the Premiership does not need them, there is no advantage to the Premiership, in England they already have a pyramid system that works very successfully, why would they jeopardise this?
    Lastly I am fairly sure if it was examined in any sort of meaningful manner by the Premiership they would be aghast at the baggage that these two clubs drag around with them, would they good people of London, Birmingham, Manchester or Liverpool be prepared to tolerate what many Scottish town has become accustomed to when Old Firm are visiting team.

  2. Alex says:

    Understandably this is a piece written from a Scottish perspective. However, just to throw tuppence-worth in from south of the border…

    We don’t want the Old Firm in the English pyramid. The fact is that they have no right to deny two English sides their places in the top flight. Or whatever division they’d start at. It’s fundamentally unfair.

    The only way Scottish teams could enjoy a more competitive environment fairly is if the British league system was fully integrated. Regional lower echelons, then perhaps the top two tiers being UK-wide. Though that concept is vaguely intriguing, it’d be incredibly difficult to organise and would threaten the autonomy of the national FAs. Which means it’ll never happen. And anyway, the English Premier League is so awash with money there’s no incentive for them to change anything.

    So yeah, all in all I agree with you. The Old Firm must stay, as much for the good of the (already embarrassingly unequal) game in England as Scotland.

  3. Anonymous says:

    The Old Firm will never leave Scottish football. It is a pipe dream. There would need to be a vote that included almost every team in the Premiership, and the Wigans and Blackburns of this world will never approve it. If it is forced through by television companies then that would be disgraceful. My inclination is to think that you are absolutely correct in your assessment of the social impact such a situation would have on Scottish society, yet consider the case of Catalonia. There is little doubt a Catalan league would be substantially weaker than the La Liga. Yet the Catalan nationalists only really worry about representation in the national arena. Barcelona’s position in a Spanish football context is not seen as a source of anxiety, but of immense pride. However, I also tend to believe that the Scottish league would be killed by the Old Firm leaving. Kids in Scotland would grow up and see Scotland (even more than they do presently) as a nation with two ‘real’ football teams, and would ignore the SPL. This is also an astoundingly parochial debate, frankly it is typically British in that sense, with its eyes on one place only. Right across Europe we see this problem with former giants of the game. With football governed and financed as it presently is, Benfica or Ajax will never win the European Cup again. The problem is the fact that football has become reflective of the unregulated capitalism on steroids that got us to where we are today. The worst aspects of our society are reflected in what used to be a game for working class communities. In Scotland, if you want to see our society at its worst and most base, attend an Old Firm game. In England, Carlos Tevez refuses to get on the pitch for over two hundred thousand pounds a week. These clowns are worse than the bankers.

    P.s. Michael Laudrup never played for Rangers. Brian Laudrup, his brother, did.

  4. Doug Daniel says:

    I must have missed Michael Laudrup’s foray into Scottish football, unless he was in the stands watching his brother turning out for Rangers.

    I would have no problem with the Old Firm leaving, but it would have to be in conjunction with the league being enlarged. The boredom induced by playing the same teams three or four times a year – and even more when cup ties are taken into account – is what is killing the interest in Scottish football, as well as the fact that no one outside the Old Firm is going to challenge for the title unless a) the Old Firm go bankrupt or b) rich investors start buying Scottish football clubs.

    Who cares about a league where the top two are known before a ball is even kicked? Certainly not the Old Firm – all they care about is each other, while the rest of us look on, rolling our eyes at them. Either the playing field has to be levelled to allow smaller teams to compete, or the Old Firm should be kicked out. They cause enough trouble to warrant being kicked out for bringing the game into disrepute anyway.

  5. Ray Bell says:

    Spare a thought for Welsh football though… The three best teams in Wales all play in the English leagues.

  6. Tocasaid says:

    The OF leaving would maybe benefit us but would it benefit them? Its hard to see Celtic or Rangers of this seasons competing most of the teams in the bottom half of the EPL.

    Maybe there needs to be more effort by local teams in places like Falkirk, Stirling, Fife, Inverness, Dundee and Edinburgh to interact with local schools. Maybe by returning to the community we’ll see less gloryhunters in the places mentioned following troublesome institutions in Glasgow.

  7. Robbie says:

    I really hope that the Old Firm or the wat that they are pandered to is not held up nationally or internationally as any type of metaphor for an inclusive,modern nation making its canny way towards independence. There are large element in both the support of Rangers and Celtic that are a disgrace to Scotland. I have worked as a security steward at Old Firm games and at European games at Celtic Park and Ibrox and was ashamed at the level of vile sectarian chanting and abuse. I’ve been in the crowd supporting my local team in Fife when visiting Celtic fans have mimed taking sniper shots and throwing imaginary grenades into the crowd and sung sectarian songs for the entire match with the police doing nothing.
    The same thing has happened when Rangers have visited. I know about the explosion in
    general and domestic violence that occurs across Glasgow and elsewhere after Old Firm
    matches. Yet this is still defended as an expression of culture- only this week people were protesting against the plans to take tougher action against sectarian singing. No matter how deep rooted this ‘culture’ is in Glasgow or anywhere else it has got to go. I don’t want it in my town, my county or my country. What kind of message does it send to the world
    about Scotland that we tolerate it?

  8. St_Andrew_60 says:

    I really don’t think that there is a cats chance of the OF going to England. The simple fact is that the English have a hugely successful league and they don’t need a bunch of Neanderthals (apologies to Neanderthals). I would hope that once independence/fiscal autonomy is achieved a Scottish Government would bring in a tax regime which would cut these two destructive forces down to size, thus making them just other Scottish clubs. This in turn would allow for greater competition in the SPL and thus greater interest which in time would create larger revenues which would hopefully not be creamed off by these two clubs but shared more equally throughout the league.

  9. Close them both down. They are a pestilential canker on the body politic and social fabric of Scotland, especially, and Ireland, particularly in the North, and are knuckle-dragging throw-backs to the European power play upheavals of Reformation and Counter-Reformation within the sectarian “‘Christian’ ‘tradition'” of the “great” monotheistic religions scam; for, if we were, by accident of history, Islamic, Rangers would be Sunni to Celtic’s Shia on the basis of any excuse for a bovine, sectarian rammy between falsely perceived emic and etic
    pseudo-communities – the “Us” and the demonized “Other”.

    In fact, shut all soccer-football down in Scotland and show a global lead in combating the world-wide con of a contemporary divisive and digressionary bread and circuses routine to keep the masses thirled

  10. Alex Montrose says:

    Should Rangers lose their ongoing battle with the taxman, and go burst, could the club rename themselves as The Rangers and then apply to join the conference in England? from there to the premier league might take a few years, but would surely be worth it in the long term.

  11. Nick Heller says:

    A quick look at the attendances for most old firm games away from Glasgow would cast serious doubt on their ability to pull in the crowds. Sub 10,000 crowds for the bulk of these fixtures are becoming the norm. Certainly live TV coverage is part of the equation together with eye-watering admission prices in the SPL but the reality is that in terms of numbers Celtic and Rangers increasingly repel almost as many fans as they attract.

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