Monday, August 07, 2006

Jocks Strapped

The Scottish Premier League - the original "Premier" league, established twelve years before the Premiership - is into its second week and the surprise leaders are St. Mirren, little of whom has been seen at this level since the late eighties, when Fun Boy Frank McAvennie and current assistant to José Mourinho, Steve Clarke were helping them win the Scottish Cup. The Paisley club are a prime example of the wonderful names that dot this sadly-retrograded championship: some of them conceived as clubs: Hamilton Academical, Queen of the South (possibly the only football club to draw their name from the Bible), Airdrieonians (now known as the boring old Airdrie United), St. Johnstone, others named after famous cultural references: Heart of Midlothian and others simply benefiting from the richness of Lowland Scots placenames: Cowdenbeath, Stenhousemuir.

My own team Celtic are of course the big yins these days though they did suffer a second-day reverse yesterday away to last years' runners-up Hearts. The Jambos are making a fair effort at re-introducing a third horse into the race. Gone are the days of the 1980s when the 'New Firm' of Aberdeen and Dundee United won the league as often as the Glasgow giants, and the Dons, managed by Alex Ferguson, beat Real Madrid in the Cup-Winners' Cup final. United also reached the 1987 UEFA Cup final and were robbed of a rightful Champions' Cup final place in 1984 by some appalling refereeing decisions that allowed Roma to overturn a 2-0 first-leg deficit. It has since been proven that the referee was bribed. Nowadays the Pittodrie club struggle to make any impression on the Premier League and were even knocked out of Europe by Bohemians a couple of years back, as for Dundee United and their famous tangerine shirts, simply remaining the number one club on Tayside is tough enough.

The Bosman ruling put paid to clubs from countries like Scotland (and Sweden, whose IFK beat Dundee United in 1987) ever having the same prospects again. The bigger European clubs are too strong and their perpetual success, and the relative smallness of Scotland, means that they generate far more money. A few years ago Celtic were knocked out of the Champions' League by Lyon and the French champions pocketed five times as much in TV rights money as Celtic would have had they progressed. Because the French market is that much bigger. Celtic and Rangers have for a number of years been trying to enter the English championship, logically as they would face tougher opposition on a weekly basis, thereby increasing their chances at European level, which is really the only important thing once the basics of winning in Scotland are taken care of. They have been obstructed by smaller Premiership clubs, for good reason: they would not only be taking two certain top-flight places but also biting into the pooled finances, a share of which is far in excess of what either club currently make in a year. English people I know sneer at the Scottish Premier League but Celtic dispatched Blackburn and Liverpool comfortably enough on their way to the UEFA Cup final three years ago. Celtic would be regular top-six finishers in the Premiership, on their current form alone. If they were to have the financial resources currently denied them, they would win quite a few titles. They are, with the exception of Man U, the biggest and best-supported club in Britain.

The sad thing though is that such a move would have a catastrophic effect on Scottish football. But at this point there is little that can be done about that.