Oliver McManus writes to analyse whether Celtic’s dominance of Scottish football is good for the national team or not.
Celtic and Rangers, the two greatest teams in Scottish football history – in fact, if you were to browse through the honours list, you could be forgiven for thinking they were the ONLY teams in Scottish history.
I say that, of course, due to their sheer dominance of the top-tier in its various guises since the Scottish Football League was founded in 1890 – with 104 League titles between the two of them, you have to go back to the 1984-85 season to find a different Champion and that was Aberdeen, under the guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson.
On the 29th April, the Old Firm met in yet another clash of the titans but, in all honesty, it had a subdued atmosphere to it. For, simply, Celtic have been dominant since Rangers went into administration 5 years ago.
Obviously for many of those years, Rangers were no longer in the top-tier but this season, their first return, Celtic have showed no sign of relenting; the 5-1 victory for The Hoops, was no surprise – they had already won by the same score-line earlier in the season!
So I got thinking, is this dominance of Scottish football – by Celtic and, formerly, Rangers – good for football or is it hindering development?
There are numerous factors to take into account when trying to authoritatively answer that question but I’m going to start with the most simple – what has competition been like over the last 5 years?
Distant, is the best word to describe Celtic’s nearest competitors since Rangers’ forced relegation – Aberdeen have consistently been the team most likely to cause an upset but have frequently come up short when they hit crunch time.
Prior to Rangers’ absence, fans in Scotland were treated to real nail-biting season finales as, oftentimes, the League could come down to the final weekend with both Rangers and Celtic still in the hunt; admittedly, 3rd placed tended to be a good 20-25 points behind but there was plenty of entertainment between the Big Two from Glasgow.
The first season (2012-13) without Rangers actually saw one of the closest seasons that we’ve seen in the past half-decade with Celtic losing 7 times, before clicking into gear to take the title from Motherwell by a healthy 16 points.
To put that into context, Celtic have only lost 8 times in the league since the end of the 2012-13 season; though they have drawn on 23 occasions. As I said earlier, Aberdeen always seem to be the closest competition but, when the pressure is turned up, it’s a step too far to actually mount a realistic title challenge.
Last season was Celtic’s tightest season since Ranger’s liquidation in 2012, when Aberdeen ran them close for much of the season, even reaching the Scottish Cup final before running out losers in the league by 15 points. And yet, arguably, they played far better football than Celtic who, frankly, made hard work of the job at hand.
Now that Rangers are back in the league, we could be seeing some fighting spirit rejuvenating the SPFL but I wouldn’t imagine it to be anytime soon, Rangers have been dismal this season and Aberdeen have disappointed in equal measure; over the next 2-3 years, however, we may see significantly closer challenges than in recent memory.
There you go then, that’s the dominance in numbers and on record but now let’s look at the impact such dominance is having on the league and, more importantly, if it’s even a big deal;
First up on the list is the effect on the Scottish national team and the key date to remember here is 2012 because we’re looking at the effect since Rangers were liquidated.
To try and get a reasonable level of comparison, I’m going to look at the last two complete qualification campaigns for the UEFA European Championships (the World Cup is best avoided as the Euros allow for a full campaign including Rangers in the top-division and a full campaign without them).
The 2012 UEFA European Championship Qualification campaign featured Rangers in the SPL and pitted the Scots against Spain, Czech Republic, Lithuania and Liechtenstein.
Given that the tournament was still, back then, just a 16-nation affair it was always going to be a stretch to qualify with Spain, understandably, favourites to top the group and then Czech Republic and Scotland battling out for the runners-up spot.
You’d think if they could get the wins over Lithuania and Liechtenstein then they’d be in with a good shout of making the top two – after all, 4 wins equals 12 points and a good platform to build on.
Things aren’t always as they seem on paper however and this proved to be from their very first fixture; a frustrating performances against Lithuania left them, already, 2 points behind on target as they only escaped with a 0-0 draw.
Next up was a trip to the Czech Republic, a stoic Scotland put up a resilient defence which was only breached with 21 minutes to go – they ended up losing the match 1-0. I won’t bore you all the details of the campaign, the large tale of it was one of tough matches and hard luck.
It just so happened that their run of misfortune would continue with a match against Spain for their 3rd match in the group – a match that would, essentially, epitomise the campaign for Scotland. They fought with gusto, with spirit but ultimately didn’t have the quality to pull through – a 3-2 defeat virtually put their qualification hopes to bed already.
A chaotic 2-2 draw against the Czech Republic, in front of a packed Hampden Park, proved to be a catalyst for their next couple of games – a comfortable 1-0 win over Lithuania, another 1-0 against Liechtenstein before their final game against Spain which they would need to win AND Lithuania to beat the Czech’s in order to have the chance of progress.
It was always going to be an uphill battle, and within 6 minutes they were dealt a double blow with Spain taking the lead through David Silva as well as Czech Republic going 1-up against Lithuania. The pain only got worse at full-time, as Spain comfortably walked past Scotland by 3 goals to 1 and the Czech Republic beat Lithuania 4-1.
The final standings saw Scotland in 3rd place with 11 points, 2 points off 2nd spot and a chance at qualification for the final tournament; I think it’s fair to say that the final table was both representative and unrepresentative of the Scottish performances – if points were given for passion and spirit, they would be top of the table because at no point did they give up. In terms of actual footballing performance, they were very much shoddy and lacking in any real depth of quality.
A campaign summed up aptly with the phrase “sometimes your best isn’t good enough”, how would their quest to compete at the 2016 UEFA European Championships, then?
Drawn in a very tough group against Germany, Poland, Republic of Ireland, Georgia and Gibraltar, Scotland knew that the expanded tournament format would favour them as, now, the top 2 automatically qualify for the Championship’s AND 3rd place would secure a play-off spot.
Pressure off slightly, then, as they could afford a slip-up or two provided that they hit their stride for the rest of the games.
The campaign started off encouragingly with a performance to be proud of, although it ended in a 2-1 defeat to Germany; but at this early stage, the way the players performed was enough of a result – they showed that Scotland didn’t cower for any opposition.
With that new-found confidence, they found a spring to their step taking 10 points out of the next 12 available; a plucky 1-0 win against Georgia, followed up with a fighting 2-2 draw against Poland, a strong 1-0 against the Republic of Ireland and an easy 6-1 hammering of Gibraltar.
10 points from the first 5 games and Scotland were sitting pretty with one eye on France 2016 but the pressure would tell, as they went on a disastrous run ending with a mere 5 points from the last half of their campaign;
Signs of a wobble first appeared when only an own-goal from John O’Shea was enough to secure the Scots a 1-1 draw against the ROI, that stutter continued into Tbilsi where Georgia emerged the winners by a goal to nil. If that wasn’t enough, they faced Germany just 3 days later and, despite resilience, lost 3-2 – a result leaving them with all to do if they were to qualify for the final tournament.
The last 2 games ended with a relative whimper, 2-2 against Poland and then an easy, routine 6-0 win against Gibraltar; alas it was not enough, for Scotland finished 4th, 6 points behind automatic qualification as the nation’s disappointment continued for yet more years.
Another way of comparing the strength of the Scottish Premier League over the years is to see how many players have been called up for the Scottish National team whilst playing their football IN Scotland.
At the height of Rangers-Celtic nip-and-tuck competition, the Scottish national team called up 19 Scottish-based players between 2006 and 2007, with 6 different Scottish Premiership Clubs represented.
In 2015, however, just 7 Scottish-based players were called up for their batch of friendlies, with only 3 clubs featured; a drop of nearly a third in player-representation and of a half in club-representation.
Nowadays, in their latest squad, we can see 9 players that have been called up from the Scottish Premiership – still drastically down from that peak figure but, definitely a number that looks set to increase with the increase in competition we’re likely to see in the coming seasons.
Both these comparisons paint rather mixed but meek pictures of how domination in Scottish League’s has led to a dilapidation within the Scottish national team – sure, the results themselves have improved, however they remain begrudgingly sub-par and the level of talent representing the country appears to have dropped; certainly from an SPFL point of view, anyway.
Next up on our analysis of the impact of dominance, let’s talk about the attitude of players towards the SPFL;
In years past, Scotland was able to attract big names to come and ply their trade in their top-tier – the likes of Henrik Larsson, Chris Sutton and Giovanni van Bronckhorst have all appeared over the decades. Scotland was seen as a platform to showcase your talents; an attractive proposition, indeed.
The players bought into the passion of the country, played their hearts out and put it all on the line.
Nowadays, however, it seems as though players consider the Scottish Premiership to be a case of Celtic or bust; no-other club quite has the pulling power that it used to and that is for one reason and one reason only – pure and utter dominance from Celtic.
Let’s take this year for example. Celtic are guaranteed the title and have got a lead of 30 points. If you’re a player, why on earth would you want to play for anyone in Scotland but Celtic – there is a virtual guarantee that The Hoops will be champions year after year.
Even Celtic are finding that they’re unable to sign players of such an ilk that they would have been able to in the past, for a converse reason to guaranteed success; there is no challenge to the players – yes it’s alright in terms of money and will look great in a trophy cabinet but they’re not going to progress.
Here, then, you have a two-fold problem, few top-quality players will sign for anyone but Celtic due to the lack of quality but, equally, few young players will sign for Celtic because of the lack of quality!
Finally, I wish to take a look at a proposal that has been touted in the past. Namely, the transition of Celtic (and, formerly, Rangers) into the English Football League. This proposal always seems to crop up whenever Celtic romp to the title (so basically, at the end of every season for the last 5-6 years) and is based on the premise that either Celtic are too good for Scotland or are good enough to mix it in England.
The question is, would such a scenario help improve the quality of the Scottish game? Not in the short-term, obviously, because of the best team leaving the league but could it work in the long run?
I really don’t know – I would like to think it would but who actually knows? Granted, it would massively deplete the standard of the game for the first 10-15 years but, after then, the clubs would have had time to build strength and create a core to the team.
Without the dominance, we could see a return to competitive action with different clubs winning the title every season and a real excitement to the league.
On the flipside, I fear Celtic would never manage to keep pace with the teams in the Championship, let alone the Premier League. For too long they’ve had it their own way and it would be too much for them to adapt to such a fast-paced, aggressive league.
Of course this is purely hypothetical because the odds of such an action happening ever occurring are slim-to-none but it’s still an interesting line of enquiry.
I think then that it is safe to conclude that Celtic’s dominance hasn’t exactly been beneficial to the game in Scotland, it’s suffered commercially, the national team has failed to progress and the quality on the pitch has failed to live up to expectations.
At worst it’s had a crash-landing, at worst it’s suffered a nose-dive. With the return of Rangers to the league and an improving Aberdeen, there is hope for the future but both teams need to kick on in the next 5 years and start to mount consistent challenges for the title in order for the excitement factor to be brought to life once more.
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