There was a Sky trailer on television last weekend advertising the league clash between Celtic and Rangers – one of only a number of meetings between the two old rivals over the course of a few weeks. The usual clichés were used about the two sides being inseparable forces, and the “importance” of the upcoming league clash. More than ever, however, the advert betrayed the poor quality of the competition that is fast becoming an irrelevant footnote for the rest of Europe.
A side outside of the Old Firm has not won the top domestic honour since Aberdeen took the title in 1985 and despite the dip in quality from the league’s big two, there is little elsewhere to challenge their supremacy. Hearts briefly threatened to get involved in this year’s title race, but aside from the Jambos, there is not another side within 20 points of Scottish football’s most successful clubs.
The gulf in class has long been an issue north of the border and is not necessarily an indication of the decline of the division, but it has been the poor showing on the European stage that has been the barometer for their dramatic slide.
It would be remiss to pretend that there haven’t been moments of European glory for the Old Firm over the last seven or eight years. Both sides reached the final of the UEFA Cup, Celtic in 2003 and Rangers in 2008, and each have had a brave run in the Champions League. Celtic’s 2007 extra-time loss to eventual champions, AC Milan, was one of the bravest European performances by a British side – Gordon Strachan had every reason to feel his side’s play merited a place in the quarter-finals of that year’s competition.
Since those days of European success, the division has lost too much of its quality. Where once the SPL was seen as an attractive alternative to the Premier League, foreign players see a move to Scotland as a final straw before taking a step down the divisions. Rangers’ 0-0 draw with a second string Manchester United in the group stages of the Champions League in September was celebrated like the cup successes of years gone by.
Last summer was the biggest indication yet that all is not well within the SPL. The exodus of what was once a strong group of Old Firm players, many joining former Celtic boss Gordon Strachan at Championship outfit Middlesbrough, was a sign that the league was beginning to struggle both financially and in terms of the opportunity it could offer players. The credibility of the division has certainly not been helped by the league’s record goal scorer, Kris Boyd, being unable to hit the net since arriving on Teeside.
A league that once boasted the talents of Henrik Larsson, Paul Gascoigne and Shunsuke Nakamura saw a Blackburn reject, El Hadji Diouf, become its highest profile signing during the January transfer window. This season’s marquee arrival of former Arsenal midfielder Freddie Ljungberg came only after the Swede had fallen down the Premier League and failed to succeed in the MLS.
Financial strife is certainly a factor in the decline, particularly at Ibrox, but how can either side progress? The calls for an introduction into the English league system may intensify, but such is the lack of quality across the two squads that it could not be taken for granted that they would be good enough to survive in the Premier League.
Interest in the division will remain only when the Old Firm clash. Having experienced the atmosphere myself, I can confirm the spectacle is worth the trip to Glasgow. Nevertheless, one fixture is not enough to sustain a whole division of mediocrity, and change in the league is essential to sustain the most uncompetitive contest in Europe.
Any suggestions for how the Old Firm can move forward? Feel free to throw some suggestions my way on Twitter. I’m off to discover David Weir’s secret of his eternal youth.