19:12, 16 Feb 2012
Just as the Joker needs Batman, Celtic are nothing without their rivalry with Rangers and money will talk…
The SPL without Rangers is a thought that would delight many Celtic fans who see through just one eye. For those who love a bit of competition, surely the words of the Joker to Batman in a climactic scene of the Dark Knight come to mind: "Oh, you. You just couldn't let me go, could you? This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You truly are incorruptible, aren't you? You won't kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness. And I won't kill you because you're just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever."
For that not to be the case for Celtic and Rangers would be sad for Scottish football, and for those Irish fans who still connect themselves with this very ordinary league. Whether that is as a conduit for nationalist sentiment or because they actually enjoy watching second-rate duopoly share title after title, that’s up for debate (no doubt this attitude towards their support of an SPL team will be met with scorn).
But for those who agree, and more so for those who have turned away from the SPL latterly, we are just as quick to reminisce about the halcyon days when Pierre van Hooijdonk, Brian Laudrup, Paul Gascoigne, Henrik Larsson, Mark Viduka and Jorg Albertz were on the scene. The profile of Old Firm signings has steadily decreased in magnitude, as has their ability to compete beyond the domestic front.
Look at how they’ve fared in Europe recently, where they no longer punch above their weight. Whereas the knockout stages of the Champions League were a reality in 2006-07 and 2007-08 for Celtic, relying on Sion being disqualified sent them into the Europa League group stages - where they foundered. Rangers made the last 16 of the Champions League in 2005-06 and the Uefa Cup final in 2008, now they can’t afford the price of a Choc-Ice.
As neither are likely to beat an AC Milan or whomever again any time soon, it is imperative that they can at least challenge each other. Just as Italian football has needed the likes of Juventus - forcibly relegated due to the Calciopoli scandal of 2006 - to bounce back, Scottish football needs Rangers to, and quickly. The only thing worse than a duopoly is a monopoly.
Rangers fans are keen to blame Craig Whyte for the club going into administration, and it seems unlikely he is not in some way culpable. Then again, why was he able to buy the club off David Murray for the price of a Choc-Ice? That Whyte borrowed the equivalent of €29m from loan company Ticketus against future season ticket sales would not have gone down well with those supporters who pay for the seats. As well as the financial dice-throwing, it is easy to see how a fan’s loyalty is being taken for granted. As if he will always be there to fill that space, that ticket number.
Former Rangers striker Trevor Steven said: “I don’t think there has ever been a good relationship between Craig Whyte and his group of people and the support. For me, there has always been smoke and mirrors from the day he walked in the door. He came with a handful of promises that have never been delivered.
“That’s what really aggravates the Rangers support. They have never been able to trust the man in charge and there has been no transparency. I think all Rangers supporters knew the events of the last few days were going to happen.
“There is a real lack of support for Craig Whyte. As far as Rangers are concerned, new people have to come into the club once administration has been sorted. I know Paul Murray, one of the ex-directors, has said he would be prepared with others to come in once the picture is clear.”
Which it never seems to be in these situations. And no doubt Steven hasn’t the foggiest how to run a massive club, no more so than most of us. But when things are not going well, the guillotine basket can’t go empty.
“At the moment, the picture is not clear,” said Steven, who along with Graeme Souness, curiously count for two ex-Rangers members in the RTÉ football panel. “I don’t think it can be for the Scottish game in general until this situation is resolved.”
In the Premier and Football League over the last decade, 23 of the 92 professional clubs have gone into some form of administration. Of these, eight have gone through the process more than once. While the English leagues can perhaps afford to lose a team and remain exciting, the Scots can’t afford to lose either of their two mains draws. And a rivalry in its 124th year.
Celtic and Rangers are defined by their relationship with each other. That mutual animosity fuels competition so if there is none, tedium will set in. The league will continue to decline in importance, and worth. Hearts were the only team to come close to breaking the duopoly and that when George Burley was in charge but their challenge fell away because of the influence of an erratic chairman. Nothing unfamiliar in that so.
The relationship between Celtic and Rangers may always be one of hate but, as with love, you can’t have either without something to bounce that feeling off. In April 2011, the Old Firm derby produced the first one million-plus in-home audience for a Scottish game screened by Sky, showing the importance of this rivalry to the league’s hopes of drawing investment. In fact the SPL’s TV deal insists there must be at least four Old Firm clashes each year, which also ensures the league cannot be expanded. As such, the jewel in the crown trumps all else.
“One of the conditions of this [TV] deal — as with all major sponsorships — is that Celtic and Rangers remain in the league,” said SPL chief executive Neil Doncaster in November 2011. “It is also a condition that they play each other four times a season. That’s been with us for the entirety of the current deal and before that with Setanta.”
So while the Bhoys might joke at the expense of the Gers now, no one outside the SPL will pay any attention until that rivalry is back - and Celtic will lose out financially too without the draw of an Old Firm clash. Without that, there’s little else in that league worth paying attention to.
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