Even a quick glance out of curiosity at the Clydesdale Bank Premierleague this season makes for interesting reading. Yes, Celtic and Rangers sit first and second respectively, but the chasing pack are closer than ever and some fans of Dundee United and Hibernian are even dreaming of that ever-elusive SPL title leaving Glasgow for the first time since 1985.
Four points separate fourth place Dundee United and Celtic at the top of the league, and the Terrors have a game in hand. Sandwiched between them are Hibernian and Rangers, joint-second on 25 points, although Rangers have also played one less game. Even looking down at fifth and sixth, Motherwell are just seven points off top and Aberdeen, who inflicted Rangers’ first league defeat of the season on Saturday, are on 18 points. Just nine points separate the top six.
To put this into perspective, after 13 rounds of matches last season, Celtic were already 12 points clear of Dundee United in third place, and Rangers were just two points behind Celtic – both were already pulling away from the chasing pack.
It’s easy to get carried away with this recent shift, of course. It’s very early days and the Old Firm still have more than twenty games left to play, plenty of time to pull away once again. But the increased competitiveness has shaken up a league that had become stale. Since the creation of the 12-team Premier League in Scotland back in 1998, the title has been shared exclusively between the Glasgow clubs, with Celtic winning 6 and Rangers 5. The only break in the duopoly occured in the 2005/06 season when Hearts pipped Rangers to second place by a single point, in a season where Celtic finished a full 18 points ahead of their city rivals.
But the increased competitiveness of the domestic league has come at a high price; the performances of Scottish clubs in Europe this season have been woeful. Rangers are already out of the Champions’ League with no wins out of five, and Celtic in the Europa League after being beaten by Arsenal in the Champions’ League qualifiers are faring no better with no wins out of four and progression from their group no longer in their own hands.
Almost all Scotland’s other representitives in Europe fell at the first hurdle. Falkirk were beaten by Liechtenstein’s FC Vaduz in the second qualifying round, while Aberdeen were solidly beaten 8-1 on aggregate by Sigma Olomouc in the third. Hearts also failed in the playoff round, where they were beaten 4-2 on aggregate by Dinamo Zagreb. Only Motherwell managed to play more than two matches, having started out in the first qualifying round. They despatched of Llanelli and Flamurtari Vlore in the first and second rounds respectively before being dumped out by Steaua Bucharest in the third round.
Even the most optimistic Scottish football fan can’t fail to see that it isn’t a case of the chasing pack having suddenly caught up in quality with the Old Firm. Rather the overall quality has fallen dramatically for all clubs. It is simply that the Old Firm have fallen further than the rest. Thus we have seen Scotland fall from 10th in the European co-efficients list to 13th, which could potentially lead to the league losing its automatic qualification spot in the Champions’ League group stages. And it should also be bore in mind that this slide to 13th is based on performances last season in Europe. Next season is likely to see an even bigger fall from grace.
The collapse of Setanta sent shockwaves through the Scottish game and there were many who felt it spelled the end for their clubs. While ESPN came in and rescued the TV deal, it is worth far less than the previous deal and clubs who already had meagre or non-existent transfer budgets have had to make even further cutbacks.
A January ‘fire sale’ is expected at Ibrox, while most clubs this summer could only afford to bring in a few free transfer signings. Hearts’ Csaba Laszlo has told Vladimir Romanov that his decision on whether or not to remain at the club will be based on his transfer budget in January and beyond. Other than Celtic, only really Hamilton Academicals, buoyed by the sales of James McCarthy and Brian Easton, were able to splash some cash before the transfer window closed.
Rangers and Celtic were once again thwarted in their attempts to leave Scotland behind and join the English league. Whilst most managers south of the border welcomed the switch, Harry Redknapp and Martin O’Neill most notably, the clubs themselves decided that the Old Firm joining the Premier League was neither “desirable or viable.”
So the 2009/10 Scottish Premier League season does mark a new beginning of sorts. Rangers and Celtic have effectively been put in their place by the Premier League and their European peers, and now face increased competition from their fellow league clubs, whom they essentially regard with contempt.
If the overall fall in quality and money leads to increased competition and the Old Firm perhaps learning that the Scottish Premier League title is a privilege and not a right, perhaps it’s exactly what this league needs.