It happened again. Celtic got thumped in the Champions League. Coming from a long line of Celtic supporters (on Dad’s side), that saddens me. That they were, again, so comprehensively thumped by one of the bigger boys in the CL playground saddens me a little more. But something about the other night made me angry writes Andrew Keith.
That they were, again, so comprehensively thumped by one of the bigger boys in the CL playground saddens me a little more. But something about the other night made me angry. Not the players, their effort, or even the schoolboy defending. Not the semi-ritualistic way these games are presented on TV or the ludicrous hype that is generated by the commentators and pundits. What offends me is the casual referencing of the weakness of the game and players in Scotland as a key reason why Celtic struggle against the best teams, and the implicit suggestion that if only their domestic opponents were more skilful, Celtic’s Champions League training friendlies schedule, aka the SPFL Premiership, might prepare them better for these big games.
Pat Bonner said it outright. The weakness of the SPFL is the problem. Several others made the point that Celtic defenders never get the chance to play against top strikers in their own league and are, therefore, somehow unable to cope with it when they do. Others claim that Celtic are so used to being in possession of the ball and winning games easily at home, that when they face a top-quality opponent, they are suddenly caught like a rabbit in headlights without the faintest clue what to do.
I don’t know enough about the tactics of modern football or the language used to describe systems of play to critique that in footballing terms, but I do have a reasonable grasp of what constitutes bullshit. And so much of what our journalists, TV commentators, and pundits say, on occasions like this, is definitely it.
I blame Celtic for their own failings and the executive branch of Scottish football for facilitating that failure. Here’s how. In my opinion, professional football in Scotland has been organised around a single goal. To generate Scottish success in the Champions League. A good way to achieve that is to ensure that Scottish teams get plenty exposure to that league. The best way to ensure that is to make sure that the same team, or teams, gain regular entry into it. The way to make that happen is to organise the league such that it is unthinkable that any other team could win it. How might you do that without making it obvious what your intentions are?
Well, first, you lay the financial ground. Allow teams to keep their home gate receipts. That way, clubs are kept in their place, the big two stay big, the middle six to eight, not so big, and the rest, remain almost irrelevant. To further entrench the financial status quo, you need to ensure that income from domestic sources (particularly TV money) is kept low enough to stop any other club paying for a team above their station, but not so low that mid-sized clubs go out of business.
Next, you would have to ensure that the rules stay in place long enough for the plan to work. Give the two big clubs the right of veto over rule changes. The masterminds of the plan have to be kept in office for as long as possible and committee members must be carefully selected. A generous portion of executives from the big two, and a fair sprinkling of others too afraid of their own clubs going to the wall to bother about grand generation-long master-plans, should guarantee no one rocks the boat too much. Allow a rogue committee member to challenge things every now and again to make it look good for the punters, safe in the knowledge that no permanent damage can be done to the plan.
But what if something unexpected happened to one of the big clubs? That could be tricky, right? The whole plan could be put in jeopardy. On the other hand, what is there to worry about when you have ensured that the decision makers are either on message or too concerned about their own teams’ survival to get in the way of a stitch up. Sure, we lost a few years, but it’ll soon get back on track.
Journalists would get wind of this surely, or even be able to work it out for themselves, right? Well, in a profession that seems to have lost most of its towering intellects to be replaced by either agenda driven zealots or barely literate fan bloggers (like me, I suppose), we might be asking a little too much of them. In any case, the overwhelming coverage of the big two in the national media and the simple fact that promoting Celtic and Rangers sells advertising space means that they are, more or less, complicit, even if they don’t always realise it.
At this point I’m beginning to sound like a mad conspiracy theorist, but as Spock would say “When all logical explanations have been discarded, the illogical explanation must be true.”
Pat Bonner and those other pundits and commentators are right of course. Celtics failure against the big teams is the fault of the rest of Scottish football. Our players and teams aren’t good enough. But fault is a convoluted thing. It is not our fault because we are not good enough. It is our fault because we are not brave enough. Not brave enough to stand up to the powers running our game and put a stop to this madness.
I have absolutely no evidence that there is such a master-plan, or that anyone at the SFA or SPFL has even considered any of these points or the consequences that might flow from them. I even have serious doubts that any of the current leadership have the intellectual capacity to dream up such a Machiavellian plot, let alone execute it. But one thing I do know is that Scottish football is not in a healthy place. Not even the handing over of Celtic’s next Champions League win bonus to Ross County, for giving them such a good run out the week before, would fix it.
How glorious would it be for the other Scottish teams to be credited for Celtic’s CL victories (especially the big ones)? I imagine the words would get stuck in plenty of throats. Celtic win CL games despite Scottish Football and lose them because of it. That, in a nutshell, is where we are right now. All that is likely to change any time soon is that Rangers will join them again. Something has to change, if only because my TV won’t survive another shoe being thrown at it and my dog’s wee heart will surely give up if I’m incited to scream excitedly at some Celtic minded blowhard telling the world that my team is partly to blame for Celtic’s defence not being good enough to stop Neymar or Lewandowski, or some other top player.
Next up, my thoughts on how to fix Scottish football in the shape of a ten-point plan.
Ten Point Plan for Scottish Football
- Share gates 50/50. This is an essential first step in reversing the years of financial genocide that has been committed on all but two of our professional clubs in the last 30 odd years.
- Bring in a proportional voting system (based on a combination of league placing, number of professional players signed, average home attendance as a percentage of the population within 10 miles from the home stadium, and percentage of fan ownership) to stop the two richest and the next three or four richest clubs rigging things in their financial favour.
- Introduce financial fair play rules much stronger than UEFAs. Let’s punish clubs proportionately for being financially reckless so we don't have to completely crush them when it goes too wrong in the end. A crime of attempted administration or reckless endangerment towards a football club would do here.
- Encourage clubs to move to the German model of club ownership and operation, or at least limit ‘single investor’ ownership to 49%.
- Encourage local councils to get involved in club or facilities ownership (stadium, training facilities, parking, etc). I would ideally love to see wholly or partly council-owned sporting areas in towns and cities that contain facilities for all sports from beginner up to professional level. The proposed Caird Park development and the New Campy plans that will see football and ice hockey side by side are examples.
- Invest massively in several SFA run regional youth academies. Raise the age that children can be signed by club academies to 14 and make school marks a significant performance measure.
- Force clubs to guarantee academy players a minimum number of first or second team games before they are released. To give other clubs a chance to see them perform before they are dumped. Do you imagine that Celtic have such a large academy (http://www.celticfc.net/team/academy) only to produce one or two future Celtic players, could it be to stop other teams getting to them?
- Introduce international standard treatment and rehabilitation centres funded by the SPFL or SFA. Just like the NHS, in principle at least. Treatment costs or the insurance premiums must be crippling for most clubs and will stop them signing injury prone players or risking highly skilled players in games against 'industrial' type opponents.
- Consider withdrawing from European club competitions for a few years. The damage that regular failure against apparent European minnows inflicts on our young players season after season must be deep and painful.
- Consider introducing some kind of handicapping system based on income in cup and league competitions. The greater the income the lower the handicap that is reduced from your points or goals total, like golf, although not quite as brutal. Enough to give smaller clubs from the lower divisions a non-financial reason to want to get into the top league, but, sadly, not enough on its own to stop the ugly sisters from winning it anyway.
OK, the last two are a bit far-fetched. But, if we are to move football into a new dawn, we need to have radical ideas and proposals that challenge the complacent and narrow-minded approach of our current football leadership. If our primary measure of success for Scottish Football is little more than how far Celtic get in the Champions League, then we are in big trouble. Celtic don’t share their wealth with other clubs except in their away support for matches. We all subsidise Celtic (and no doubt soon to be again, Rangers) to one degree or another:
- by the low fees they pay for our best players,
- by the priority they get over TV revenues,
- by the hoovering up of the best young talent in the country,
- by the way the football authorities allow them to act with near impunity when other clubs would be and are punished severely,
- by their near total domination of column inches in the sports pages of our national newspapers (and sometimes our local ones too).
- by the lack of respect for Scottish football resulting from the bigotry displayed by fans of both clubs.
I could go on………
Let’s hope we can find leaders who are prepared to tackle the underlying issues. So far, all I have seen or heard, is a few calls for changing the menu in the restaurant and adding a few more deck games as our Scottish Football Titanic steams, still, towards colder waters where there be icebergs.