Leaving aside for the moment the Shadenfreude-laden giggling as first Celtic, and then Rangers departed the Champions League this season, it is worthwhile taking time to think on the reality of Scotland’s latter-day bit-part status in the game.
There are Celtic fans who try to rationalise it by pointing out that for them, the Stein years were a wonderful exception and not the norm. That however does not explain the European status of Rangers, Aberdeen, Hearts, Hibs, Dundee, Dundee United, Kilmarnock and Dunfermline in a period of roughly a quarter of a century from the beginning of European competition.
From the fifties to the eighties, Scottish clubs were feared and respected in Europe. Since then, only Martin O’Neil’s Celtic and Walter Smith’s Rangers have made an impression on the European scene.
So what has happened? Many blame the distraction of new technology, taking potential Johnstones and Baxters away from pursuing the soccer dream. I’m not convinced of that myself. They have game consoles and PCs in England and Italy and Germany as well. They also have them in Scandinavian countries where daylight hours and suitable weather are in even less abundance than in Scotland – and of course clubs from Scandinavian countries were both responsible for Celtic and Rangers fates this season.
Failure then breeds failure. Losing out one year means more (and earlier) qualifiers down the line. In this regard, you have to wonder at the claims of how “brilliantly” Celtic have been run over the last decade, when the club went into Euro qualifiers again and again unprepared in terms of personnel, even to the extent of using makeshift central defenders in several campaigns. Our clubs know its all coming, but year on year, we get caught on the hop by the timing of those early ties. Planning? Don’t make me laugh.
We are also faced with the reality that fans of clubs who are not in contention for a ECL group place, are usually fervently hoping that the quest ends in failure. Not because there is a deep hatred of either or both Celtic and Rangers, but because a Champions League place for a Scottish team gives the successful side an immeasurable financial advantage over the rest. Of course that attitude is understandable when you look at the reality for our clubs if one of their number makes it to the group stages.
Scottish football clubs rely heavily on gate income for survival because their media deals struck with broadcasters are so much poorer than in countries of similar size. ECL money – even if the successful side fails to score a goal or get a point on the board – is like all your Christmasses have come at once.
It is well known that the income gap between Celtic & Rangers and the rest is huge. The income gap between a Scottish Champions League team and the rest is even more massive. Yet if a Dutch, or Portuguese or Danish or Swedish side get a place in the group stages, the impact is not so great. Why? Because they have football administrators who can sell the game effectively, getting value for their product from the media.
This is the one area where our administrators have failed consistently and miserably.
The current football model where home teams keep their own gate money, and in some cases even have their own media contracts, is designed to (with the notable exception of England) create a few bigger fishes in a number of smaller ponds. It ultimately ends with the pantomime (which has not yet gone away) of the European Super League.
I wish I could say I had a solution to all this, but my instinct is to say that in the absence of a solution we should forget about Europe and its riches. Instead, lets return to a sport driven model of the game where there is a more equitable share of revenues. Forget the tuppence ha’penny TV contracts and give football back to the fans, live on a Saturday (Covid permitting). In time, the level of competition would increase, as would the quality of the product. The talk to the TV folk when they want to pay the going rate.
It might help if there was some kind of levy (listening indy supporters?) imposed on subscription service providers like Sky. £25m versus £1.5 billion is a much smaller fraction than that of Scottish subscribers to the Sky platform for example.
There is little we in Scotland can do to prevent the globalisation and Mafia-isation of the game internationally, but those things we CAN control, like turning inward to improve our game instead of, like Stella Dallas in the eponymous classic movie, standing in the rain looking through the window at the banquet elsewhere.
Of course it won’t happen.