Lacking Firmness

Let’s talk Scotland for a bit. The Scottish Premiership setup, as it currently is, is that the 12 teams in the league play a home-and-home round robin, like most leagues. Then they play a third game against each team, which is either home or away depending (and thus breaking the schedule balance, not only because of the obvious but also because there are 11 games in that phase and some teams will get 5 home and 6 away while others get 6 home and 5 away). Then after that’s done, the league breaks in half and the teams in each half play each other for another single match apiece. That makes for 38 games, upon which the season ends. The first phase is almost complete; through the games of January 12, Aberdeen leads with 46 points. Celtic is in second with 42, but they have two games in hand on Aberdeen, meaning first is still within reach by the time they catch up.

If they do, nobody would be surprised. First off, their goal differential, at +24, currently tops the league, and second, they’re Celtic. As half of the Old Firm, Celtic, along with Rangers, are simply expected to win the league title every single year. Not in the sense of ‘you’d better win or there will be hell to pay’. In the sense of the tides going in and out. It’s just what happens. Rangers or Celtic has won the league every season since Aberdeen last won in 1984-85, 29 trophies ago. And with Rangers suffering forcible relegation to the fourth tier in 2012, it has simply been a presumed 3-year coronation for Celtic, at least.

Rangers, for its part, seems close to emerging from its exile. They’ve already won promotion twice, and as of this writing sit second in the second-tier table. They’re far off the pace set by Heart of Midlothian, but second place would earn them a spot in a promotion/relegation playoff bracket, in which third and fourth in the second tier play, the winner of that plays the second tier runner-up, and the winner of that plays 11th position in the Premiership for the top-flight berth. It would not be shocking to see Rangers come out on top.

They certainly seem to think they will. Rangers is the only team in the Scottish second tier to play part of their preseason tour outside the British Isles, much less a four-game swing in the United States and Canada. And while the club is mired in takeover intrigue and stadium renaming rumors and tax fines, as the three seasons away from top-flight ball take their financial toll, at the end of the day it’s not very much of a stretch to predict Rangers will be back in the top flight sooner rather than later, that they will soon reclaim their spot atop the Scottish throne with Celtic, and that all will be back to normal. In the Scottish League Cup, it already is, as the Old Firm has been paired against one another in a semifinal scheduled for February 1.

If you ask me, that’s the problem.

If you were in Scotland before a Celtic/Rangers match, and you were asked which side you favor, it is entirely possible to declare your neutrality, or your allegiance to a non-Old Firm club, and simply not be believed. Scottish soccer is that binary. The two have taken such complete control of the country, and their fanbases have grown so much larger than anyone else’s, that they are the only two clubs some even deem it plausible to support. Even though the long-standing sectarian strife- Celtic behind the Irish Catholics, Rangers behind the Protestants- has died down- not close to entirely, but at least to the point where both clubs feel perfectly fine signing from the ‘wrong’ faith when previously they did not, there is still the argument of why one would want to support a club that can’t possibly win.

It’s a fair argument, and one a lot of perpetually-losing fanbases eventually get around to asking themselves. It’s a basic argument around which the North American league model is based. When only a couple teams can hope to win at the outset of the season, the fans of those teams aren’t ever going to see any real problem with it. They, however, aren’t the ones that really matter. A league is, in a way, only as healthy as its weakest teams, and North American leagues remedy this with revenue sharing and rookie drafts designed to send the top new talent to the teams that need it most, so that nobody falls too far behind. The Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars may be terrible on the field, but off the field they are still very wealthy, like the other 30 teams in the NFL. There is no risk of them folding, even if there’s the occasional risk of relocation. They know, despite constantly losing, that it is at least possible to get better. They just aren’t good at doing it.

The international model, meanwhile, is very Wild West. If you can’t keep up, too bad. Deal with it. And if you can’t deal with it, there’s some other club out there eager to take your place. A team that falls away in the international model may very well never see such good days again. And when a team begins to fall hopelessly behind for increasingly long periods of time, the fanbase will over the years first be hungry, then frustrated, then angry, then depressed, then resigned, and eventually apathetic. And that is when, figuring that they have as much chance to win as the Washington Generals, they simply start looking for something else to do with their day that might not result in so much sadness in what is supposed to be recreation. This is the situation many non-Old Firm fans find themselves in. It’s going to be Celtic or Rangers anyway… so what’s the point?

Better go watch the English Premier League next door instead. Things are mildly more competitive there.

And so the rest of the Scottish league gets even weaker as a result. Which in turn means the league title itself is less meaningful: after all, it’s not much of an achievement if you only beat one team worth a damn. This gets reflected in falling attendance everywhere outside the Old Firm, and the Old Firm itself finding that it doesn’t have enough domestic sparring partners to suitably toughen them up for European competition, and fewer places available to them in the first place. Early elimination scares, or eliminations, against teams from the likes of Kazakhstan and Slovenia and Lithuania, are now more common than the deep tournament runs that characterized the 60’s and 70’s.

Occasionally, the Old Firm, typically Rangers, will try and further their own cause by throwing their Scottish brethren under the bus. Breaking away from the Scottish league to form an ‘Atlantic League’ with a selection of other mid-tier nations such as the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark has been floated more than once, as well as entering the English system. In both instances, the other Scottish clubs would be more or less abandoned and left to fend for themselves in a now-gutted league. England, however, has rebuffed the Old Firm every time. It has little to do with sectarianism. Rather, anyone that feels they might get relegated, or denied promotion, or denied European qualification, to make way for Celtic or Rangers would fight the move tooth and nail, which is a lot of clubs. UEFA has similarly turned the Old Firm and everyone else away concerning any cross-border league that isn’t the Champions or Europa League.

And it didn’t stop there. Back in 1964, Scotland’s professional ranks were only two tiers strong, as opposed to the current four. Rangers, in that year, proposed that the size of those two tiers shrink by five teams, and specifically targeted Albion Rovers, Berwick Rangers, Brechin City, Stenhousemuir and Stranraer, which Rangers perceived as the five smallest gate receipts, as the clubs that should be thrown out. Then they started going around to drum up votes, threatening any club that didn’t support them with becoming one of the five ejected clubs themselves. This was remembered when Rangers entered administration, given that those five clubs now held Rangers’ fate in their hands, as they would vote on what tier to relegate Rangers to. Rangers made a similar threat then, arguing that if Rangers was not permitted to drop only into the second tier, they might form a breakaway league and take only the teams they liked with them. In both of those cases, Celtic was among the clubs that beat Rangers back.

All these things obscure a more pressing issue: who exactly are Celtic and Rangers even beating anymore? Are they clubs that would even survive in the EPL anymore even if they were admitted there? Would anyone really care except them?

The question has been regularly asked in Scotland about how to fix the league. Suggestions, aside from an Old Firm exodus, range from restructuring the schedule, expanding the size of the top flight, to restructuring the governing bodies, to instituting a national youth academy, to new TV deals, to ticket prices to stadium upkeep to even reforming on-field discipline.

None of these are what’s actually going to do it. They may cringe to hear it, but if Rangers and Celtic really wanted Scottish soccer to undergo a resurgence, the absolute best thing they could do is lose. Should anyone- literally anyone- save for them break the cycle and steal a league title from under the Old Firm’s nose, perhaps even Aberdeen this season, it would prove that it can in fact be done. The winning fanbase obviously, but the other fanbases could also go, hey, why not us too? This is our chance! In the process, the exodus can easily halt, and perhaps even reverse a little bit. At the very least, it’ll buy some time.

Take what happened in Norway. From 1992-2004, Rosenborg won 13 consecutive league titles… and in the process ensured that few outside Norway knew any Norwegian clubs other than Rosenborg. The attendances sank in kind. But in 2004, they only won on goal differential. Fanbases noticed. Attendances shot up. In 2005, Rosenborg faltered badly and not only did they not make it 14 in a row, they were forced to worry about actually being relegated. In the end, they finished 7th out of 14 clubs, only four points above a promotion/relegation playoff. With the other fanbases seeing Rosenborg out of the running, they flocked back to the parks, and leaguewide attendance shot up even more. Attendance per game has fallen back down since then, most of the way honestly, but it still has yet to go under the 2003 numbers.

But of course, losing isn’t something Celtic or Rangers have ever gone for. Not domestically. And you certainly can’t ask them to do it. But for the short-term health of the league and of Scotland, and for the long-term health of the Old Firm, it may be in their best interest to let a title go once in a while.

In chasing England, the last place they want to end up is alongside Northern Ireland and Wales.

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