Scotland’s Football Revolution of Recent Years

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, May 6th 2015

The last few years have seen the natural order of things disrupted in Scotland.

The once dominant force in the land has been humbled, its traditional place and authority usurped by others, and a series of ineffective and incompetent leaders have promised salvation and then not delivered.

This is the story of Glasgow Rangers, although there are similarities with the recent experience of Scottish Labour. And yet until the last six months or so of the indyref, the big news story of our country was not political, but about Rangers.

To some people this was a period of joy: celebrating the toppling of the famous and once powerful Rangers. This was particularly true of Rangers haters, some of who were Celtic fans and some of who were fans of Scotland’s other forty senior clubs fed up at the predictability of the Old Firm’s historic stranglehold.

To most if not all Rangers fans this was a profound period of loss, of feeling uncomfortable and disorientated. All that Rangers fans had been told over the last two decades turned out to be untrue or built on shaky foundations: in particular, the success and excess of the David Murray years.

What seemed to be missing from part of Scotland was any real emotional insight or intelligence from non-Rangers fans into the human cost of what this all took out of good Rangers fans. And the prevalence of those who got visible enjoyment out of other people’s discomfiture and misery.

It has been a hurly burly topsy-turvy couple of years. When Rangers began life again in what was Division Three in 2012 a vociferous section of Rangers supporters took pleasure from the thought that they were going to waltz through the lower divisions undefeated winning everything. Not only that but upon their return to the top flight, they would be debt free, conquer all their by now enfeebled opponents, and return to their rightful place as champions.

It didn’t work out at all like that. Rangers did win the lower two leagues in consecutive seasons. Apart from that it hasn’t been plain sailing – on or off the field. Of the twelve trophies Rangers competed for since liquidation in July 2012 they have won a mere two: a not very impressive success rate.

As I write the Championship (for the uninitiated the league below Scotland’s top league, the Premiership) has concluded for season 2014-15. It is still possible that Rangers could claw their way back to the Premier through the play-offs. If this does occur, and even if it doesn’t, it is going to be important to learn from the experiences and some of the positives which the last few years have revealed.

Take this salutary fact. April 27th 1985 – 30 years ago – is the last time a non-Old Firm team has won the main league. That was so long ago it was Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen.

We have now witnessed thirty years of Celtic and Rangers dominance – the longest ever period in the history of Scottish football. This makes a mockery of the game as any serious contest, and yet it is beyond the intelligence of the many highly paid administrators and managers to even begin talking about ways that the game could become more of a genuine competition. That would aid everyone – strengthening Celtic and Rangers, the other clubs, and producing a more attractive product for fans, sponsors and TV deals.

Human beings need novelty, change and new stories. The Rangers implosion, fan revolt against a stitch up, and then return of Rangers to the game via Division Three has produced all of this. That’s without getting into the internal drama which gone on inside the Ibrox boardroom and the revolving door of dodgy characters: Craig Whyte, Charles Green, the Easdales, Mike Ashley, and now Dave King.

One of the most positive aspects of this whole period has been how it has produced a welcome variety in TV coverage of the game. Instead of the same old stale diet of televised highlights and live games, focused on a few teams in the Premiership, TV crews have showcased Rangers through the lower leagues.

This has given national coverage to some of Scotland’s small grounds and teams such as Brechin City’s Glebe Park with its legendary Victorian hedge, Stenhousemuir’s Ochilview, Albion Rovers Cliftonhill and many more. It has showcased more regularly the big small grounds such as Palmerston Park, home of Queen of the South, Falkirk Stadium (where Falkirk play), and Raith Rovers Stark’s Park.

Much of this coverage has been on BT Sport; but BBC Alba also deserves credit in recent years for its coverage of the smaller teams including junior football. This past season, with Hearts, Hibs and Rangers in the Championship, has seen ‘BBC Sportscene’ extend its coverage, frequently showing highlights of all three big teams in the lower league.

Here’s a thought from the experience of the past three years. When as is inevitable, either next season or the season after, Rangers return to the top league, maybe the TV authorities could learn from this. The lower leagues of our country provide what the Premiership has long failed to offer: namely, variety, unpredictability, drama, excitement and suspense. Plus in most years genuine competition for winning each league.

Will the TV authorities, BBC Scotland, BBC Alba and BT Sport, learn from this? Or will with Rangers safely back in the top berth they sigh a collective breath of relief and return to the stale old packages and the circus of regular Old Firm matches?

That’s what the leading football authorities led by Neil Doncaster and Stewart Regan, respective heads of the Scottish Professional Football League and the Scottish Football Association, want. These two men have in the last three years shown a singular lack of belief and confidence in the quality and marketability of the game. They believed in 2012 that a top league without Rangers was a near to worthless proposition to TV authorities, and negotiated a deal which was almost an apology.

A more imaginative approach would be to use the experience of the last few years: the journey to small grounds with their magic, history and atmosphere, and the profiling of a whole host of teams and supporters who have previously been off the radar, and learn. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the football authorities and TV saw the successes of this and instituted a sustained programme of matches from the divisions outside Scotland’s Premiership?

That would require some intelligence and insight from the personnel responsible for the administration of the game, and for all Doncaster’s and Regan’s MBA pseudo-business speak, no such qualities have yet been seen.

Scottish football isn’t just about the Old Firm. Indeed, the financial pressures of the game at the highest level have meant that before Rangers imploded, Celtic and Rangers suffocated the rest of the Scottish game with no real sustained domestic challenge to them since Aberdeen and Dundee United in the mid-1980s, but at the same time our two biggest clubs have grown weaker and weaker in terms of competing in Europe.

Indeed, if the old inadequate order reinstated itself years from now people are going to look back on the Scotland of 2012-15 and see a brief window of uncertainty and unpredictability and get a bit nostalgic about it. In these years, in cup competitions a host of clubs have experienced success: Aberdeen, Hearts, St. Johnstone, St. Mirren and Kilmarnock. This year’s Scottish Cup Final is between Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Falkirk.

A different order would see the people who run the game know that restricted trade and oligopoly are bad for business. It would see Celtic and Rangers have the insight to understand that if they stay in the Scottish game that they gain, not by weakening their opponents, but by strengthening them and facing genuine competition.

But in the 120 plus years since Scottish football professionalised and the rise of the Old Firm occurred, neither of our two biggest teams or the football authorities has grasped this. We can but dream and hope; and ask that we don’t go back to the stale old order. Whatever happens at least we will still have the memories, of clubs like Kilmarnock and St. Mirren winning cups, and of tiny Albion Rovers and Alloa Athletic holding, and in the latter case, beating Rangers. In the last few years, we have seen why football can be so intoxicating; it would be good if the football authorities understood this basic fact.