The People’s Game Still? Games under the Shadow of Giants

Part Two

Gerry Hassan

April 12th 2012

The story goes like this. Scottish football has always been about Celtic and Rangers. Live with it. Get used to it. This is increasingly the way of the world: oligopoly, closed competition, success following money.

Leaving aside the early days of the Scottish game this perspective invites pessimism and fatalism. And funnily enough it isn’t true.

The economic, social and cultural forces of Scotland from Victorian times onwards favoured the dominance of Celtic and Rangers from the moment the game professionalised. But not to the suffocating extent of today.

The Three Waves of the Post-war Game

To illustrate the changing dynamics of the Scottish game and the drive towards greater dominance by the Glasgow two I decided to look at the pattern of the game over the post-war era. And split it into three distinct periods: 1947-65, the immediate post-war period which saw intense competition for all three domestic titles; 1966-86, the era of Celtic’s ‘nine in a row’ and the rise of ‘the New Firm’ of Aberdeen and Dundee United; and then 1987 to today, with the Souness revolution, Rangers ‘nine in a row’ and the transformation of Celtic under Fergus McCann.

In the 1947-65 era, five non-Old Firm teams won the league a total of eight times: Hibs three, Hearts two, Aberdeen, Dundee and Kilmarnock once each, while Celtic themselves were reduced to a solitary title (1953-54) and achieved their lowest ever league position: twelfth (1947-48). Overall only 52.6% of all domestic trophies went to the Old Firm: 30 out of 57 (24 Rangers, 6 Celtic).  Rangers and Celtic took up first and second position in the league not once out of nineteen league champions. In every single season, one non-Old Firm team succeeded in splitting the duo, and sometimes a number of clubs did. A different world from today’s grinding oligopoly.

The 1966-86 period covers two distinct phases, Celtic’s ‘nine in a row’ (1966-74) and then the creation of the Scottish Premier Division in 1975-76 which saw Aberdeen win three titles and Dundee United one. Overall the Old Firm won 73% of all domestic trophies – 46 out of 63 trophies (30 Celtic, 16 Rangers).

In other respects this was a golden era of Scottish football with Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen all winning European trophies, and the Scottish national team achieved four of its five in a row World Cup qualifications. Celtic and Rangers took first and second place in any order nine times out of 21; meaning that on more occasions than not (12) a non-Old Firm team managed to split the Glasgow pair.

This brings us to the current era 1987-2012 which began with the first full season of Graeme Souness in charge of Rangers, their ‘nine in a row’ (1989-97), Fergus McCann’s take over at Celtic, the creation of the Scottish Premier League, and the current crisis in Rangers.

 

Rangers and Celtic won 26 out of the 26 titles of this period forming a pattern of 27 titles in a row: the longest dominance by the pair in the history of the game. Over the whole period the Old Firm won 80.5% of all domestic trophies – 62 out of 77 (40 Rangers, 22 Celtic). If Celtic succeed in winning the Scottish Cup, as the odds suggest, that percentage will rise to an even more impressive 80.8%!

The Changing Pattern of Post-war Scottish Football

Old Firm Trophies Total Trophies % Old Firm Trophies
1947 – 1965 30 57 52.6
1966 – 1986 46 63 73.0
1987 –  2012 62 77 80.5

 

Source: Figures collated from Evening Times The Wee Red Book 2011-12; BBC News; Scottish League Championship and League Cup to 2012; Scottish Cup to 2011.

This pattern of over-dominance is getting worse year on year. Across the 26 seasons Rangers and Celtic finished first or second 17 times (assuming as looks near-inevitable Rangers finish second this year). That leaves nine second places for the non-Old Firm teams; yet after 1988-95 which saw eight consecutive seasons of non-Old Firm second places (five Aberdeen, two Hearts and one for Motherwell), the picture is a bleak one. In the last 17 title races the Old Firm have been split just once, by Hearts in 2005-6.

The Scottish game is remorselessly heading towards near total dominance by the Old Firm. Across the post-war era we have moved from 52.6% dominance in 1947-65 to 73% in 1966-86 to 80.5% today. What this later figure disguises is underneath the 100% Old Firm dominance of the league, they have had 68% success in the Scottish Cup (17 out of 25) and 73% in the League Cup (19 out of 26).

These are the scraps the non-Old Firm teams are left to hope for and dream of, winning the occasional Scottish Cup and League Cup. Thus over the last 26 years six non-Old Firm teams have won the Scottish Cup and five the League Cup. It is only these rare sporting moments which prevent the Scottish game heading towards complete 100% overshadowing by the Old Firm.

Scottish football has travelled far these last few decades. Unfortunately at the most senior level it has been nearly entirely in the wrong direction. The creation of the Scottish Premier Division in 1975-76 saw a league of ten teams with two relegated and in the mid-1980s a contest for five European places, making it one of the most competitive leagues in the whole continent!

Since the advent of the European Champions League in 1992-93, and then aided by the onset of the Scottish Premier League in 1998-99, Scotland has become the joint most uncompetitive league along with Ukraine. Scotland and Ukraine are the only two national leagues since 1992-93 which have only been won by two teams, in their case, Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk.

Tomorrow I will conclude this series by looking at what this is doing to football attendances, the issue of the media, and conclude by making a few observations about what we can do to bring about change.