They Might Be Giants: The Old Firm’s Great Escape to England
The Scotsman, September 4th 2010
Scottish football sells newspapers, fills the airwaves and carries a resonance way beyond the football field. It contributes economic benefits, social capital, the occasional feel good factor, and raises Scotland’s profile and reputation globally.
Scotland per head is the third most fanatical football nation in Europe after Iceland and Cyprus. It is also since the advent of the European Champions League the joint most uncompetitive senior football league anywhere in the continent – along with the Ukraine.
The two nations – Scotland and Ukraine – are the only two national leagues which have been won by just two clubs during the duration of the Champions League: the last eighteen sessions. It is 25 years since anyone other than Celtic or Rangers have won the league; that being Alex Ferguson’s classic Aberdeen side in 1985; even more horrifyingly only four times in the last 45 years have teams other than ‘the Old Firm’ won the league!
With all this it is not surprising that Celtic and Rangers are again dreaming of pastures new and the rich pickings of the English Premiership. Dermot Desmond, Celtic’s majority shareholder, has brought up the perennial issue of ‘Old Firm’ membership of the Premiership, musing that some day it will happen, driven by the potential pulling power of ‘the Old Firm’ and TV revenues.
Celtic and Rangers are huge global brands. These are clubs not just with huge fan bases in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but Ireland in Celtic’s case, England and the world. Across the globe people follow and know the histories, romance and allure of our two biggest clubs.
At the same time something fundamentally is going wrong. Celtic and Rangers dominate Scottish football to a historically unprecedented extent, dwarfing and diminishing the clubs which aspire to compete with them. Yet their presence in what is increasingly the football backwater of Scotland, diminishes and harms ‘the Old Firm’ leaving them cut off from rich revenue streams in sponsorship and TV deals.
Scottish football is an integral part of the life of the country, part of our culture and national psyche. It matters on a Saturday to large numbers of men, to fathers, sons and daughters, and to countless hundreds of thousands of Scots.
Lets suppose Dermot Desmond has his way – and leave aside whether the Premiership wants or needs Celtic and Rangers. Imagine ‘the Old Firm’ broke free of their Scottish moorings, and moved cross-border, plying their trade in Glasgow, while playing in the English league. What would this mean? Would it matter beyond another football story masquerading as a news story?
‘The Old Firm’ leaving our shores would be a major moment for Scotland, having repercussions way beyond football, for our culture and society. It would say that Scottish society was too small, too insignificant, too impoverished to continue supporting and nourishing its two biggest clubs, who it had given birth too.
It would have consequences on how we felt and saw society, culture, national identity, and health and well-being. It would be a profoundly diminishing moment. One where the globalising momentum of football trade and commerce said something humbling to Scotland: that you are too small to continue supporting your top two clubs.
There are examples of cross-border traffic elsewhere: Berwick Rangers play in Scotland, Cardiff City and Swansea City in the English Championship, Derry City in Ireland, while a German and Italian club play in Swiss football – although in both these cases the teams come from Swiss enclaves in Germany and Italy.
It would be very different with ‘the Old Firm’. Coming in the formative years of our self-government experiment, it would have knock-on consequences way beyond football.
Imagine a future referendum on Scotland’s constitutional status which included independence. Unionists would use the example of Celtic and Rangers to pour scorn on our ability to sustain a self-governing nation.
The likes of John Reid, Labour unionist and Celtic chairman, would say that independence would threaten not just political union or economic union, but the football union of the UK. They would argue that separatism would threaten Celtic and Rangers playing in the Premiership. You can almost see the tabloid headlines now: ‘Separatists want to stop you seeing Wayne Rooney at Celtic Park and Ibrox’.
The argument would go even further and be more insidious. It would say that Scotland as a nation cannot even manage in today’s age to support its top two football clubs, who have played here for over 120 years, and who have shaped Scotland and Scottish football, and been shaped themselves by this experience. It would then ask the damning question: how on earth, then can we cut it as an independent nation? Or even worse, as a serious self-governing nation?
Football would be seen as a metaphor for everything else: the economy, public spending, culture, talent and vision. The argument would rain forth, sometimes explicitly, more often implicitly. Scotland needs England. We are too small, too insecure, too poor to make it ‘on our own’. And the deep unionist self-doubt about Scotland would find justification and a new lease of life through football.
This brings us to the choice. The football commerce argument – pure and simple – would point to Celtic and Rangers finding a new home in the Premiership. On the surface this seems the perfect solution: Celtic and Rangers are strangled in the domestic game, and strangle and limit our national game. Leaving aside the huge issue of sectarianism, and how it is magnified by ‘the Old Firm’s’ collusion and competition, they would gain from an English expedition, as would a Scottish domestic game which suddenly became more open and unpredictable.
However, a perspective which cares about the wider Scotland, as a culture, society and nation, would argue that ‘the Old Firm’ have to stay here and recognise that they are Scottish institutions, whose success and failure is first made or not made here.
A more radical route than dreaming of the great escape to England is for Celtic and Rangers to commit long-term to Scotland. This would entail ‘the Old Firm’ pledging in a ten year plan or something similar to recognise that their success – domestically and globally – is interwoven and inseparable from the fortunes of Hearts, Hibs, Dundee United and Aberdeen, and assist in strengthening the game and their opponents, to aid themselves in the medium to long-term.
This analogy carries weight across Scottish society and life. There are no real escape clauses about the issues we face as a nation, but there are numerous ways we delude ourselves, or believe in short-term fixes or palliatives. Instead, as a nation we need to have the verve and imagination to say: this is what we want to be, this is how we are going to do it, and we as a nation commit our collective resources to this goal.
In all of this football, its foibles, frailties and dreams, are merely a reflection of who we are, our shortcomings and our eternal capacity for hope.