When Nick Buckles, blunderer-in-chief of security firm G4S, gets the hairdryer from a pack of furious MPs today, he should console himself with the knowledge that he’s still doing a better job than the Scottish football authorities. If we’d left the Olympics in their hands, we’d have two security guards with rocket launchers and machine guns, and another 40 with feather dusters.
We could talk about the Scottish Premier League’s failure to spot the tax-dodging, we could talk about their inability to prevent the ruinous takeover by Craig Whyte and we could talk about the desperation that drove them to consider INVENTING A NEW DIVISION purely to keep Rangers in touch with the big time, but that just feels like fluffing. The real problem is the Old Firm.
The primary concern of the SPL throughout this ugly saga has been the fate of their new TV deals, agreed but as yet unsigned. They don’t believe that Sky and ESPN will pay as much if Rangers aren’t involved, and they’re right. But all their energy appears to have gone on bullying the Scottish Football League into accepting Rangers into the second flight and minimising their exposure to losses. No time or thought seems to have been devoted to the more important question; how on earth have they ended up running a league where only two teams are relevant?
Since the split from the Scottish Football Association in 1998, there has only been one occasion, 2005/06, when the Old Firm haven’t finished first and second. How many times did that need to happen before someone heard all the alarm bells? Whose bright idea was it to contractually promise the involvement of both Celtic and Rangers in the top flight? What if one of them had somehow been relegated? Would sporting integrity have played second fiddle to profiteering? What the hell is going on up there?
The reason that people aren’t watching Scottish football isn’t that it’s crap; that’s never stopped people watching the English Championship. People aren’t watching because it’s boring. The Championship may be a little rough and reckless, but at least there’s tension. Anyone can beat anyone. There’s no tension in Scotland. Even when Rangers were hit by a 10-point penalty in February, it still made absolutely no difference to the table. There was no way they weren’t going to finish second.
The dominance of the Old Firm isn’t entirely surprising when you realise that no changes can be made to the league without an 11-1 majority, effectively giving Celtic and Rangers a veto on everything from TV revenue to the late-season split that maximises gate receipts. Why would they vote for any policy that wasn’t designed to benefit them?
Scottish football now finds itself with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to restructure itself. Rangers are gone, so the other clubs must form an alliance and outflank Celtic. Then they should enact the kind of brutal changes that will turn chief executive Neil Doncaster’s hair white. They should reintegrate the top flight with the rest of Scottish football because for the first time ever, they need each other to survive. You can’t fit many Rangers fans into the 2,007 capacity Galabank ground at Annan Athletic, so suddenly there’s going to be a TV market for Division Three games. From the top of Scottish football to the bottom, share all revenues for all games with all clubs. Yes, I know, it’s a radical concept, isn’t it?
Celtic and Rangers would still have a huge advantage over the other clubs in the size of their stadium, the weight of their fan base and the profile they enjoy in the press. But the advantage would no longer be so profound that it would obliterate competition. Yes, the clubs will take a short-term hit, but in the meantime, we’d actually have some interesting football to watch. Eventually, content would drive ratings, people would start tuning in again and those big TV deals would return for the league, not just the Old Firm. But that’s not going to happen, is it? Rather than saving Scottish football, the authorities are going to fight to maintain a status quo that was killing it season by torturous season. If G4S decide to give Buckles the heave-ho, at least he knows there’s a suitable home for his talents north of the border.