THE GREEN flags are flying in Glasgow as Celtic are crowned Scottish champions, but even the most myopic member of the tartan army would struggle to deny that the nation’s football remains in a worrying state.
There are some sceptics who would suggest that Scotland’s current situation is how England might look if it were not for the massive injection of TV money the Premier receives from the likes of SKY and BT. An obvious statement? The fact is, their status owes much to the decline of home produced players (a growing problem for England), forcing clubs to bring in below-par foreign players and look on as the national team continues its decline. Or is it, in fact, the other way round – too many imports preventing the flow of local talent?
There was a time, not so long ago, when every successful English club would have a cluster of Scots in its squad. Consider, also, that four of the most successful managers in English football, Alex Ferguson, Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Kenny Dalglish – were all Scots. The most celebrated English clubs all included Scots in their line-up: Manchester United 1968, Tottenham 1961, Arsenal 1971, and Liverpool 1986 to name but a few. How times have changed.
Celtic 48th title is also their sixth year in a row. They remain unbeaten and they’ve won 28 of their 30 games in the Scottish Premiership and scored 81 goals in the process. They’re on target to win a trio of trophies, having already picked up the Scottish League Cup and they are about to meet old rivals Rangers in the Scottish Cup semi-final. The treble would be a fine way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Celtic’s landmark 1967 European Cup win.
With every year that passes, the achievement of Jock Stein’s side looks more and more impressive and increasingly unlikely to be repeated. Celtic were given a reminder of how far they have fallen from the pinnacle when they were beaten 7-0 by Barcelona in the Group stage of the UEFA Champions League earlier this season. They finished bottom of their group, but the club did earn at least EUR 14m in prize money from UEFA for getting that far. That’s a lot of money in Scottish football.
The question is, just how strong has the opposition been this season? Celtic (as at April 3, 2017) are 25 points clear of second-placed Aberdeen. Only Rangers and Inverness have avoided defeat in a league game against Brendan Rodgers’ side. Of their 28 wins, 12 have been by a single goal margin, five apiece by two and three goals, four by four and two by five. A total of 43% of wins have been by the slenderest of margins, compared with Chelsea’s 36% in the Premier. Celtic’s dominance has, generally, been narrower. Regardless, Celtic’s ease of victory has been as much to do with the lack of a consistently strong opponent.
Over the past five years, only one other club has been a top six resident in every season – St. Johnstone, a club that enjoys an average attendance of just 4,400, less than one tenth of the regular gate at Celtic. But given St. Johnstone is from the city of Perth – population 47,000 – they don’t do so bad. Celtic’s six consecutive league titles have been won with ease. Ever since Rangers were demoted, there really hasn’t been a contender to test them. This season, they are currently 25 clear, a 10-point gain on last season so far and threatening to equal the 29 point gap they finished with in 2014.
The margin between the top club in Scotland and the rest of the field has stretched considerably in recent years. In the heyday of Celtic’s team under Stein, the biggest cushion they put between themselves and their nearest challenger was 12 points in 1970. Into the 21st century, it was quite normal to see huge gaps between the top and second-placed club. In 1999-00, Rangers had a 21-point advantage, while Celtic were well into double figures every time they won the title in the period that followed. By 2011-12, the year that Rangers were sent down, Celtic were champions by 20 points.
Scotland last had a non-Glasgow champion in 1984-85 when Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen fought off the challenge of the Old and New firms. Although both Celtic and Rangers were always considered to be Scotland’s premier clubs, Scottish football has never been as concentrated as it is at the moment, even in the days of Stein’s Lisbon Lions. There is a correlation between the fall of Scottish football and the overwhelming dominance of the Old Firm that kicked-in around the late 1980s.
When Celtic and Rangers were dominant in the 1960s and 1970s (with Rangers cast in the shadows), there was plenty of talk of the Glasgow duo entering the English league as they lacked competition at home. The pundits, naturally, speculated about the relative strength of the Old Firm and England’s top clubs and bearing in mind that England invariably beat Scotland at international level, predictions ranged from “they would do fine” to “second division at best”. However, it is worth recalling that Celtic beat Leeds United in the European Cup in 1970 and then some 22 years later, Rangers emerged victorious after a 4-2 aggregate win over the same club. Celtic would not fare as well against Premier League champions-elect Chelsea, although Rodgers’ side did draw twice with Manchester City in the Champions’ League group stage this season.
Can Celtic ever compete again at the highest level? From a financial perspective, the club appears to be in reasonable shape. According to Deloitte, they are in the top 60 in Europe and with average attendances over 50,000 Celtic are a big club in [almost] every sense. But in relative terms, they are way behind the top names in European football. For example, the club’s revenues in 2015-16 totalled £ 52m, of which £ 25.1m were attributable to football and stadium activities. In the latest Deloitte Football Money League, the 30th-placed club, Napoli, generated revenues of EUR 142m. It has been a decade since Celtic last appeared in the report, although in 2017-18, the club could benefit from a significant sum of money from UEFA once more.
Scottish football has an uphill battle, but with intelligent negotiation, it should be able to benefit from a better and more competitive TV deal. When you consider that Leicester City received more than £ 90m in TV revenues in 2015-16 compared to a league-wide deal in Scotland amounting to a mere £19m, it is easy to see how vast the gulf is. With respect to Leicester and a number of other Premier outfits, Celtic are, in most people’s eyes, a bigger club. Scotland gets a raw deal all round and among the top 18 European leagues has the most meagre TV agreement – £19m looks poor when compared to countries such as Denmark (£46m), Norway (£35m), Belgium (£60m) and Greece (£50m), not to mention the £385m paid for Turkey’s football.
Where does that leave Celtic? The success of Rodgers in his debut season has certainly made him an attractive proposition once more for Premier League clubs. Rodgers has got the best out of a number of players such as goalkeeper Craig Gordon, defender Kieran Tierney, midfielders Stuart Armstrong and James Forrest and Moussa Dembele has been a revelation. And Rodgers’ has revitalised his old friend Scott Sinclair, rescuing him from Aston Villa. Celtic have also benefitted from having Patrick Roberts on loan from Manchester City.
If Celtic win the treble this season, the challenge Rodgers and his team have will be how to follow such a successful campaign. The next move is to make a bigger impact in Europe. Results in the UEFA Champions League this season suggest that a lot of hard work has to be done to make Celtic competitive. There’s also whispers again of Celtic joining the English league, but this is never really going to happen – especially if Scotland eventually decides to leave the United Kingdom. Of course, all will be thrown into the air if Rodgers gets lured away, but he seems the sort of character that will remember where he kept his career momentum going after the setback at Liverpool. Celtic may have one more season with their charismatic manager – better make it a good one.