Frankfurt win, Rangers lose, but they both played their part in the rebirth of Europa

RANGERS, almost inevitably, lost to Eintracht Frankfurt on penalties, reinforcing the widely-held belief that Germans are good at spot kicks. But they went so close to achieving the startlingly fine achievement of winning a major European prize, something no Scottish side has managed since 1983 when Aberdeen won the now defunct European Cup-Winners’ Cup.

There was a time when Scottish teams were highly respected in Europe, largely thanks to the exploits of Celtic and Rangers in the 1960s and early 1970s. Celtic’s 1967 European Cup victory now looks like an astonishing feat, but in that era, Jock Stein’s team was every bit as good – if not better – than anything coming out of England. In truth, Celtic should have won the competition in 1970, but they didn’t realise Feyenoord were Ajax’s bastard cousins in Rotterdam.

Rangers have been through some rough times and Celtic fans will waste no time in reminding them of their financial mismanagement in the aftermath of the Europa League final. But penalties is no way to win – or lose – a final, especially after such a protracted journey to Seville. Rangers played eight teams on route to Spain, including another pair of German sides (Dortmund and Leipzig). To have this journey decided by penalties seems unfair on any team.

Rangers missed just one penalty and it happened to be from the boot of former Arsenal player Aaron Ramsey. Now, of course, everyone is passing opinion on his disappointing spell with Rangers, but let’s face it, anyone can miss a penalty.

Rangers may have lost the Scottish Premier to their Glasgow rivals, but 2021-22 has still been another memorable year. They were only four points behind Celtic and lost three games in the league, two to the green and white side of the city. Now they face Hearts in the Scottish Cup final, so they have to raise their spirits quickly.

The final in Seville ends a really fascinating Europa League campaign, one that has certainly improved public perception of the competition. The creation of the Conference League has actually strengthened the Europa and has revived memories of the UEFA Cup in its heyday, with big names like Barcelona, Sevilla, Porto, Napoli, West Ham United and Rangers. The excitement created by some of the teams has underlined the importance of the Europa, the next step would be to make Thursday nights an appropriate night, perhaps by shifting league games scheduled for the Sundays that follow matchdays in Europe.

Certainly, the atmosphere at some games has been outstanding, even if Frankfurt’s fans at the final – equipped with white outfits and caps – looked like hordes of pharma or dairy workers on an evening out.

Frankfurt clearly enjoyed their victory, from their joyous supporters to their hysterical players, who even invaded their manager’s press conference. It may even liven up the normally sedate finanzplatz that is the city on the Main. Rangers, understandably, were devastated, and rightly so, because they gave everything. They should go home with a smile on their face, for they played their part in the resurrection of the Europa League. 

We need to get away from the mantra that it’s “Champions League or nothing” that has helped to devalue so many competitions across Europe. In the past, qualifying for Europe provided a little bit of gilding on a season for clubs near the top part of the league table. The over-expansion of the Champions League did a lot of damage, but it was a self-inflicted problem. OK, give more European football to the people, but go for quality over quantity. It has still got to be properly addressed in the Champions League, but UEFA started this process with the inauguration of the Conference League and they may just have got it right. The latter stages of this season’s Europa League suggested there was a slightly different attitude emerging.

“Big fish” Rangers still trailing Europe’s elite

ALONG with their Old Firm rivals, Celtic, Rangers continue to enjoy the status of being Scottish football royalty, earning way more money than every other club in Scotland. The Gers’ finances for 2020-21 underlined the gulf between the Glasgow duo and the rest of Scotland, but it also highlighted the challenge facing Rangers in competing with Europe’s top names.

With an appetising Europa League encounter with Borussia Dortmund on the horizon, Rangers will be reminded of how far they still have to come. Dortmund may not be Bayern, but the Ibrox club will be only too aware that they were once in the same ballpark as BVB and met them in the 1967 European Cup-Winners’ Cup. In 2022, they will be the underdogs.

Rangers won their first Scottish Premier title in a decade under Steven Gerrard in 2020-21, but their losses increased by 43% to £ 24.7 million. The last time Rangers made a profit was in 2013.

The club’s revenues dropped from £ 59 million to £ 47.7 million (-20%), largely due to a dramatic fall (-49%) in matchday income, which was partially offset by increases in both broadcasting (+39%) and commercial revenues (+9%).

Rangers’ wage bill rose by 10% to £ 47.7 million, which entirely absorbed the club’s revenues and was a marked difference from 2019-20 when wages were 73% of income. By way of comparison, Celtic’s wage bill totalled £ 51.7 million and was 85% of total earnings.

Scottish football still appears to be undervalued by many people. According to data produced by football analyst Swiss Ramble, the TV deal, for example, is paltry compared to many leagues, just € 34 million per annum compared to the € 3.6 billion awarded to the Premier League and € 2 billion paid to La Liga. The total income of the two leagues is also eye-opening; the Scottish Premiership generated € 221 million while the Premier League earned € 5.1 billion.

Consequently, matchday income is far more important to Scottish clubs than their counterparts across many leagues. Overall, 48% of revenues is derived from matchday, although Rangers’ matchday cash amounted to 38% in 2020-21. By contrast, matchday income amounts to 13% of Premier League income, 11% of both France’s Ligue 1 and Serie A, 15% of La Liga and 16% of the Bundesliga’s revenues.

One area that Rangers need to improve is in their player trading activities. Over nine seasons, they have made less than £ 10 million in profits from player sales, versus the £ 100 million made by Celtic.

Rangers have started the 2021-22 season reasonably well and are top of the table once more, although they have been beaten. They went out of the Champions League rather cheaply but they go into 2022 with the Europa League play-off awaiting them. In November, they lost manager Gerrard to Aston Villa, replacing him with Giovanni van Bronckhorst. The odds are they will probably retain the league title they won earlier this year, but can they make a splash in Europe?

Three steps to heaven: Step two – Stephen Gerrard to Villa Park

IF YOU believe the tea leaves, Steven Gerrard is destined to become Liverpool’s next manager, replacing Jürgen Klopp when the charismatic German decides to move back to continental Europe. The immediate test, though, will be Aston Villa and whether Gerrard can achieve success in the career-defining Premier League. His appointment at Villa Park will surely be scrutinised by his old pals at Anfield but one thing is certain, Liverpool won’t take a chance on an unfinished item – those days are gone.

Nobody should disrespect Rangers or Villa, though, and dismiss them as stepping stone clubs, for they’re both huge footballing institutions. Gerrard’s first managerial appointment was ultimately successful at one of the top 20 clubs in Britain, but he doesn’t do things alone, he was – and will be – well supported by his coaching staff and other key individuals.

Admittedly, Scottish domestic football is at a relative low ebb, but his record – 26 defeats in 193 games, a win rate of 65% – deserves the plaudits. Taking Rangers to the league title in 2021 was no mean feat, especially as they went through the campaign unbeaten with 92 goals and 102 points. Celtic may have come to the end of a nine-year cycle, but it’s hard not to be impressed.

Given Gerrard’s position in modern football folklore, it was inevitable that after winning silverware with Rangers he would be linked with every job that became vacant in the Premier League. With timing and availability in mind, that might explain why he left Rangers in mid-season, never a well-received decision, but it may have been a question of being the right fit at the right time. 

Success at Villa will not look like success at Manchester United, Liverpool or Arsenal, and there was no way he would land a role so early at one of the elite clubs. He may have looked at how Frank Lampard fared at Chelsea as a warning sign. Villa are a top name, one with the undoubted potential to achieve, but they are, at the moment, from the second tranche of Premier clubs.

There’s also the big gulf between the Scottish and English top level football to consider. The Premier League is, rightly or wrongly, in a different universe and the days of England’s top sides being sprinkled with the top Scottish talent are long gone. British football needs a strong Scottish league and if English clubs are ever going to be weaned off filling their teams with overseas players, the overall strength of United Kingdom FC has to be improved. Of the current Rangers squad, only eight are Scots and there are no less than 13 nationalities represented.

It would be naïve to believe the difference isn’t substantial. Rangers and Celtic may be mighty clubs, but their local landscape is relatively weak and financially, they are way behind Europe’s big clubs. European football isn’t just about clubs nurturing a group of players with a top coach and creating a unique situation (a la Jock Stein, Don Revie, Brian Clough), it is sporting commerce, and Scottish clubs represent a relatively small nation with limited resources. The story of clubs like Celtic and Rangers, not to mention a lot of old names from industrial age English football, has been built on chapters long since yellowed – just ask Newcastle United.

There was a time when Scottish clubs could reasonably compete with their English neighbours. In those far-off days, romantics would look at the possibility of a British league or even the transplant of Celtic and Rangers into the Football League. The assumption was, at the time, the Glasgow twins would flourish, thanks to their massive support, heritage and stately home stadiums. Indeed, in 1969-70, Leeds United, arguably the best time of their time, were beaten twice by Jock Stein’s Celtic in the semi-final of the European Cup. Stein’s team was a sublime outfit and there was no disgrace in being second best to them, but generally, English clubs were considered to be much stronger. In 1992-93, Rangers repeated the trick against Leeds in the Champions League. Today, even the likes of Celtic and Rangers would be challenged to trouble the Premier sides.

Gerrard moving to Villa is arguably an acknowledgement he doesn’t see the Scottish Premiership as the true measure of his skill as a manager. It could be a very intelligent choice on his part as he will not have the advantages he had at Ibrox and he will be tested. But if it goes wrong, the Anfield dream could be over, or at the very least, delayed.

But is this really a prelude to a move to Anfield? Liverpool will bear in mind there are pitfalls in appointing old boys. Gerrard is a grandson of the Boot Room culture, one of Liverpool’s own in a number of ways. But being a scouser is not a qualification to become a Liverpool legend anymore, just ask Dalglish, Rush, Mané, Salah and Henderson. The moment he left the club, fans were talking about “the return”. They should be careful, though, quite often those heaven-made marriages are a let-down.

In the meantime, Gerrard has to prove himself all over again with Aston Villa – he might like to call his old England team-mate John Terry for some advice (!). The first phase of his managerial career is over and he passed with flying colours. He has left Rangers with a sound team and they are already four points ahead of Celtic, although their Europa League record is a little disappointing.

Rangers fans will be upset he’s left them in mid-season, especially as he recently told the media he was happy and settled at the club, but Gerrard should not grieve too much about that, Rangers would not have hesitated to dispense with his services mid-stream if it suited them. Besides, Rangers are a huge club, they will not have trouble attracting a worthy successor, but equally important is how they take the next step in their evolution. The same really applies to their former boss.