“Scottish football needs it.”
There’s no prizes for guessing that Walter Smith was referring to Celtic v Rangers and last week’s (depending on your point of view) 1st or 400th meeting between the sides.
He wasn’t alone. Kenny Dalglish and not surprisingly, Kenny Miller, said similar in the lead-up to the match at Hampden. And, of course, the mainstream Scottish media have been mourning the loss of the fixture since 2012, with never ending talk of an ‘armageddon’ which has yet to materialise.
The desire for the sides to face each other on a regular basis is understandable. They are the two biggest clubs in the country, with the two largest fanbases – meaning that their news sells the most newspapers and generates the most listeners and viewers for radio and television. In turn, they force more money from the pockets of broadcasters and sponsors.
However, this Glasgow-dependent mentality also highlights one of the biggest problems with the Scottish game – the idea that there’s only one show in town.
The way the game is sold at home and overseas is all wrong. If we give off the impression that all that matters are the two big guns, how can anyone else be expected to think differently? It’s no wonder that fans other clubs are sick of the sight and sound of their rivals from the West of Scotland.
Celtic and Rangers themselves were, over the years, guilty of pushing this agenda. It seemed that moves to England or separate tv deals were always lurking in the background.
The other clubs weren’t much better in all honesty. The complete lack of ambition in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s was pathetic, with some teams seemingly beaten before they departed the coach outside Celtic Park or Ibrox. Vladimir Romanov had many critics during his time at Hearts, and rightly so, but at least he had the stomach for a fight.
Times have changed. While nobody could say that the upper echelons of Scottish football are a level playing field, the gap between the top sides and the rest has certainly narrowed. The days of Larsson’s and Laudrup’s plying their trade in Glasgow are long gone.
So, is what we had on display at Hampden last Sunday really as good as it gets? Is the biggest selling point in our game a match were one half-decent side easily overcame their opposition on a ploughed field in a hate-filled atmosphere. That’s before we mention the sectarian singing (clear to anyone at the game or whose telly wasn’t on mute) or the disgusting incident on Cathcart Road, where a 10 year old suffered facial injuries while travelling to the game.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m happy my team won and I look forward to us contesting the final. However, that’s all Sunday was to me – a cup-tie against another Scottish team, and a fairly ugly one at that. If the tabloids are right, and that fixture is what we are striving for, then Scottish football should call it quits.
To blame many of our game’s ills on the absence of regular contests between two bitter enemies is not only desperate, it’s also offensive.
It’s insulting to Aberdeen who are genuine title contenders for the first time in more than twenty years and show no sign of resting on their laurels after the signing of Kenny McLean.
It’s insulting to Dundee United, who develop young talent and sell their best players at a profit – yet are still challenging at the top end of the table and have reached another cup final.
It’s insulting to Hamilton Accies and St Johnstone, who have punched above their respective weights over the past twelve months, with spectacular results.
There are many issues which need to be addressed: sponsorship, ticket pricing, youth development and league structure immediately spring to mind. In the long-term, change is needed, but there are also reasons for optimism.
The Scottish Premiership is as competitive as it has been for years. Teams other than the usual suspects are within touching distance at the top of the table and there is growing ambition and belief within the chasing pack.
Should that position continue and develop in the years ahead, there will be even less ‘need’ for one particular club or fixture. As long as there are teams who are strong on the pitch, and financially secure off it, their identity is irrelevant.