Scots Corner: Is The SPL Really That Bad?
Scottish football suffered a shock to the system on Thursday night, with all three Europa League representatives posting disappointing results in the first legs of their respective ties. It was the most damning evidence that Scottish football has declined considerably in recent years, as Hearts and Rangers slumped to defeats and Celtic were held at home.
In the past, Scottish sides have performed well on the European stage and have found considerable success given the relatively small size of the country. Celtic were the first British side to win the European Cup, developed later into modern football’s Champions League, back in 1967. They defeated Inter Milan 2-1 with a team of players all said to have been born within 30 miles of Glasgow.
Celtic’s achievements aren’t the only examples of Scottish sides performing well in Europe. Rangers won the Cup Winners Cup in 1972, a feat emulated by Aberdeen in 1983, when they beat the mighty Real Madrid in the final. Dundee United have defeated Barcelona in each of their four meetings, incredible when you compare the current state of the sides.
Even in the past decade, both halves of the Old Firm have reached the final of European competitions, Celtic losing out to Porto in the UEFA cup final in 2003 and Rangers losing 2-0 to Zenit St Petersburg in the reformed Europa League final in 2008. Both sides have competed in the Champions League group stages in recent years as well, but Scottish sides appear to have lost their competitive edge, their battling qualities and their resilience over the last couple of years, leaving Scottish football well short of the European highs it once experienced.
A far cry from recent victories home victories over Manchester United, AC Milan and Shakhtar Donetsk, Celtic struggled to a 0-0 draw with Swiss side FC Sion, and will be looking for an improved performance in the away leg next week. Rangers took the lead away to NK Maribor, but were pegged back through a second half equaliser. A score draw away from home would have suited Rangers, leaving less pressure on them for the second leg at Ibrox. However, a stoppage time winner for the Slovenian champions left them with work to do and something for the underdogs to defend in the second leg.
Hearts are more or less out of the competition, following a 5-0 home humbling at the hands of English heavyweights Tottenham Hotspur. It was a ruthless display of attacking football from Spurs, with five difference scorers getting the goals. Three first half strikes from Rafael Van Der Vaart, Jermain Defoe and Jake Livermore rendered the tie over by half time, and despite a brief flurry of Hearts pressure in the second half, further goals from Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon put an impressive seal on the win.
The gulf in class goes deeper than the score line, with the Spurs line up looking much quicker, stronger and hungrier all over the park. The physical condition of the Tottenham players was noted as well, with even the diminutive Aaron Lennon seeming impossible to knock off the ball. Chests puffed out and standing tall, Hearts’ opposition looked more like athletes than footballers.
Where has it gone wrong for Scottish football then? The levels of quality have definitely dropped and that is certainly one of the obvious factors of the decline.
There are no Henrik Larssons, no Brian Laudrups, no Jorg Albertzs and no Stilian Petrovs in the league anymore, players capable of producing at the highest level. After leaving Celtic, Larsson went on to perform admirably for Manchester United and Barcelona, coming on as a substitute and turning around a Champions League final in favour of the Catalan club, well into his thirties. Perhaps that gives an example of the standard of player that have turned out for Scotland’s top clubs in recent years that are no longer there.
But delving even deeper, financial limitations have to be attributed as one of the key factors for the decline in quality of Scottish football. Back in 2000, Celtic paid £6 million for Chris Sutton, while Rangers bought Tore Andre Flo for £12 million, in what was Scottish football’s most affluent period. High wages were being thrown around and with television revenue piling up in clubs bank accounts, there was money to be spend in the SPL. But fast-forward 11 years and it is a very different picture. Clubs are struggling to stay afloat, with low attendance figures and mounting debts. Wayne Rooney’s reported weekly wage of £250,000 would cover outgoings for a year at some Scottish clubs. Up here, we simply cannot compete with the riches of Europe’s top clubs.
However, there are some positives to be taken from the poverty of Scottish football. With most clubs unable to bring in players, many are turning to their youth systems in for talent. The emergence of Danny Wilson at Rangers, prior to his move to Liverpool, was probably accelerated due to Rangers financial inability to buy an adequate centre half. The same can be seen with Jamie Murphy of Motherwell, David Templeton at Hearts and James Forrest at Celtic, who have all shone over the past year or two. And before that, the two James at Hamilton, McCarthy and McArthur, moved on to Wigan and have acquitted themselves well in the Premier League.
Young players being brought in early and given a chance to play first team football can only benefit the Scottish game as a whole in the long run. The national side will benefit and the quality of the youngsters will improve if they are being given a chance.
The 5-0 defeat suffered by Hearts against Tottenham last week was an inevitability when you compare the players and budgets of both teams. Tottenham had only last season beaten Inter Milan and AC Milan in the Champions League, so the heavy loss can come as little surprise. Hearts will have learnt a lot from coming up against international superstars like Gareth Bale and Rafael Van Der Vaart and I’m sure the supporters enjoyed the opportunity to see these players at Tynecastle.
Celtic and Rangers have a little more expectation on their shoulders, and more ambition to succeed in this competition, but I’m sure both will overcome difficult second leg ties to take their place in the Group Stage of the Europa League, and dare I say it, restore some pride in the Scottish game.
Article by Zac Baker