Thursday, March 3, 2016

Rangers' return, and what it means for the rest of us

Image result for martyn waghorn
Rangers will be back in the top flight next season - forgive me for not looking forward to it

Last night's win over Raith Rovers put Rangers 14 points clear at the top of the Championship, with 9 games left.  It's now a question of when, not if, they clinch automatic promotion.  So, after four years away, they're coming back.  There's no use pretending otherwise anymore.

Back in that fateful summer of '12, SPL Chief Exec Neil Doncaster predicted "armageddon" (his own words!!!) and his SFA equivalent, Stewart Regan, warned of "social unrest" (his own words!!!) if the blue cheek of the Old Firm arse wasn't present at Scottish football's top table.  That these two are still in their jobs four years on tells you something about how badly our game is run.

Doncaster and co have done their best to fulfil their own prophecies, failing to do anything meaningful to promote Scottish football, and frequently talking it down, as if Glasgow derbies (and not ones that involve Partick Thistle) are the only games that actually count for anything and the other 40 SPFL clubs may as well be randomly allocated their results and their places in the league table.  

It's been a fun few years
Despite the worst efforts of the powers that be, I'd say that the last few years have really been rather fun.  There have been three different League Cup winners (and there will be a fourth, with Ross County meeting Hibs in this season's final).  There have been three different Scottish Cup winners.  How many of St. Mirren, Aberdeen, Inverness and St. Johnstone would have managed such a moment in the sun under the old system?  For the fans of diddy clubs - defined as, basically, anyone who isn't Rangers or Celtic - it's been a rare old time.

Sure, Celtic have walked the league for four straight years, but to those of us who don't support the green cheek either, there is next to no difference between a one-horse race and a two-horse one.  The rest of the clubs have been several furlongs back for a long time.  After all, only once between 1995 and 2012 did a diddy team finish second in the table - a Hearts side fueled by Vladimir Romanov's roubles - and on no other occasion since the SPL era began had the team in third finished within 10 points of second place. 

This golden period - and, as an Inverness fan, it has definitely been golden - seems to have coincided with other top flight clubs sorting themselves out.  Gone are the horrendous debts of the post-Setanta years.  Aberdeen, Dundee United, Kilmarnock and others have done deals with major shareholders or banks, and pulled themselves out of their financial rut.  Hearts took their administration medicine, and have risen from the intensive care unit as a stronger and more stable entity than they've been in my lifetime.  Heck. some clubs are even managing to pay transfer fees!

So, will we return to the old status quo?
Rangers have taken a year longer than expected to pull themselves back to the top table, thanks to the incompetency of, well, pretty much everyone involved at the club last season.  But, on the field at least, they are leaps and bounds ahead of where they were twelve months ago.  They've managed to nab an astute manager, in Mark Warburton, who has proven himself savvy in the transfer market,  Some cash had to be spent to land guys like James Tavernier, Martyn Waghorn and Michael O'Halloran, but they are each of infinitely better value than some of the duds that came before them (a reminder - David Templeton cost £800,000!).

However, unlike the Gers sides of the David Murray years, they are not loaded with top European talent.  Of course, Celtic are nowhere near that level anymore either but, as it stands, there is a huge gap.  For Wes Foderingham, read Craig Gordon.  For Andy Halliday, read Scott Brown.  For Waghorn, read Leigh Griffiths.  You'd have to be crazy to think that any Rangers player could walk into the Celtic starting XI.

That makes them no different from any other Scottish club, mind.  After all, Celtic's budget is greater than the other eleven Premiership sides put together.  Rangers do still have the second highest wage bill in the country, but it's currently about a third of Celtic's.  Therefore a more realistic target is to aim for second spot.  It would certainly be a shock if Zadok The Priest was heard around Ibrox anytime soon.

As alluded to above, Aberdeen and Hearts have made hay whilst the sun shone.  Both are now considerably stronger than the other top flight sides.  Both are still a way away from Celtic's level - the Dons' 'challenge' this season is more down to Ronny Deila's struggles than Derek McInnes' successes - but they now dwarf the likes of St. Johnstone, Inverness et al both in the quality of their starting lineup and in squad depth.

Would the current Rangers team be capable of finishing ahead of either of them?  Maybe, but I wouldn't bank on it.  Not without further reinforcements.  And whilst Dave King and his mates managed to rustle up half a mil for O'Halloran, and Mike Ashley has finally been sidelined, the fact is that the club is still getting by on short-term loans.

Warburton and his superiors will probably be realistic about their 2016-17 prospects; it will make their lives a lot easier if the fans, who of course were brought up on McCoist, Gascoigne, Laudrup, De Boer (so good you'd think there was two of him!) and the like, are patient for at least that first year.

"Looking forward" to playing Rangers again
What does Rangers' return mean for the rest of us?  Well, presuming that ICT stay up this year - not a given, by the way - it means one or two home games against them.  Forgive me for my feeling of dread.  Whilst winning such games has always brought me huge joy, with John Rankin's long-range winner in December 2006 one of my favourite football moments, those moments are all too rare.  Most of these matches are defeats, defeats without many redeeming features.

The atmosphere which goes with it is a particular factor.  I'm not going to claim that Rangers fans are worse than Celtic ones, or that their songs are more offensive; only when these two visit do I see grown men urinating on the pavement and in the bushes on the way to the stadium, and only when these two visit do I see grown men drinking booze in the street (for some reason, Rangers fans always seem to be slogging Buckfast, while Celtic fans opt for Strongbow).  It feels intimidating.  I certainly wouldn't feel safe celebrating any result outside the ground until I'd got back to my car.  

Harsh?  Maybe.  But it's how it feels.  As for away game, Inverness have gone to Ibrox twice in the cup in recent years, and twice the away support has been pelted by missiles from the home fans.  That was a new phenomenon, but one that worries me.  Their support was encouraged, four summers ago, to foster an air of grievance at the clubs who, supposedly, wronged them by throwing them out of the SPL.  Has four years of playing lower league opposition calmed these feelings?  Or will next season be seen as an opportunity for revenge, both on the field and off it?

This is an opportunity for positive change
One of the other ludicrous quotes from four years, much mocked since, originated from Daily Record hack Keith Jackson: "Scottish football needs a strong Rangers."  The last four years prove that it does not.  It would benefit, however, from Rangers being part of a setup where all teams are encouraged to thrive, where Celtic and Rangers openly and happily work with other clubs and the SPFL to promote our national game as something worth watching even when neither of those two clubs are playing.

If next year sees a return to the BL (Before Liquidation) years, then the predictions of armageddon may yet come true after all.

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

1 comment:

George Murray said...

As a Celtic fan I share your dread of the arrival of Sevco to the top League - not I may add through any sense of fear- but like you I found the matches against the Oldco vile events which had nothing to do with sport. Only one of my friends who support Celtic - and that is most of them - have missed games against RFC (In Liquidation) and his argument is about 'competition'. Well from where I sit Aberdeen and Hearts and the other clubs you mention who have won honours in the last 4 years have provided plenty competition, often at my own club's expense and it has been the best 4 years that I can remember in over 60 years of watching Celtic. in terms of taking some pleasure in a rivals success after the initial disappointment has worn off.