If a tree falls at an 'Old Firm' game does it make a sound?
Updated Sunday, 9th October 2011
Twenty-four hours I had to wait: 24 long, torturous hours. I had hoped that it would have been sooner but alas no, Sportscene didn't show it.
Sunday teatime it had to be then and the hours leading up to the opening titles of Scotsport were as long as I’d ever experienced. I was way beyond fever pitch by the time 5pm came around. That particular state of excitement was reached exactly 24 hours earlier when the full realisation of the scoreline hit me: Rangers 5 Celtic 1. I spent almost the entirety of the next day imagining what the goals looked like and when it finally arrived my expectations were blown away. “Blocked by McCarthy, there’s McCoist” and “a goal made in England” became engrained in my memory as my old man and I watched again and again, the highlights of a momentous day. What was something of an overture to a decade of special moments shared by father and son, at seven years old this was all I thought about for weeks. The fact that I got out of hospital on the Friday after some pretty serious surgery but hardly spoke about it was testament enough. At that age Rangers was all I cared about.
The thought of having to wait a day to see goals from a big game now seems completely alien. I can see Rangers goals whenever I want, wherever I am. I can take my pick from the very best of Europe every weekend and midweek in the comfort of my own home. Things were very different back in 1988. We had Scottish football highlights spread over two days, very few live league games, minimal action from south of the border (BBC didn’t have the rights then thus no Match of the Day) and the European Cup highlights were on Sportsnight, way past my bedtime. As pre-historic as it may sound, this lack of football saturation did ensure one thing; Rangers would have no competition for my affections.
Football, like everything else remotely popular in the world, has shown little resistance to the sweeping tide of globalisation. Perhaps it is apt that I immediately recall 1988 for surely this was a time with a particularly close viewpoint to the biggest wave to crash over the sport. We got a dish in 1990 I think. My Dad had his mates round to watch a, by then, routine derby victory at Parkhead and we were also introduced to regular Italian football. I already had a soft spot for Milan from their European Cup successes (I was allowed to stay up for the Final highlights) but it was still very much admiration from a distance. Then 1992 arrived, with the introduction of the English Premier League and the Champions League, and football changed forever.
These changes are never immediate or realised overnight. They are very slow, gradual processes but they always have a root. Before you think this is a rant against the global machine or a nostalgic lament to the death of football, let me assure you it is nothing of the kind. I have no beef with a smaller world; given the technological advances of the early 20th century it was inevitable anyway. I love modern football; it has a level of technique and professionalism we have never before seen. I love being able to see the best players in the world every single week. However, I was born before the game was inextricably linked with the majestic music of Handel. I may enjoy the sport, I may have preferred teams in England, Spain and Italy but I’m a Rangers man first and last. I do not have a ‘Spanish team’, I only have one. It’s a special bond, for better or worse, and one I treasure especially when going to games with my dad. However as the prospect of settling down, growing up and having a family dawns on me, can I really be sure that my son will have such a strong bond with the club and even more worryingly, with me?
It was slightly easier back then. Scottish football had some kind of status to give you genuine belief that what Rangers did actually mattered. Or at least I thought so at the time. We qualified for World Cups and our clubs had won European trophies in each of the past three decades. But has memory deceived me? Without the wealth of comparable coverage I have today, was I leading a sheltered existence and Scottish football has been terrible all along? European competition, then as it is now, is the only true barometer. We all know the wins and finals appearances but I wanted a bigger and more reflective picture of our performance so I set about collating the results of Scottish clubs in the three main European competitions.(i) As expected the results showed a gradual decline from a sixties high, with the odd spike here and there. The average index point for the 1960s was 1.10, 0.74 for the 1970’s and 0.72 in the 1980’s. The average score in the game-changing 1990s was markedly down to 0.46 and further to 0.40 over the 12 seasons of this new century. It is worth noting that the difference between our performance in the 60’s and 70’s was bigger than from the 1980’s to the decade that football supposedly sold its soul and went to Hell in a handcart. Self-confidence perhaps inherent given the fact that we partly invented the game itself, gave us a head start on comparable nations and given time to even it all out, we’re now performing where we should be.
In trying to find some other nation as close a fit to Scotland, Denmark does pretty nicely. Almost identical populations (both circa 5 million) and a reasonable geographical parity makes the comparison more reliable. They have no history of club glory but their national side has outperformed ours by some considerable distance. The Danes’ performance using the index is far less sporadic but has shown signs of gradual growth in the modern era and is now on a par with Scotland. (0.34, 0.21, 0.37, 0.38 and 0.44 decade averages respectively). The figures again would indicate that footballing nations with such small populations should expect such a performance level. The Heysel ban ruled out using England as a ‘giant’ comparator so I went back to Italy and tracked their team’s performances in Europe over this time period. As one would expect, the decade averages are far higher than both Scotland and Denmark but perhaps the graph below gives a better indication of the situation.
In football, as in all sport, there are winners and losers: Times of dominance, times of barren wilderness. What goes up must come down. The decline in Italian performances, despite Inter’s success in 2010, is evident. That they were out-performed by Denmark in 2010-11 is remarkable but yet it shouldn’t be surprising. The Italians had hit similar depths in the late 70s and early 80s. Despite being told that globalisation brings about a sterile, boring consistency here is one of football’s true giants in a nose dive. And it is nothing new. Despite being told that modern football is nothing more than a guaranteed cartel of dominance for the big boys let me take you back again to the late 80s, that time right before ‘Year Zero’. To Season 1989-90 to be exact. AC Milan had won the European Cup, the winners of the Cup Winners Cup were Sampdoria and the UEFA Cup Final was played out between Juventus and Fiorentina. The winners of Serie A that season were Napoli and in third place was Inter. Never before or since has football seen such domination from one nation so please spare me the tears that the game is now suddenly headed for ruin.
Lies, damned lies and statistics of course.(ii) However it is clear that the reputation of Scottish football in 2011 is far diminished from that in 1988. It is not only the quality of football that present day youngsters would naturally compare with the plethora of European elite action that they can consume; it is starkly obvious that sometimes we appear to play a different sport to others. It is more the relevance of our game that is the issue. In a smaller world only the big stages seem to matter. In times past, distance, detachment and a self-confidence in our game meant that you experienced the highs and lows of being a Rangers fan without the hollow feeling that it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. BBC Radio 5Live covered the latest Glasgow derby match nationally and spent a large amount of time commenting on the atmosphere and spectacle rather than the action. The Old Firm ‘event’ is still of interest to Europe but only as a novelty act. Our league is widely regarded as two bald men fighting over a comb. In the post-modern world we are no longer allowed to be insulated against delusions that what we do resonates outside the parish walls. If our generations, those that were steeped in rosier times, can see this, then the future generations will have no trouble in working out where the real action is. And it will be at the flick of a switch.
One swallow doesn’t mean it is summertime already and the footballing impact of Manchester, like Seville for them, will fizzle from the collective continental memory as it did for Alaves and Middlesbrough before us. Increasingly it will be the case that European competition and the big domestic leagues are where all the attention will be centred therefore it is vital for the viability and continuation of the fanbase, that Rangers are consistently involved in Europe in the springtime. Funding to support this given the paucity of SPL revenues and creating a compatible football system given how impatient is the support, are two huge stumbling blocks to overcome. The massive impact of globalisation in football has squeezed Rangers into a very tight corner. Ironically the ‘end-game’ of the process is our only way out.
As inevitable as Ronald McDonald popping up in Beijing, some form of European Super League will take shape eventually. Enough voices are starting to appear, such as Real Madrid President Florentino Perez and Professor of Economics at Vanderbilt University John Vrooman, to argue that, contrary to the belief that the Champions League is a financial juggernaut destroying everything in its path; the tournament is not actually as successful as it should be.(iii) This is based on comparisons with other events such as the NFL which outperforms the Champions League despite the weaker world appeal. The main thrust of the argument is that, as TV revenue dictates so much, the competition suffers as the top clubs don’t face each other often enough and many of the group games are ‘dead rubbers’. To ensure a greater worldwide TV audience a format is required whereby only the biggest clubs feature thus the proposal to adopt some kind of NFL system of geographical conferences and rota-based fixtures.
This all appears to signal a further death knell for Rangers and Celtic until you read more of the detail of Professor Voorman’s proposal. He suggests a “European Super League comprised of the top 30 clubs in Europe, that sees every team play at least ten “regular season” games against ten different teams (five home, five away) in which they fight for home advantage in the knockout phase (no second leg) — would make every game both interesting and meaningful, which surely should be the essence of competition”. He then proposes “three conferences of ten teams based on economic strength: six English, two Scottish and two Dutch teams in a northern conference; four from Spain, four from France and two from Portugal in the west; and five from Germany and five from Italy in the centre.” A good understanding about the way the NFL conference fixture system works is essential but Ouriel Daskal in his Blizzard article on the subject explains that very clearly and also points out that football would need a Super League B that has a promotion and relegation system based over a longer time frame than simply one year. In addition a clear link to the domestic game is also important and Daskal highlights the success and importance of college football in the States whilst still in existence with the mammoth NFL.
Without question it is a bold and revolutionary proposal however it is my assertion that for the future of the 'Glasgow two', a structure like this is absolutely vital. Two huge clubs with a massive and dedicated fan base at home and across the globe are being suffocated in their present environment. Only through even further globalisation will an opportunity be created that allows them to breath, realise their full potential and crucially play a game that really means something. It is very simple; a pan national league or the game is up for us: Or at least the game as we know it. Reject globalisation and improve our own national game? A common sentiment but it is far too late for that now. We have been left behind and have no-one to blame but ourselves. Back in 1988 Rangers were the biggest club in the United Kingdom and were a driving force behind the inception of the Champions League. In terms of the European game the focus at Ibrox was diverted, both on and off the field, by a parochial obsession in matching a domestic title sequence. Football changed quickly and Scottish football has been left sleepwalking, dreaming of past glories, so much so that the idea of playing catch up is something of a fantasy.
But what about tradition? More than a club are we not? Welcome to post-modernity: for as highlighted above, if people born into those strong narrative threads can see past the construct then those yet to be born, and to be born into an increasingly secular and less-politicised society, will have less reason to be bound by community and faith when choosing how to watch their football. Becoming smaller and more insular in an increasingly globalised world is surely not a viable option. The moans about the Sky-infused wealth of English clubs are as pathetic as the provincial fans crying about the strength of Rangers in the 1990s. People invest for a reason, they take their chances and good luck to them. Once again, who is to blame in Scottish football for not making the most of the history of success and footballing tradition and then marketing our game properly just as the tide was starting to change that way? For all his faults, it isn’t Rupert Murdoch.
Results indicate that Rangers and Scottish football has now settled to the place where it should be in the European order. Rationality and economics suggest that the current predicament is not where it could be in the future. If that vision becomes more concrete then the support should resist at its peril. Otherwise our children will speak of Rangers as ‘the team my old man used to go and see’. A nightmare more frightening than anything prima-donna modern footballers can conjure up.
(i) I gave every win 3 points and draw 1 point and then averaged out for the year against the number of potential games the side would have when entering the competition thus giving a better index of actual performance for the season as a whole. Simply using the average of games played is misleading. For example if a team plays 2 rounds in Europe, wins three legs but gets knocked out on aggregate score, it has been a poor campaign despite scoring an average 2.25 points a game.
(ii) I’m quite happy to accept that my way of calculating the Index is not perfect. I’m not a mathematician. However it does makes sense to me and was helpful in looking at European performance over time and crucially in context. I would be interested in other models and with more comparison.
(iii) Ouriel Daskal ‘How the Champions League is Selling European Football Short’, The Blizzard (Issue 1)