Domestic football season likely to be bleak North of the border
Although Neil Lennon was predictably optimistic following his side’s first competitive match of the season, even before the second supporters were resigned. Celtic were going to go out of the Champions League at the qualifying stage for the second season in succession.
It was not always this way. Between 2006 and 2008 Villareal, AC Milan, Benfica (twice) and Manchester United were beaten in the Champions League. Three years before this, Celtic reached the UEFA Cup Final. It is fair to say, however, that a lot has changed at Parkhead.
Celtic have not won the league for two years, the first time this has happened since 2000. They have not won the Scottish Cup for three years. They are not competing in the Champions League for the second year in a row, and they have lost their captain and goalkeeper in Stephen McManus and Artur Boruc. They even managed to lose to Utrecht, thus missing out on European football at all.
And yet domestically the mood in the green part of Glasgow will be one of quiet optimism. Neil Lennon, the new manager, was the fans choice, and he has been allowed to spend the money recouped on outgoing players. In total seven players have been signed. Gary Hooper and Joe Ledley were amongst the most promising young players in the Championship last season, and Efrain Juarez and Cha du Ri both played in the knockout stages of the World Cup. Five of the seven signed players are twenty-four or younger.
It is indicative of the current climate in Scottish football that Celtic’s relative likelihood of domestic success is increased less by their own improvements but rather the dilapidation of their rivals.
Rangers, despite consecutive league titles, are still in economic plight. After defeat to FC Kaunas of Lithuania meant losing out on the Champions League windfall, they have entered a period of steady financial decline. In March 2009 the club was forced to offer voluntary redundancy packages to staff, and a year later there was the threat from the HMRC of a massive backdated tax bill. Recent reports suggest that the success achieved domestically by Walter Smith may have saved the club, but the picture is still far from rosy. Essentially, although Rangers are in a situation where their debts are manageable, this does not mean that they are in a position where large outlay on players is possible.
This has been increasingly portrayed “on-field” over the summer, and is highlighted by Gordon Strachan’s transfer policy at Middlesbrough. In bringing in Kevin Thomson and Kris Boyd from Ibrox, many of the goals and invention have been withdrawn from the Scottish champions. Boyd scored 26 league goals last season, and goals scored by Jevlavic and Beattie are going to be a valuable commodity.
Furthermore Nacho Novo, Stevie Smith and DaMarcus Beasley, with 56 combined appearances last season, have left the club, and one of the brightest stars in Scottish football, Danny Wilson, has been sold to Liverpool. In the last 14 months, 12 internationals have left Rangers.
Even more disconcerting, the fortunes of Rangers are similar to the problems faced by Scottish Premier League as a whole. Lenders are unwilling to provide loans to clubs in a league where last year sponsorship and television rights earned just £16million, considerably less than the bottom club in the English Premiership. Without the Old Firm, the average attendance in the Scottish Premiership is 7,395. The clubs are simply not generating enough income in order to attract players of a meaningful quality.
The downward spiral is evident. Less money in the game means less investment in coaching systems, and therefore less talent nurtured. The national team’s recent poor performances have led to the removal of a Europa League place. All does not look good.
One suspects that Celtic and Rangers will get through. The fan base and attendances remain large, and the tradition and history will continue to attract players, funds permitting. However, the prospect of the other clubs in the league has never looked so bleak. Support, finance and investment in youth are all lacking, and a recipe for a desolate future is apparent.
Celtic will begin a domestic campaign having spent £8.4million on new players. Only two other players in the entire league have been bought for money, the strikers at Rangers. That is an alarming statistic for anyone other than the Parkhead faithful.