The People’s Game
A rare rummage in the loft the other day led to the chance re-discovery of my childhood football scrapbooks. They fell out of an old box I hadn’t looked in for years. As a lad I’d clip pictures from the paper and paste them into big ledgers. As I looked through them, the years fell away and I smiled at the stars I loved to watch wearing the green back in the day, memories of great games and incidents flooded into my head. The routine of match day was always the same and became a part of our lives. Aberdeen away was always a favourite as it usually came in September and after the game we’d stop in Stonehaven till the pubs closed before heading home in the wee, small hours. The little market town was green and white for the night as 10 or 20 other supporters’ buses did the same. The banter was great and the pubs made a packet. I recall ‘Paddy wan eye’ from our bus putting his glass eye into a newly poured pint and complaining, ‘Here mate, there’s something in that beer!’ Win, lose or draw, the people sang there songs, drank their beer and had a good time. We travelled all over Scotland every other week and very often the trips were as much fun as the games. From swimming in the cold sea at Arbroath on a sunny August day, to missing the bus in Perth and skipping the train home, it was all part of the fun. I once lost a shoe in a crush outside Fir Park, Motherwell and went to the game with three plastic bags wrapped around my foot! I got home with my feet blistered but hey, Celtic won so who cares! These were the adventures of our youth and helped bond us to each other and to Celtic.
At the back of my scrapbooks I always stuck tickets from games. As I glanced at them I saw that Rangers v Celtic in 1983 cost £2.50. The last time Celtic were at Ibrox it was £42. Inflation in the UK since 1983 should price that ticket at around £8. So what the hell happened to the people’s game? How did Scottish football end up more expensive than most top European leagues while at the same time the standard had clearly diminished? Firstly, we don’t operate in a vacuum. Events in England and elsewhere had a dramatic effect on our football. Players like Tommy Burns earned a basic of £300-400 per week back then. The Bosman ruling in the 1990s changed that forever. Jean Marc Bosman had completed his contract with FC Liege and wanted to move to Dunkirk FC in France. Liege refused and he was banished to the reserves on a diminishing salary. He sued under European employment legislation and won. Players could then go wherever they chose when their contracts were over. This had a profound effect on wages and the game in general.
The arrival of Sky TV bankrolled the EPL and revolutionised the game there as foreign mercenaries flooded in. In season 2012-13, 66% of EPL players were non UK citizens. The advent of the Champions League also brought more of the money the elite demanded to pay their increasingly huge salary bills. Corporate hospitality became important as companies spent money on football but they hardly brought the ordinary fans along to watch. The ‘prawn sandwich’ brigade had arrived and one of the last vestiges of working class culture was under threat. In 1990 I attended Bryan Robson’s testimonial at Old Trafford. I spoke to ordinary working class Manchester United fans then who could still afford to go watch their club. Many of them are now priced out as the EPL went global, the prices shot up and football tourism arrived. Manchester City fans organised a boycott of Arsenal away when they were offered tickets at £72! Clubs may use the old adage ‘If the stadium is full then the price is right’ but many people who love football simply can’t afford to go to games. Even those who do go will pick and choose as the overall cost is seriously high.
The SPL, a minor league on the periphery of Europe couldn’t generate the TV or commercial revenue required to thrive and compete. Hence Scottish clubs shoved ticket prices up. As far as Celtic was concerned, they followed the trend. My season book for the Hampden season in 1994-95 was £160 this season it was over £500. Again, inflation over the period suggests it should be around £280 today. Scottish football’s inability to raise sufficient revenue outside ticket sales has led to a spiral of increasing prices and falling attendances. Imagine paying £28 to watch Kilmarnock v Motherwell when German fans pay £15 to watch Dortmund? Bayern Munich bring in so much money from TV rights and Commercial sponsorship they can freeze many season books at around £120! That is the big difference, the revenue raised from the non-ticketing part of the business in the big 5 European leagues (Spain, Italy, England, Germany & France) is a much higher percentage than it is in Scotland. This is directly related to population as the advertisers can reach so many more people in those countries. Hence Celtic make £2-3m from TV by winning the Scottish league while the relegated teams from the EPL can pick up 15 times this amount.
So what is to be done? How can the game we love become the people’s game again? It is a forlorn hope to think Uefa will try to spread the money the European competitions bring in more evenly as they are clearly seeking to appease the big clubs. The expansion of the Champion’s League to include 3 or 4 clubs from the big leagues was done under the threat of a breakaway European league and this frightens Uefa. Thus we see the ridiculous situation where Bayer Leverkusen play Real Madrid in the Champions League final in Glasgow when the German outfit have NEVER been Champions of Germany. The players and big clubs now hold all the aces and teams in smaller leagues are left at a huge disadvantage. They must sell their best players and hope to get into the Champions League in order to raise the money needed to build a decent team. Celtic raised £23m from the Champions League last season and a further 6 home games made up of 2 qualifiers, 3 group stages and last 16 game with Juventus saw over 330,000 fans pay top dollar to watch. Without these windfalls the big clubs in smaller leagues would really struggle. The obvious answer is for Clubs like Celtic to join a bigger league but this is currently not an option as the big teams simply don’t need us nor do they wish to share the wealth with others.
So Celtic is trapped and increasingly looking to maximise the financial return from their incredibly committed fan base. The Board can sometimes look calculating and money oriented when they sell players or set ticket prices but they really don’t have much option if they want to continue attracting decent players and at least competing in Europe. Last year’s heroics in the Champions League allowed them to cut prices of Season tickets by around £100 and that is to be welcomed but there are no guarantees this will continue. These are good days to be a Celtic fan as the club is successful on and off the pitch but Mr Lawwell knows well the drawbacks of being trapped in Scottish football. With access to the sort of money on offer in some leagues, Celtic could be truly huge! As it is we must accept that unless things change, the situation is intractable and we will not be able to fulfil our vast potential.
The future remains uncertain but the fans who make Celtic the team they are will continue to follow them. The level of support the club received is incredible given that Scotland has a similar population to Norway or Switzerland. We’ve been here for 125 years and helped the club thrive. No matter what the future holds we’ll stay with the Hoops and keep believing. My old scrap books may be full but there are many more adventures to be had following the bhoys in green. This has been an incredible story and I for one don’t want it ever to end.
Football has changed a lot since Paddy dropped his glass eye in his beer in that Stonehaven pub but the Celtic support still has the same passion and dedication. The direction the club takes in the future is uncertain but the status quo looks increasingly untenable. There may well be a European League at some stage in the future and by showcasing our club in the Champions League and letting the football world see those incredible fans will put us in a better position to be invited to that particular party.