Light a candle
As I strolled happily along the Gallowgate after Celtic’s convincing win against Astana this week, I found myself behind a Dad & two boys of about 9 or 10. The lads were reliving the game in highly excited tones and even sang a few songs together, oblivious to the world. Their youthful enthusiasm and sheer exuberance made me smile. It reminded me of days long gone when, like them, I trailed along behind my old man as he marched through the dark streets of Glasgow towards Celtic Park. I still recall that tinge of excitement when I first saw the old floodlights shining through the gloom and knew that I was close to the stadium.
In my mind’s eye I can still see the crowds milling around the stadium, hear the noise, the songs, the smell the beer and cigarette smoke which lingered in the air. Then it was up to the turnstile where strong hands lifted me over and then that sheer adrenaline rush of reaching the top of the concrete stairs and seeing that lush, emerald rectangle of turf illuminated before us. The songs would already be pouring from the Jungle onto the pitch and to a boy starting out on his time as a Celtic fan it was an exhilarating assault on the senses. This was our theatre, our field of dreams for a couple of magical hours. Here a community gathered to back their team, sing their songs and dream a little.
As I watched Leigh Griffiths slam home Celtic’s fifth goal against Astana there was a joyful surge of mostly younger fans towards the striker as he celebrated in front of us. One or two even surmounted the barriers and raced to embrace their hero. It was in some ways a very symbolic moment. This club means so much to so many people and in that moment the fans and the players were one. When that happens Celtic is capable of punching above their weight and giving anyone a game. Celtic is now very close to the Group stages of the Champions League and only a minor miracle can stop them. You get the idea that Brendan Rodgers is too shrewd to allow anyone to think the job is done until it is actually over.
The euphoria which followed Wednesday’s thumping win wasn’t shared by all in Scotland. Ewan Murray, writing in the Guardian suggested that Celtic’s qualification for the Champions league is good for Celtic and no one else. He said the morning after the match …
‘But great for Scottish football? A boost to the status of the national sport? We should be spared this overreaction. When a club – or two clubs, let us be clear – with fiscal power to dwarf all before them earns another £30m advantage, the case for broader benefit is virtually non-existent. Only two factors serve as counterpoints: other clubs receive a small and variable consolidation payment from UEFA because of Celtic’s progress, and if indigenous players are afforded more game time against top-level opposition then no harm can be done. Beyond that, the benefit is entirely Celtic’s, as they should be perfectly happy to admit in celebration of their own efforts.’
The belief that Celtic’s success in recent years is bad for Scottish football isn’t universally shared. The club will sell out two stands at Rugby Park this weekend. They will also endow the other top flight clubs with a solidarity payment from UEFA of more than £250,000 should they qualify for the Champions League and for a club like St Johnstone, Kilmarnock or Motherwell that is equivalent to the revenue raised by two or three home games. Celtic is playing with several Scotland regulars in the side and they will be learning from facing top class opposition in Europe. The club is also bringing through Scottish promising youngsters from the Academy who will hopefully develop into Scottish international prospects.
Nor is Scottish football outside Glasgow’s east end devoid of hope. Aberdeen plan a new stadium, Hearts will open a new stand soon to complete the modernisation of Tynecastle, Hibs are back in the SPFL and filling their ground, even Dundee are looking like moving from dens. Rangers may be languishing due to lack of funding and board room squabbling but a club with such a big support will surely one day get their act together? With regards this so called lack of competition, seven different clubs have won the Scottish Cup in the last decade and seven different clubs have won the League cup in that same time period. The big clubs will always dominate in smaller countries as history shows. In Scotland 102 titles have been won by Celtic or Rangers whilst just 19 have been shared by all the other clubs. This is nothing new. The problem isn’t the domination of the title by Celtic, it is the others failing to rise to the challenge Rodgers’ side has lain down.
There’s seems to be an idea that Celtic’s domination of the SPFL is damaging to the game but as in all sports it’s up to the others to raise their game and put in a challenge. Celtic strives to improve each season and is often left to carry the Scottish flag in Europe on their own. Small countries the world over see their national leagues dominated by two or three sides. In Portugal only 2 titles have ever been won by teams outside the ‘big three’ (Benfica, Porto, Sporting CP) and yet their sides do reasonably well in Europe. In Norway, Rosenborg won the title every year from 1992–2004; that’s 13 in a row! Dinamo Zagreb won eleven successive Croatian titles before Rijeka won the league last year. Croatia, population 4.1 million, is ranked ten places above Scotland in UEFA’s coefficient table. Why is that? The Croatian league is poorly supported yet they produce good players who play in the top leagues around Europe. There is the real issue; we are simply not producing enough players of a high enough standard and the footballing authorities in Scotland have dithered for decades about how to reverse this situation.
Scotland’s coefficient as set by UEFA has the SPFL ranked as 26th in Europe. Countries such as Bulgaria, Cyprus, Azerbaijan, Belarus and Romania are all ranked higher than Scotland. This is despite the fact that Scotland is per head of population the best supported league in Europe. The problems in Scotland which affects our teams’ performances in Europe is a failure to produce a high standard of players compounded by low levels of finance in the game here. This is particularly true of the TV deal which sees Celtic receive around £3m for winning the title, a sum which is comfortably beaten by Sky pundit Thierry Henry’s yearly pay cheque.
Around Europe the bigger clubs are using their financial muscle to dominate their domestic leagues. Even in the bigger leagues some teams are ruling the roost year after year. Juventus are currently on six in a row while Bayern sit on five. Even the Champions League looks like a rich man’s club as the same mega rich clubs make it to the last eight every year. Indeed the trophy has been won by Real Madrid or Barcelona for six of the past nine years.
Elements of the media in Scotland should stop carping about Celtic’s success and get down to encouraging clubs in the vital job of producing footballers who will raise the standard of our game. A look at the success of Iceland who rose over 100 places in the UEFA rankings in a decade shows that it can be done. Money was invested in grass roots football, in properly trained coaches and supplying purpose built facilities which helped young players develop their skills all year round in the face of their long, cold winters. Huge, bright bubble like structures have been constructed in the tundra like countryside of one of Europe’s most northerly countries and house training facilities which all can access. If Iceland, with a population of 335,000 can build a team which reached the last 8 of the European Championships then surely a football mad country like Scotland could and should aim to be better than we currently are?
Monopoly is seldom good in any business but Celtic’s current domination of the SPFL is no excuse for the poor performances of Scottish clubs in Europe or the national side’s prolonged failure. We’ve been watching our reputation and performance slump for over thirty years and the response of our footballing authorities has been totally inadequate. It remains to be seen if the SFA’s ‘Project Brave’ spearheaded by ex-Celt Malky McKay will finally start to reverse this decline. I hope it does and we get back to producing top players again.
Celtic’s Academy is beginning to produce some promising players to join the impressive Kieran Tierney. Players like Aidan Nesbit, Anthony Ralston and Calvin Miller may soon be pushing at the first team door and young Dembele looks a real prospect too. We saw home produced players such Tierney, McGregor and Forest in action against Astana and that is always pleasing.
Celtic’s success in reaching the Champions League last season and in doing well in the qualifiers this season is something Scottish football should be proud of. There will always be those who dislike the club for their own reasons but like it or not Celtic are currently the only Scottish side doing anything to improve the battered reputation of our game in Europe. Perhaps some should stop carping and try to build sides which will emulate them. As someone once said, ‘It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.’
In the meantime the Hoops head for Astana and a real chance to once more secure Champions League football and brighten the dark nights of a Scottish autumn for many of us. I’ll head to those matches (should we qualify) with the same excitement I felt as a boy all those years ago when I ran to keep up with my old man as he marched through the streets of Glasgow to Celtic Park.
I still get that thrill when I turn the corner and see the lights of Paradise waiting for me.