Thursday 22 March 2018

Brian Kerr: Old Firm rivalry is dying

Brendan Rodgers applauds the Celtic supporters after their 5-1 win over Rangers earlier this season. The diminishing of their great rivalry is of no benefit to the Hoops. Photo: Steve Welsh/Getty Images
Brendan Rodgers applauds the Celtic supporters after their 5-1 win over Rangers earlier this season. The diminishing of their great rivalry is of no benefit to the Hoops. Photo: Steve Welsh/Getty Images

Brian Kerr

It is a measure of how far Rangers - indeed Scottish football - has fallen that a key part of the narrative surrounding this weekend's Old Firm game has focused on Frank McAvennie's assertion that Celtic could beat Rangers by seven or eight goals.

Frankly, Mr McAvennie, they won't. While their opening meeting of the season at Celtic Park ended in a 5-1 drubbing, Rangers have restricted Celtic to just three goals in the two subsequent derbies.

And while Celtic's record against Scottish opposition this season has been extraordinary - 33 wins and a draw from 34 games - the reality is that they haven't been beating their nearest rivals by seven or eight goals.

Now, by saying 'nearest', I realise some clarification is required. Second-placed Aberdeen are 27 points adrift of Celtic, with Rangers a further six points back. And the one-sidedness of the contest has done no-one any favours, particularly Celtic.

When Rangers were demoted to the Scottish Third Division after entering the liquidation process in 2012, Neil Lennon, who was Celtic's manager at the time, was asked if they'd be missed.

"Not necessarily," Neil said, which was understandable from his point of view - given how he had been on the end of some vile abuse from Rangers fans, which included a sinister episode when a deranged supporter sent a bullet through the post to Lennon's home.

Yet when viewed from a sporting and financial perspective, it's clear that the four-year period Rangers spent in the lower leagues didn't do anyone any good. Not the 54-times Scottish champions, who managed to retain a loyal support base despite the clear decline of their playing standards.

And not Celtic - who didn't receive a contest in any of the years Rangers were away, winning the league title by an average of 19.25 points over the course of those four seasons.

Paul Gascoigne gestures to Celtic’s Jackie McNamara back when Rangers could still attract star names and the rivalry was red hot. Photo: Clive Mason/Allsport
Paul Gascoigne gestures to Celtic’s Jackie McNamara back when Rangers could still attract star names and the rivalry was red hot. Photo: Clive Mason/Allsport

They're en route to winning it by an even greater margin this season, the sixth year in succession they have claimed Scottish football's biggest prize.

Now given that this week marks the 50th anniversary of Celtic's European Cup quarter-final win over Yugoslavian side Vojvodina, in 1967, talk of the Jock Stein era and their acquisition of nine titles in a row is inevitable.

With Rangers still in disarray, thoughts will soon turn to the prospect of this generation of Celtic players breaking that record, something Rangers just narrowly failed to do in the 1997-98 season, after winning the previous nine titles.

Will this run of Celtic's be viewed in the same light, though? It's hardly likely, given firstly how the Celtic team under Stein's tutelage also proved themselves on a consistent basis in European football, winning the European Cup in 1967 and reaching the final in 1970.

Rangers, at the time, were also a credible force: Cup Winners' Cup finalists in 1967 and winners of the competition six years later.

Plus, when Graeme Souness and then Walter Smith led them on their nine-in-a-row charge, it was against the backdrop of Scottish football going through an impressive period.

Notwithstanding the fact their national team qualified for five World Cups in a row from 1974 to 1990, and also reached the finals of Euro 92, Euro 96 and the 1998 World Cup, you also have to consider that 'the new firm' were still forces in the late 1980s.

Hard as this is to believe now, in 1987 Dundee United reached the UEFA Cup final, beating Barcelona home and away in the quarter-finals. In that same era, Hearts beat Bayern Munich in Europe.

And while the Aberdeen side guided by Alex Ferguson to Cup Winners' Cup glory in 1983, had broken up somewhat by the time Rangers started their charge, they remained a good team - good enough to bring the title to the last day of the season in 1991.

When you bear in mind the quality of players Rangers were able to sign at that time - England internationals Terry Butcher, Chris Wood, Gary Stevens and Trevor Steven were followed by Mark Hateley and Paul Gascoigne to Ibrox - it's clear that the Scottish league was a lot better then than it is now.

European results back that theory up. In the 1992-93 season, Rangers came desperately close to reaching the Champions League final.

Celtic can no longer afford the wages of Victor Wanyama who left Glasgow for Southampton. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Celtic can no longer afford the wages of Victor Wanyama who left Glasgow for Southampton. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Brian Laudrup, Denmark's inspiration when they won the European championships in 1992, was a key figure in their success that decade.

But last summer, their signings included two players - Matt Crooks and Josh Windass, brought in from Accrington, and of course, Joey Barton. Unsurprisingly, they've struggled.

But Celtic, on the surface at least, haven't.

Financially, they are sensibly structured. The size and loyalty of their fan-base allows them to generate impressive income from their home games, yet in comparison to the TV rights that clubs in English Premier League receive, they're in the ha'penny place.

And that's having an immediate impact on the type of players they have to buy. While Moussa Dembele was a superb acquisition - costing just £500,000 from Fulham last year, and now worth an estimated £30m - the reality is that Celtic will probably lose him at some stage within the next 15 months.

And that has become a recurring theme in the modern-day Celtic story. They buy young and promising players and then sell them on for big fees, with Dembele likely to follow the path trodden by Fraser Forster, Virgil van Dijk, Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper - players who generated a £35m profit for the club.

Yet even though they strengthened the club's finances, the loss of that quartet weakened the team, and losing his main players was a key reason behind Neil Lennon's eventual resignation.

Since then, the Ronny Deila regime brought a couple of league titles but little domestic cup success, while there was even less to shout about in Europe, where Celtic's players found the gap between weekend tussles with Inverness, Dundee and St Johnstone and midweek contests against Maribor, Malmo and Legia Warsaw too big to bridge.

Nonetheless, they performed creditably in Europe this season, securing three draws from their six group stage matches, benefiting clearly from the presence of Brendan Rodgers in their dug-out.

"I can only be what I am, which is super-ambitious," Rodgers said recently. "But my ambition is for the club. I grew up supporting Celtic.

"I could never affect that as a player because I was never good enough. But as a manager I know that, however long I am here, I want to do what's the very best for the club and the supporters - and that's to give them the best."

The thing is, though, that the supporters aren't getting "the best". In fact, they are getting something close to the "worst" in terms of the opposing teams they are watching Celtic play against.

With the exception of Celtic, the results of Scottish teams in Europe this decade have been diabolical. And unless they come up with an effective and innovative plan - possibly following the Irish model by switching their league from a winter to a summer season - then they are going to be continually poor for some time.

As for Celtic, their chances of progressing are limited. Chained to their own country's league, when it was blindingly obvious that Dermot Desmond, their majority shareholder, wanted to relocate the club to the English league a decade or so ago, Celtic are in desperate need of some revolutionary action to take place.

Were they granted the keys to the lower English leagues, I have no doubt they would work their way up and reach the Premier League, where the revenue generated by TV money would allow them to afford the type of wages that Wanyama, Van Dijk and Forster were being offered elsewhere.

Alternatively, the creation of a European super-league might allow them access to the high end of the market.

Realistically, though, they just have to put up with what they have, and that is seeing the evolution of a team who are thriving under Rodgers' management.

Getting the Ulsterman on board was a major statement for Celtic to make, because he had been a success at Liverpool, despite how things ended, and has got Celtic playing with a rhythm, pace and a style that they lacked under Deila.

Scott Brown is playing well, the best we have seen from him in a couple of years, while Kieran Tierney has proved to be a better player than Emilio Izaguirre.

Also, his signings have worked. In Scott Sinclair, he has rejuvenated a player who appeared to be drifting nowhere in England. Patrick Roberts is a fine prospect, while Dembele - scorer of 32 goals in 44 games this season - never fails to excite, even if former Rangers hero Ally McCoist offered the view that "he wasn't worth £30m".

The marketplace dictates prices, though, and it would be no surprise to me if he was moved on in the summer.

Strange as this may sound to a Celtic supporter, but they'll hope Rangers move in a new direction then, too, because if they are to close the gap to the elite teams in Europe, then they need greater competition in their domestic league.

Rangers' new manager Pedro Caixinha is under pressure to turn things around. The Portuguese has been Al-Gharafa manager since December 2015. They finished ninth in the Qatar Stars League last season and are now fifth in the table as they enter their mid-season break. The Rangers job is a tougher proposition.

"Second place is last to their supporters," said Mark Warburton, the previous Ibrox incumbent.

"What the first team needs is investment," McCoist said. "Clearly you don't want to put the club in any financial trouble again. But for Rangers to improve on the park, massive investment is needed."

For their sake - but also for Celtic's - you hope they get it.

Irish Independent

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