Flaking Out the SPL
Typically the quality of a pie, whether savoury and sweet, tends to be judged first on the crust. After all, this is the first thing you see before considering purchasing a pie, the contents of which might never be fully known until you take that first bite. A crust appearing soggy, doughy, and rather bland usually sees the pie being passed over in lieu of the pie with a beautiful, flaky crust that suggests an artisan’s hand has touched what will surely be a delectable edible. The same can be said of football, where judgement passed on the upper crust of a nation’s clubs tends to colour perceptions on those just below. The English Premiership is the best in the world in part because Sky Sport tells us so but also because that league’s top clubs consistently advance deep in the later stages of Champions League competitions. La Liga draws attention for its top two sides doing the same and doing so with the flair of some of the best players in world football populating their squadsheets. Bundesliga’s crust might seem a bit thin, with only Bayern Munich a regular participant among Europe’s best, but the occasional strong side comes along additionally, capturing just enough attention to compel us to take a bite.
Another essential part of a good pie, though, is the filling, which is why even if the English and Spanish crusts might be a bit thick, the German a bit thin, and the Italian and French crusts doughy and uneven at times, consumers still choose a slice of those leagues because there is a depth of quality underneath worth digging into. While certainly not adequate, this does provide an explanation why many turn their noses up and walk away from Scottish football at the present. With the dominant sides from Glasgow presenting a dry and cracked top to the Scottish Premier League pie, the filling, usually comprised of Hearts, Motherwell, Hibernian, and Dundee United, also seems to lack substance and comes with a starchy aftertaste.
Occasionally, Vladimir Romanov tosses in a bit of spice, but even his dash of hot sauce fails to last for long, and the product returns to being slightly bland. In the most recent rounds of European matches, it was widely critiqued that the Old Firm crashed out disappointingly not only for their supporters but also for those of the league, while Hearts were broken by Tottenham at their home grounds roughly a half hour into the tie. What might have been overlooked–likely because it happened a fortnight previously–was that Scotland’s fourth European side, Dundee United, crashed out of Europa League qualifying to Polish club Śląsk Wrocław. Peter Houston’s squad had traveled to Wroclaw and escaped with only a 1-0 loss to open the tie, yet fell apart back at Tannadice, when the decisive 2nd away goal for Śląsk was allowed with 15 minutes to play. United finished out the match 3-2 winners and until Celtic was awarded default 3-0 victories following UEFA’s decision to eject Swiss club FC Sion, were the only SPL club to record a victory in Europe this season. If UEFA’s reinstatement of Celtic in Europa League holds–pending further appeals from Sion–it might have been the Terrors flying the Saltire in Europe alongside Hoops rather than there being a lone Old Firm representative, which might have tempted observers to have a rethink of the depth of quality in the Scottish top flight.
Only the twice baked apple pie, with a burnt crust, on offer? Most would pass that up, admitting they were on a football diet of some sort and had to cut back on the calories.
This assessment applies not only to the performances of Scottish clubs in Europe but also with respect to domestic league matters. When Rangers lost ties to Swedish side Malmö FF and later Slovenian club NK Maribor, that half of the flimsy upper crust of the SPL lost out to representatives of countries ranked considerably lower by UEFA (Scotland’s top flight ranks 15th, while Sweden’s is 28th and Slovenia’s 38th). While Switzerland is relatively at the same level as the SPL (16th by 2011 UEFA rankings), FC Sion is a mid-level club in the Swiss league, and probably should have been beaten on the pitch rather than on a technicality by one of the top two sides in the Scottish Premier League.
If clubs of this calibre can bring the Old Firm to task, those Scottish sides filling the top half of the SPL table should be doing the same throughout this season, rather than receding into the shadows with a twenty plus point gap between 2nd and 3rd as Celtic and Rangers continue their seemingly eternal duopoly atop the league. St Johnstone have already exorcised their nine year curse at Parkhead earlier this year, and that surprising 1-0 victory over Celtic a few weeks ago came at a time when Saints had yet to score a league goal. Motherwell, which has been on fine form to begin their campaign, failed at their first hurdle when they allowed their first goals of the season in a 0-3 loss to Rangers at Fir Park 21 August. The next test for the Steelmen will be found at Celtic Park, and hopefully Well boss Stuart McCall prepares his lads to attack Celtic’s back line rather than just sitting back in a defensive shell and hoping for a draw. The same should be on Houston’s mind when the Terrors travel to Ibrox on the same weekend.
The crust is weak and broken and it is unlikely to be regaining it flaky, golden brown appearance over the next few years; perhaps it is time for an apple turnover.
How should this be done by the other SPL sides, particularly considering any plan with attacking football opens themselves up to potentially gaudy positive goal differentials against Rangers and Celtic as well as the loss of three points? Returning to Motherwell, part of their success thus far has been in goal. Darren Randolph has already recorded three clean sheets in six matches, and his performances between the sticks have earned Well points that otherwise might not have been on offer. Motherwell’s draw with Killie might have been illustrative, because while Killie was peppering Randolph’s goal, forcing him into five saves, Well was doing the same against Scotland keeper Cammy Bell, and the result was a goalless draw. Rather than considering this a poor match from strikers who could not hit the broad side of a barn on the day, it might have just been a good performance out of two keepers, and a way forward for those other SPL clubs to crack that crust.
This is admittedly an incomplete suggestion, likely as ridiculous as comparing a football league to a pie. Identifying an area of concern, however, might be a sight better than the generall call often heard for developing the youth game (which youth, how?) and more specific than the Scottish FA’s statements on working with the clubs to address issues of competition through adjusting the number of clubs in the top flight, or starting the season early, or implementing the winter break again.
Help clubs like Dundee United identify and develop quality players in the nets, and that pie just might start looking tasty again.