The fact that Rangers and Celtic believe themselves to be too big for Scottish football is one of the oldest stories around but, as Gavin Saxton writes, their biggest problem is that the English don’t really want them and “The Atlantic League” remains a non-starter.
It hadn’t been a great week for the Old Firm, starting with results that put their lowly status in Europe into perspective and finishing with a mildly critical piece on the famous ‘twohundredpercent’ football blog, so I suppose it was inevitable that it was time once again for both clubs to do what they do when times are hard: to talk once again about leaving the backwaters of the Scottish Premier League behind them and finding somewhere more lucrative to play. This week they didn’t compare notes first – or else they’ve decided it’s better to keep both options on the agenda at once – so while Peter Lawwell (Celtic) has been speaking of his ambitions to play in the Unibond League, Martin Bain (Rangers) has again floated the idea of an Atlantic League to contain all those teams from Portugal, Belgium, the Nertherlands, and anyone else who thinks they’re worth more money then their current circumstances can provide them. At present, neither of these ideas stands up to a great deal of scrutiny. Not because of the barriers the clubs themselves tend to quote, overcoming UEFA rules and suchlike, but because the ideas themselves are flawed and there’s no great will to make them happen.
The Atlantic League was mooted a few years back and fell at the first hurdle. It would be made up of maybe eighteen clubs from half a dozen countries, all of whom are currently perennial European qualifers from their present set-ups. Their idea was that while competing in a separate league, all of these clubs would nonetheless retain their European spots through their continued affiliation to their own countries. As soon as UEFA made it clear there was no way such an arrangement would be allowed – that even if such a league could be formed they’d have to compete for their own handful of European spots like everyone else – interest in the idea evaporated. The motivation, after all, is entirely financial, so there’d be little point in cutting off one major source of revenue to create another. The idea still crops up now and then but nothing has changed, and it’s very difficult to see such a league working out. Some versions of the plans include relegation to and from domestic league – although I can’t see how that would be reconciled with European qualification from those domestic leagues, ot with Rangers’ plan of leaving a reserve side back home (though I trust that part of their plan would be firmly rejected anyway). The alternative is for the Atlantic League to fence off the big teams and have no relegation, leaving most of the league to play out the season with meaningless games. It’s difficult to see people wanting to pay two or three hundred quid a time to get to away games in such circumstances, and I’ve seen little support for the idea among match-going fans.
So then to the English option. This is, I’m sure, the one they’d much prefer, and there’s no doubt that for them it would be an enticing prospect from a sporting as well as a financial point of view. The SPL this season is earning around £13 million from TV rights to be split across the whole league, comfortably less than half of what even the bottom team in the English Premier League will earn alone. And from a sporting point of view, the prospect of big away days at Old Trafford and Anfield is of course a good deal more exciting than another trip to Rugby Park, while remaining much more feasible for away fans. While they realise they would not be able to walk straight into such a scenario, they are desparate enough to get there one day that Lawwell commented this week that they would be prepared to start at the bottom of the system and work their way up. Though I suspect by “the bottom” he meant the second tier of a revamped EPL rather than the Northern League Division 2.
Which brings us to Phil Gartside’s proposal. For all the Old Firm’s attempts to seduce the English leagues, the Bolton Chariman is the only – or at least the most prominent – person to have been sold on the idea thus far, and the EPL is set to discuss his ideas for a two-tier Premier League of 18 teams each, to include the Glasgow two, at a meeting next month. Quite simply, at this stage, it’s not going to happen. Not because it’s against UEFA’s rules, UEFA have already hinted that they will be happy to bend those rules if required; nor is it because of opposition from the SFA – though there would be at least some such opposition. If the SFA were so convinced that a one-off Olympic team would be such a threat to their independence then it’s hard to believe a permanent arrangement such as this wouldn’t represent a much bigger one. Nonetheless this could and would be overcome.
The reason it won’t happen is because there’s no indication that anyone in England, besides Gartside, wants it to. What is there to gain? Few of the fans seem to want it, the much-publicised trouble with Rangers fans in Manchester last year did little to further the cause, and if it might create some extra media interest and yet more money then what of it? The EPL is awash with cash and clubs towards the bottom of the league will be more concerned with keeping what they have than in risking their place in the league to try and increase it a little further. (Granted, Portsmouth and West Ham fans might quibble with that “awash with cash” statement at the moment, but I think even they would recognise those problems are of a more structural nature and nothing to do with the Premier League failing to maximise its TV revenue.)
For the time being then, it’s a non-starter, but personally I wouldn’t rule out it happening some day. At some point in the future, maybe in five years, maybe in twenty-five, the Premier League down south will run into a trough in its fortunes and find its product, for whatever reason, worth less than it had been at its peak. That’s the point at which their will will be put to the test, and the possibility of rekindling interest and raising extra cash by such means might sway them. Time will tell, but that time is not now.
This all leaves Celtic and Rangers holding a distinctly uneasy relationship with their fellow clubs in Scotland. There is palpable anger among some of them – not only for complaining about the lack of competition within the league while continuing to hog the lion’s share of its resources, but also because such public statements as have been made this week undermine the league further and make it more difficult to make the most even of such sponsorship opportunities as do exist. Opinion is left divided between those who would thus be glad to see the back of them and believe a league without them would be healthier for being more competitive, and those who believe the undoubted loss of revenue would lower standards and weaken the league still further. I incline to the former opinion, but I acknowledge it’s a very easy opinion to hold when you’re not the one having to balance the books. At any rate, if and when the opportunity does come for Celtic and Rangers to move elsewhere, I don’t envisage anyone up here going to a lot of trouble to stand in their way.