Phil Gartside’s plan to revolutionise the Premier League (any personal gain from which to him or his club Bolton Wanderers would, of course, be entirely coincidental) has failed, for now. The issue of relegation from Premier League Two can be stored away for another day (in December 2010, to be precise), and Bolton Wanderers can get on with the small matter of avoiding the relegation that Gartside is so scared of. It was not this aspect of his proposals, however, that attracted the most attention in the media. It was the proposal to invite Celtic and Rangers to join the league that invited the most comment from the fourth estate.
Predictably, Premier League managers could be relied upon for bone-headed comments about how “great” it would be to have two such “massive” clubs in the league. Martin O’Neill, David Moyes and Harry Redknapp were amongst those happy to go on the record as being in favour of the idea without having properly thought it through. Meanwhile, however, Celtic and Rangers’ supporters seemed to be doing their best to undermine any chances of their clubs getting an invitation. Rangers supporters caused trouble in Europe again (and were up before UEFA today, of all days) and then, last weekend, Celtic supporters hardly covered themselves in glory by singing Irish Republican songs during the minute’s silence for Rememberance Sunday last weekend.
Both of these incidents have debates of their own which accompany them, but those are for a different time. What mattered at this particular time was that the two clubs were both demonstrating behaviour that would clearly be perceived as undesirable at a time during which they should, if they wanted into the English Premier League, have been on a charm offensive rather than merely being offensive. What, any rational person would have to conclude, was the advantage to allowing these two clubs in? The list of reasons not to was growing, and concern over the desirability of having the clubs join was only one of the reasons against having them.
We can probably safely discount the moral considerations in the decision-making process of the Premier League. Such matters don’t often overly concern them. The logistical problems, however, were something else altogether. Even if it was ratified, Premier League approval would be only the first hurdle that would need to be cleared. Permission would be needed from both the FA and the SFA. The FA might have turned out to be blinded by the glamour, it seems but if the SFA said no, convention dictates that the FA would have had no choice but to back the decision of their fellow association.
If both associations said yes, it would still have to be cleared by UEFA and FIFA. With England’s 2018 World Cup bid already floundering, it is doubtful that the FA would give their approval. However, there remains a degree of animosity towards the idea of Britain having four separate football associations within FIFA. The idea of forcing a merger to a Great Britain football team if both Scottish and Welsh clubs played inside the English league system might have been a tempting one to some other FIFA members, and both the FA and the SFA are already aware of it. Had the Premier League been ultra-bullish about it, they could have gone head to head with the entire football world over it, but the will clearly wasn’t there even in the hard-headed Premier League to fight for Celtic and Rangers’ admittance into English football.
The other consideration – one which may have been taken into account by the chairmen of English Premier League clubs – was the uniform unpopularity of any plan to allow two Scottish clubs into English football. This, to an extent, goes against received wisdom, which paints all football supporters as being wowed by anything huge and glamorous. We had been constantly told that “this is what the fans want”, but this opinion usually emanated from people that have spent more time in television studios or dressing rooms than on the terraces or queuing for rancid cheeseburgers. Looking for supporters of parachuting Celtic & Rangers wasn’t as easy as might have been expected. There were some that believed there to be nothing wrong with them joining the English system but felt that they should be made to start at the very bottom.
Even in Scotland, support for their departure seemed limited to supporters of other Scottish clubs that have long since been tired of their duopoly on success and media coverage, as well as the behaviour of a proportion of the clubs’ supporters. Even Celtic and Rangers supporters themselves didn’t seem that enthused by the idea. Ultimately, the rejection of the two clubs couldn’t have been more emphatic. The Premier League’s official statement was terse, and to the point:
They [Premier League clubs] were of the opinion that bringing Celtic and Rangers into any form of Premier League set-up was not desirable or viable.
As if that wasn’t emphatic enough, Richard Scudamore, perhaps having sensed the antipathy towards Gartside’s idea, went further than that when asked for his comments after the meeting by Sky Sports News:
There is nothing to say other than what it is in the official statement. The clubs have discussed it as part of strategic development, but as far as Rangers and Celtic are concerned – it’s a non-starter.
Asked to reiterate his statement, he banged the final nail into the coffin. “No means never”, he said. With that, Celtic and Ranger’s hopes died. Where they go from here is anybody’s guess. Unwanted by the English and increasingly despised in Scotland, the proposed Atlantic League remains a get-out clause for them, but will television companies pay for a second-rate Champions League? Are that many people interested in the best two or three clubs in Scotland, Belgium, Holland, Portugal and so on playing each other? Might they have to concede ever being able to play in the Champions League, where the serious money is, and seems likely to remain? All of these questions – and the fact that there is considerable doubt over the answers to all of them – mean that such a league may prove to be unworkable.
There may be a solution for Celtic and Rangers, but it would involve the support of the rest of Scottish football and a sea-change in attitudes. It might be time for Scottish football to go back to larger divisions, with the repetitiveness of playing each other several times per season clearly not having the desired affect upon the game in Scotland. A more equal distribution of television and sponsorship money might allow for more competition. Clubs might be encouraged to spend more money on training academies and bring through young, local players, giving them a possible stream of income. A wage cap may curb clubs from spending too much in the pursuit of success. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Celtic and Rangers may have to be a little more circumspect in their relationship with Scottish football in the immediate future for their own good.
Meanwhile, back in England, Phil Gartside’s ultimate plan – to ensure that Bolton Wanderers eat from the Premier League trough in perpetuity – remains. The Premier League has certainly not dealt with the Premier League 2 with the same force as it has with the notion of the Old Firm joining it, and we can be certain that in six months or a year’s time it will be back on the table, possibly slightly modified but still ultimately seeking to increase revenue without addressing the elephant in the room – that Premier League clubs have had an ongoing cash bonanza since 1992 and still managed, on the whole, to wildly overspend. Even if Gartside was to get his own way, there is little in the recent history of the game to suggest that this particular habit would change.