It is one of the most commonly recurring stories of modern football. Should Celtic and Rangers be allowed to leave the Scottish league system and join the English football league system instead? It’s an emotive subject, for sure, and it’s one that seems to divide both supporters and administrators, with the only people that are certain of which way they would like to go being those that run Glasgow’s two giant clubs, who would like to utilise the vaster resources that would be open to them as a result of being in the more lucrative English system than they would get from remaining in England.
That such a debate should be happening again now is hardly a surprise. Speculation has restarted over the last few days that Celtic are in negotiation with the Football League over being allowed to jettison the Scottish Premier League and join the English league system in League One. Whilst there is little solid to confirm how far such discussions have progressed, it could be argued that the fact that joining League One has been mentioned is a specific enough frame of reference for there to be something in this story. It could also be considered that this specific position in the league system reflects the extent to which the clubs of the Championship dominate the Football League, and that the idea of “compromise” may be being considered. The public south of the border might be less outraged if it was “only” League One and below that were inconvenienced by the arrival of interlopers from Scotland.
But should Celtic be allowed to move south, and if they should, then what form should this movement take? The benefits to the club itself are obvious enough. The plump television money that the English league system offers, on top of the vast gate and commercial revenues that a club the size of Celtic could command, might offer the club an opportunity to become one of the wealthiest in Europe. The enfeebling of Rangers as a result of the mismanagement that has left that club in the dismal position in which it finds itself today is also a matter that may have led to some degree of soul-searching at Celtic Park. Some have suggested that the Old Firm are two sides of the same coin, and the argument that Celtic need Rangers and vice-versa – an argument that is limited in substance – has been thrown around with increasing regularity as the breadth of the crisis engulfing Ibrox has become more and more apparent.
There are, however, logistical problems that would need to be overcome should Celtic be able to transfer into the English league system. These aren’t necessarily issues related to public opinion. Those that run the game in England seldom seem to take in much other than a relentless chase for money, and a not inconsiderable number of supporters in Scotland may well be of the opinion that shedding the Old Firm – for if Celtic were to transfer to England, it would surely be inevitable that either this incarnation of Rangers or one that would follow it – would make their league considerably more competitive.
Institutionally, however, things become more different. The obvious precedent that will be thrown around in the event of this matter being taken any further is that of Swansea City, Cardiff City, Wrexham and the other Welsh clubs that play within the English league system. To suggest that this would mean that UEFA, the FA or the SFA would merely sign off the results of any negotiations between Celtic and the Football League, though, might be a little on the optimistic side. The reasoning behind Welsh clubs continuing to play in the English league system is largely a cultural and historical one. There was no Welsh national league until the early 1990s, and expecting clubs to adjust downwards to join the newly-formed League of Wales (now the Welsh Premier League) was a stretch too far for those clubs. UEFA have strict rules on such matters, and it would be likely that agreement of UEFA, the FA and the SFA before any move could be made, and it is also possible that FIFA would take an interest in such a matter.
If convincing all of these authorities that such a decision would be something of a stretch, then perhaps the renewed debate over whether this may happen should be seen in a slightly different context – as an attempt at leverage with regard to the future Celtic’s position within Scottish football. Events at Ibrox over the last few weeks have led to the increased vocalising of a viewpoint that has been gaining considerable traction in recent years, that Scottish domestic football isn’t working in its present format, and that something has to be done to save the Scottish league system from eventual bankruptcy. With a feeling that everything, with regard to the future of the SPL and the SFL, could be up for grabs, it could even be considered that Celtic is sending a message to all concerned that too much egalitarianism will weaken their club and that they will be happy to go elsewhere should the opportunity arise.
Whether this is the case or not, there is a striking irony in such a debate raising its head again as Scottish independence starts to seem more likely than it has done at any point in the last three hundred years or so, all the more so because it is Celtic, with all the political history implied, that may be leading the running in the race south of the border. This, however, is very much in keeping with the economic and political reality of the twenty-first century, in which money shouts and all other considerations are left firmly in the shade. If the Premier League, the Football League and the FA were to agree to Celtic moving south, it would be the clearest indicator yet that there is no tradition too great to cast aside in the pursuit of chasing greater riches. And while supporters both north and south of the border can agree that the top heavy nature of the amount of influence that Celtic and Rangers hold over the SPL, all concerned should be approaching such an idea with a considerable amount of caution. Where, we might reasonably ask, would the approval of such an idea end? After all, Pandora’s box may prove difficult to close once it has been opened.
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