Arsene Wenger might think the Scots are still influential in Europe, but he’s about the only person left who does. It being October, it must be just about time for Scottish football pundits to do their usual soul-searching, surveying the wreckage of another failed qualification campaign for the national team, while both the Old Firm sit bottom of the European groups and all the various other qualifying round defeats are already forgotten along with most of the names of the East European teams who inflicted them. Plus ça change, as the French might put it.
Yet despite the general doom and gloom on the wider scene – or maybe because of it – enthusiasm remains undimmed for the first Glasgow derby of the season. I generally lean to the theory that the biggest and most famous rivalries are not necessarily the fiercest – that if you want a really tasty local derby you should head to Stoke or Bristol rather than Manchester or north London – but Glasgow is the big exception to that, and despite the greater frequency of these games the passions are as strong as ever, the pubs throughout the land once again full with green and blue replica shirts, and Radio Scotland works itself into its usual frenzy.
For this non-Old Firm fan the interest, such as it is, was to see just how bad Rangers are at the moment. If, as English football is rapidly discovering, increasing sums of money sloshing around the league has a tendency to increase the polarisation between the best and the rest, then maybe there’d be some hope that the more straitened circumstances in the SPL might reduce the effect. One or two other managers have even been indiscreet enough to say so, and if they do have a target within the top two there’s no doubt it’s Rangers they’re thinking of despite last year’s championship win. Such statements are mostly wishful thinking, particularly as no one else is setting any heather on fire behind them, but Rangers came into this game on the back of three straight goalless draws in the league as well as the midweek thumping from Sevilla, and with their financial circumstances in such state that they’ve had no money to spend in the last couple of transfer windows.
The evidence of today’s game, sadly, is that they’re not quite bad enough to be worth getting excited about. The other way of looking at it would be to note that Celtic didn’t look any great shakes either, and certainly you couldn’t claim that Rangers had to work very hard to create their early goals – Celtic’s defence opened up invitingly for Kenny Miller to stick a pair of slightly unconvincing prods past Boruc, and having responded almost immediately with a penalty Celtic failed to create much in the way of chances as they chased the game for the remaining hour and more. Back in the studio some blonde lass in a low cut top, aided and abetted by the ever-insightless Charlie Nicholas, tried to persuade me it had been a breathless game of non-stop action, but frenetic is about the kindest word one could find for it.
Long gone are the days when Laudrup or Moravcik could light up these games with a bit of inspiration; of the current crop, only Aiden McGeady can provide the odd bit of real magic, and even he’s much too flaky to ever convince you of the likelihood that he might be actually about to do so. But then derbies are rarely great games, it ended up being a perfectly competent performance that gave Rangers the three points and prevented them drifting too far behind at this early stage of the season.
The top two remain the top two then, after twenty four hours during which Hibernian nipped in between them, and any vague hopes of a sea change in Scottish football are quickly scotched once again. At least part of the problem may be that because a certain degree of the current financial straitening in Scottish football has been across the board, everyone has been affected – not just Celtic and Rangers. If these two have deteriorated (and it’s not wholly unreasonable to suggest that the current teams may be the worst Celtic or Rangers teams of the last twenty years), then the rest of the SPL often gives off the air of having deteriorated by a similar proportion. More troubling still for Rangers and Celtic supporters is that any hopes that either of these two might soon be a force again outside of their own back yard look equally forlorn.