Wednesday, May 2, 2012
A city divided
This week's North of the Border examines an Old Firm derby that highlighted the divergence in Celtic and Rangers' fortunes.
A CITY DIVIDED
Monday's Manchester derby was about two rivals duelling for supremacy, but in Glasgow the previous day the Old Firm match was a snapshot of two clubs that have spent a generation jostling exclusively at the top of the SPL but who face very different futures. These outcomes were reflected in the 3-0 win for Celtic over Rangers.
If this is to be the last Old Firm derby for Rangers in its current form - liquidation is now the most likely end for them - it will stand as unique. It is hard to recall one where football was talked about less in the build-up to the game. Instead, the story was about the ongoing wait for Duff & Phelps, the administrator in charge of Rangers, to select a preferred bidder; it was about the SPL's dithering in agreeing new, more severe penalties for insolvent clubs; it was about the consequences that await Rangers whichever way they turn.
At Celtic Park, we were reminded finally of the weight behind the home side's first championship in four years. Celtic dominated the game and won it with no little style. Rangers' goalkeeper, Allan McGregor, made several big saves to limit the damage; the Scotland man is the most valuable player at Ibrox and remains a target for more than one team in the Premier League.
Celtic's goals came from Charlie Mulgrew, Kris Commons and Gary Hooper. Mulgrew has had the season of his life and is a nominee for Player of the Year; Commons scored his first of a season that has included injury to his person and reputation as he fell from view at Celtic Park, but one that has ended with a reminder of the quality Celtic have in reserve; Hooper instantly calmed reports of a transfer to Southampton, who cannot offer the Champions League football that may now become a cast-iron lure for their own targets in the medium term.
Celtic Park was adorned with a banner representing the four horsemen of the apocalypse: Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager; Hector, the cartoon taxman; the grim reaper; and Craig Whyte, who remains Rangers' majority shareholder. There were also gravestones and a banner that read: "Your grandchildren will be Celtic fans". The end of the season has huge implications for Rangers. On and off the pitch, they approach it wounded and vulnerable, as never before.
ONE RULE FOR THEM...
The SPL put off its vote on penalties for insolvent clubs and other financial fair play legislation, which was due to take place on Monday. The reason given by chief executive Neil Doncaster was that "passions were running high". An adjournment until Monday will, the league hopes, allow the situation at Rangers to move on, although that train wreck of a story appears no closer to clarity at the time of writing. Also postponed is a vote on changes to the voting structure within the SPL, which currently demands an 11-1 majority for major change. The Gang of Ten, as the non-Old Firm clubs have been tagged, may be holding out for liquidation at Ibrox and a new company (newco) Rangers seeking entry into the SPL at a cost.
The debate last week tilted on the penalties that the league will put together for Rangers as a result of the mess the club is in. Ally McCoist, the Rangers manager, made the distinction between what is "morally right" and what is "right for Scottish football". Rangers deserve to be punished, this argument goes, but they must be treated as a special case as their sport in Scotland depends upon them.
This gets to the core of some of the most interesting questions facing Scottish football as a result of all of this. McCoist is absolutely right in identifying the two paths that lie ahead of the men who will decide on Rangers' punishment, either as a newco or in the unlikely scenario that they exit administration through a company voluntary agreement.
If Rangers are allowed into the SPL as a newco - which is the most likely decision the league will have to make on current evidence - is the value they bring to the league greater or less than that which it loses by compromising so clearly its sporting integrity?
Roger Mitchell, the first chief executive of the SPL, cut to the chase. "The clubs vote principally through self-interest and they will all have had a word with their bank managers, who will have said, 'Whatever you do, make sure you still have revenue from a television deal and from Rangers fans coming through the turnstiles'."
In outlining the way that the decision-making process is also hugely compromised by the precarious financial situation most SPL clubs exist in, Mitchell raises a broader issue: how can sporting integrity ever take priority over economics in a league that is governed by its own member clubs?
BLACK OUT AT TYNECASTLE
Ian Black is the latest player to be told he will not be retained by Hearts this summer. Black, according to the first-team coach, Gary Locke, is "close to being [Hearts'] player of the season". He is also an example of the kind of signing the club have consistently got right in the period in which they have most regularly been the best of the teams outside the Old Firm. He was recruited in his mid-20s, from an SPL club - Inverness Caledonian Thistle - when out of contract. Yet he will move on for nothing, also, and leave a hole in the Hearts midfield.
The same can't be said for David Obua, who will also leave. His signing was typical of many more at Tynecastle - acquired from overseas and on a weighty contract that he has never appeared to merit. It is this kind of recruitment that has left Hearts with a suffocating wage bill that they will cut drastically during the close season.
The confirmation of Black's departure is proof that no amount of talent is worth more to the club than its drive to turn the league's highest wages-to-turnover ratio to a break-even, academy-based first team in one brutal summer.
We have a ball game at the bottom of the SPL. Last weekend saw Dunfermline Athletic earn their very first home win of the season, 24 hours before Hibernian lost to St Mirren. Hibs ended the weekend three points clear of Dunfermline with three to play, including a head-to-head in Edinburgh on Monday night.
Both clubs changed managers mid-season, although Jim Jefferies came in at Dunfermline far later in the game. Pat Fenlon oversaw a massive player turnover in January and has taken Hibs to the final of the Scottish Cup, where they will try to end their 110-year wait for that trophy in the first all-Edinburgh final since the 19th century. Many Hibs supporters would sacrifice their place in the SPL for victory at Hampden.
Dunfermline have no such distractions and, post-split, both teams have only to play the league's poorer sides, who have no comparable motivation and may even use the dead zone at the end of the SPL campaign to try out younger players.
The match at Easter Road on Monday will not be pretty, but I wouldn't want to miss it, either.