What Would Rangers And Celtic Bring To The Premier League?
For many years now, the topic of inviting the Glasgow giants Celtic and Rangers to play in the English league structure has been kicked around and debated. The idea seems to get revived every couple of years or so, with various figures from football kicking it around.
Both of the Old Firm, as the duo are collectively nicknamed, certainly would like access to the greater riches of the Premier League. They would also relish the additional competition that the English league would provide, which would, in turn, help them to become more competitive in European competition.
Currently, both sides of the Glasgow divide would love their clubs to become more successful in Europe. Both have something of a history in European competition. Celtic were the first British winners of the European Cup, now the Champions League, in 1967. They won that trophy with a team consisting entirely of players born within 30 miles of Glasgow. They also reached the final of the competition in 1970, when they were beaten by Ajax.
More recently, the Celts reached the UEFA Cup final in 2003, when 80,000 of their fans travelled to Seville for the final. Unfortunately for those fans, they were beaten by Portuguese outfit Porto, who were coached by a certain Jose Mourinho, then at the beginning of his impressive managerial career.
Rangers too have some European history, having won the European Cup Winners Cup in 1972, and were finalists in that competition in 1967. More recently, they were Europa League finalists in 2008, when Zenit St Peterburg beat them in the final in Manchester.
For clubs of the size of the Old Firm, that is a record with a paucity of real success. Playing in the Premier League would be one way that they could hope to become richer, better and more competitive in Europe.
That is certainly what former Rangers and Scotland midfielder Barry Ferguson thought, when asked about the possibility of the Old Firm playing in England in September 2017.
“With their current squad, Celtic would certainly hold their own in the Premier League,” he told Betsafe.com.
“For me, they wouldn’t be in the relegation zone and they would control a place easily in the Premier League.
“On the other hand, Rangers I’m not too sure. With their new squad, I haven’t seen enough of them and it’s still early doors for a lot of these players so it’s hard to say.
“I think the two clubs would eventually be a force three or four years after they did get down to the Premier League, as the finances would then start to come into the clubs.
“You just need to look at the two stadiums and the fan base. If the two teams went a spent a bit of time down in England, I’m sure they would become a force in time.”
One thing that the Old Firm clubs do have is an abundance of fans. Attendances at Ibrox and Parkhead are the envy of many English clubs. Celtic average just under 58,000 for home games at Celtic Park, while the Gers have an average crowd at Ibrox of just under 50,000.
Those kinds of attendances make for lively and passionate crowds, with the atmosphere at Parkhead having helped Celtic achieve some great results in European competition over the last couple of decades. Rangers too have enjoyed some fine European nights, where the passion of their fans has helped spur them on to great performances.
The two clubs would certainly bring big away followings to English grounds, as well as plenty of colour and passion.
Rangers, of course, have suffered from massive financial problems in the recent past, having been disbanded and refounded as a new club, thanks to the raft of legal and tax issues that the club faced. The sanctions for that included having to start again from the bottom of the Scottish league structure.
Nevertheless, access to the Premier League’s wealth would undoubtedly help to put Rangers on a more even financial footing. Their status as one of Scotland’s largest cultural institutions would also help insure them against a repeat of their previous financial woes, if they were playing in the English structure.
Celtic, however, are in excellent financial health. Recent figures released by the club show that, in the six months prior to December 2017, revenues rose by amost 17 per cent to £71.5million, up from £61.2m in 2016. Pre-tax profit also increased to £19.5m, which was up from £18.6m the year before. The club’s trading profit rose as well. In 2016 it was £21.4m, but by the end of 2017 it was at £23.7m.
That financial health would surely only increase if the club had access to the kind of revenue streams on offer in the Premier League. That, in turn, given their widespread and numerous support, could make them into a true giant of the European game. The depth of support for Celtic across the world would mean that there was little chance of them ‘doing a Portsmouth’, and becoming a financial basket case and dropping down the divisions. As long as the board continued its competent handling of the club’s finances, of course.
One thing that is attached to the Old Firm, though, is the old scourge of sectarianism. Celtic, whose roots lie in Glasgow’s Irish Catholic community, still have a majority Catholic following. They also have massive support amongst Catholic communities in Ireland, both in the Republic and the North. Rangers, on the other hand, draw their support mainly from people whose stated religion is Protestant, both in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
This has led to some ugly incidents in the history of the two clubs. Both sets of fans are known to sing some songs which can be viewed as being in questionable taste. Hoops fans have been known to regale folk with tunes like ‘The Roll of Honour’ which commemorates dead IRA volunteers. Rangers, in turn, are known for their song ‘The Billy Boys’ which references wading through “Fenian blood.”
Flags have also been flown celebrating political causes, linked both to Ireland and elsewhere. Celtic fans displayed Palestinian flags at a European game, a move which saw the club sanctioned by UEFA. Rangers supporters, in turn, have flown Israeli flags at games. There has also been the controversy attached to the so-called Famine Song, where Rangers fans advise Scots of Irish descent that the “the Famine’s over/you can all go home,” a reference to the Great Hunger that afflicted Ireland in the 1840s.
Whether the sanitised, squeaky clean fan culture of the Premier League is ready to deal with such issues remains open to question. The Premier League would certainly not enjoy having to deal with the fall-out from such behaviour, should the clubs come into the English structure.
Another way in which the Old Firm could be expected to bring something to the English game would be in the potential size of TV audiences across the world. Both clubs are well-supported in the global Scottish and Irish diasporas, especially in English speaking countries like Australia, Canada and the USA.
But that level of interest has not been matched in England, with just 275,000 watching the Old Firm derby game in October 2017. That was fewer than watched the Championship clash between Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa on the same day of the season. Interest might rise if the two clubs were in the Premier League, but there is no guarantee of that.
There are wider implications of such a move for the wider Scottish game, however. Having Scotland’s two biggest clubs play outside of the country would damage the independence of Scotland in footballing terms, and might well increase calls for there to be no separate Scottish national team anymore. Certainly, there is reportedly already a significant section of opinion in world football’s great and good that does not see why the UK should have four national teams rather than just one. But Welsh teams like Swansea City and Cardiff City have played in the English league structure for almost a century now, and Wales still have their own national team.
But the implications go beyond the national team. Many clubs in Scotland rely in large part on the occasions each season when the Old Firm clubs visit them, bringing their huge travelling support through the turnstiles of stadiums which are often relatively empty for the rest of the season. Losing the sense of occasion that the Old Firm bring to Scottish football, whether playing against each other or other teams, and the Scottish game could look a little bereft of genuine excitement.
Of course, it could also lead to a more competitive and level domestic league in Scotland, which might lead to better sponsorship and broadcast deals in the long run. But it would take a long time to reach that point, and the loss of the nation’s two biggest clubs, along with their massive travelling support, would cause plenty of financial issues for the game north of the Border.
Former Celtic and Wales striker Craig Bellamy certainly believes that the two clubs would benefit from a move south, though he also accepts that there would be financial implications for the wider Scottish game.
“Even if Celtic and Rangers were only offered a place in the lower leagues, they should get in there,” he wrote in his Paddy Power blog in autumn 2017.
“Those two clubs would be in the Premier League in no time. They are that big, they’re that well followed that they’d climb their way up as quick as possible.
“The Old Firm clubs would be a huge asset to the Premier league and it would be a game changers for Celtic and Rangers, too.
“I’d feel for Scottish football if it happened, but when I look at the two Glasgow giants the only real future they have is to get themselves down south.
“I’m not sure it will ever come to pass, but I hang on it happening. I’m not a religious man, far from it, but I pray for that moment to come.
“It would be brilliant for both the Premier League and those two clubs. We think we’ve got a great Premier League now, but it would be even better if we had Celtic and Rangers in it.”
The issue would not, of course, be decided by the two Scottish clubs. Rather, it would require plentiful support from English clubs up and down the pyramid, many of whom would not be in favour of bringing more potentially powerful competition for resources into their leagues.
Former Celtic and Liverpool great Kenny Dalglish certainly feels that it is unlikely that English clubs would allow the two Scottish clubs into the English game.
“At the end of the day, they would enhance the quality of the Premier League,” Dalglish told Betstars, speaking in October 2017.
“But then again that doesn’t mean that they will actually get in because I don’t see how any of the clubs in England would vote for them to come in.
“When you’re worried about avoiding relegation in that particular league or whether you’re worried about promotion, those two teams would add strength to that argument so if you’re in opposition to them you wouldn’t want them.
“But then like I said at the beginning, they would definitely enhance the Premier League but I don’t know if we’ll get there.”
As Bellamy implies above, it would be unlikely that the Old Firm clubs would be offered a place in the Premier League straight away. They would most likely have to play their way through the English pyramid, starting from League Two, or possibly even lower.
Whether the clubs and their fans would want to do that is open to yet more debate. But the riches of the English Premier League would undoubtedly be a strong incentive to do so.
For the moment, the issue is moot. But as we see an increasingly globalised sporting world utilising more and more international club competitions to bring in greater revenue and widen the appeal of sporting brands, it is likely that the issue will crop up regularly over the coming years.