Old Firm Heading South?

>> Monday, October 19, 2009

Like Scott, I need to apologize for my inactivity over the past six days. Travel interrupted: I missed my connection at ATL, and it was very much not my fault, but did enjoy 14 unplanned hours in said city, split between the airport and the hotel room that Delta grudgingly subsidized. I'm not a fan of ATL, and will attempt to stick with DTW, MSP, and EWR as my hubs of choice when flying from the UK / Europe to the West Coast. Following this unfortunate travel event, there was a conference.

Back in my homeland for a brief visit, it seems logical that I write about soccer.

First, as a Celtic FC supporter, I agree with Spiers that both Celtic and Rangers will have to leave the SPL. Both clubs are in a strange position of having some of the largest support bases and average attendances in Europe, yet play in a league that can not command a decent TV package. Teams in the EPL, including such giants as Stoke City and Hull City, receive about £40 million per year in TV revenue. The Glasgow giants each receive £2.5 million. Whereas prior to the advent of the EPL both Celtic and Rangers could compete in the European Cup (Celtic were the first British side to win that competition after all, in 1967) these days all they can manage is the occasional last 16 appearance (Rangers in 05-06, Celtic in both 06-07 and 07-08) and decent progression through Europe's second-tier competition: the old UEFA Cup (now the Europa League). Celtic lost to Porto in the 2003 final, while Rangers lost to Zenit St. Petersburg in 2008.

The logical move is for both to join the English pyramid. Ideally, this would be in the EPL itself, but fairness dictates that they should begin in the second tier and work their way up. While this would break one of the golden rules of football associations, that clubs play in leagues in their home associations (IOW, they play in the leagues in the countries where they are located) there are several exceptions to this rule in the UK and Ireland. Several Welsh clubs play in the English pyramid, including Cardiff City and Swansea City who both play in the Football League itself, while Wrexham and Newport County both play in the Conference and Conference South respectively (5th and 6th tiers on the pyramid) and there are a couple of other Welsh clubs somewhere in the English structure. There are also the examples of Derry City, who do not play in the Northern Irish league, but rather the league based in the Republic, and the now defunct Gretna, who before joining the Scottish league, played south of the border in the English pyramid.

A move into the English league would benefit both parties. Both Celtic and Rangers are a larger, more glamorous draw than at least several of the clubs populating the less expensive real estate of the EPL table. Likewise, they both come with a relatively large travelling support. Add both to the EPL and the profile of the league increases such that it could demand even more for its TV rights (and I'm all in favor of taking cash from Rupert Murdoch and distributing it elsewhere -- anywhere).

There are some downsides to a move. If the move is to the EPL, the annual five Old Firm derbies is reduced to two, and this is one of the most passionate, if occasionally disgusting, ties in all of soccer. If the move is not to the EPL, it invites the pernicious possibility of some sort of European Super League or a lesser "Atlantic League". And those three to five matches per year against Falkirk would be lost. If there is to be a move, it would be to the EPL, and not to a European or Atlantic League.

A counterpoint can be found over at They Think Its All Over. While I disagree with a lot of his reasoning, it's worth a read. To wit, he argues that:
It seems to me that whenever we hit on something good, which the Premier League undoubtedly is, those in charge can never seem to accept it for what it is and have to try and keep updating it . . . Back before football became a business the structure of the English football league simply went from Division One downwards until you reached the non-league Conference etc. And to be fair, there was absolutely nothing wrong with that. It worked, and everyone knew where they stood.

However, then some people with lots of money came into football and decided to spice things up a bit at the top of the scale, so they took Division One and called it the Premier League, because it was England’s… well, premier league. That was all well and good, and it’s fair to say that that venture went pretty well.
So basically, change is bad . . . unless it's good. He then goes on with a semantic argument (e.g. how can one have an English Premier League 2 when Premier means . . . well . . . Premier) and then assumes that if an EPL2 were formed out of the existing pyramid, with 36 clubs in both EPL1 and EPL2, the 14 lifted out of the football league (plus the two Glasgow sides) would have to be replaced by bringing clubs up from the Conference into the Football League itself.

This is not necessarily a safe assumption, but it does have some merit. The last time a bunch of clubs left the Football League, to form the Premiership in 1992, those clubs were not replaced. The League simply contracted from four divisions to three. It's possible that this time around that the League would further contract from three divisions to two rather than seek to repopulate the League with non-league clubs. However, as the EPL2 proposal has two divisions of 18 each, if you include Celtic and Rangers, 14 clubs would need to be "elevated" from the Championship (the current second tier) to EPL2. With 92 clubs in the top four divisions at present, this would create an awkward arrangement of 58 clubs in the remaining third and fourth tiers of English football. Therefore, he may have a point that some clubs would have to be promoted from the Conference to the Football League, and the Football League would likely have to remain at three divisions.

It should be pointed out that many of the current Conference sides are former League clubs to begin with anyway. Looking at the current Conference table, there is Barrow (who left the League in 1972), Cambridge United (2005), Chester City (2009), Kidderminster (2006?), Luton Town (2009), Oxford United (2006, and a former First Division side at that), Rushden & Diamonds (2006), Wrexham (2008, after a continuous run in the League going back to 1921), and York City (1929-2004).

But how many clubs? If it were to be three divisions of 20, then only two more clubs. Three of 24, as is the norm now, 14 clubs. 22? 8 clubs. If it's the dilution of quality that is the chief concern, three divisions of 20 would not appreciably dilute either the existing Football League or the Conference. Simply promote York City and Wrexham back into the League, problem solved.

He goes on:
Of course, the driving force behind this idea seems in many ways to be related to the desire of many to introduce the Old Firm to the Premier League. This idea has been floated many, many times over the years despite little apparent enthusiasm from the fans of the Scottish clubs nor any compelling evidence that they would even belong in the Premier League in terms of quality or footballing ability.
Of the 100+ members of the Celtic Supporters Club in Plymouth, most would like to see a move south. Celtic would still get to have the odd fixture against Clyde, Dundee, Inverness Caley Thistle, and Aberdeen in the Scottish FA Cup, but playing in England would make those European nights that much more productive. And yes, I agree, at present neither Celtic nor Rangers necessarily belong in the EPL. I suspect that both would avoid relegation as is, but they would not be in the top half. It should be pointed out that in the past three years in Europe, Celtic have beat Man Utd at home (and lost at Old Trafford 3-2), as well as beat Milan at home (and played Barcelona quite well). But given a couple of years worth of EPL money, they would not only be competitive, I'd see both as serious threats to break the hallowed Big 4.

Other points are made, such as forcing Celtic and Rangers to start in the pyramid at the same low spots that AFC Wimbledon and FC United have done, but that's bonkers. The away support from Celtic alone would overwhelm most grounds below League 2.

Of course, if Celtic can't even beat Motherwell at home, as they couldn't manage on Saturday, I'm not sure they even belong in League 2.


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