Celtic’s magical win over Barcelona can’t hide Scottish football’s inertia
Celtic's 2-1 win over Barcelona in Europe was magical but Scottish football is in need of serious attention, writes Matt Dathan
Celtic’s historic 2-1 win against Barcelona in the Champions League last week came as a welcome respite for the dying embers of Scottish football.
But with clubs fighting for their very existence and the national team going through one of its most barren phases, we must not let Celtic’s remarkable achievement overshadow the fact that Scottish football is in need of serious attention.
Celtic’s fairy tale victory over one of the world’s greatest clubs a day after their 125th anniversary becomes even more magical the more context and statistics are taken into consideration.
The Hoops’ domestic games are even less competitive this season thanks to Rangers’ demotion to the Third Division. Even though they currently lie in second place in the SPL, it is inconceivable to think they will fail to win the league by a canter, especially when the distractions of European football disappear over Christmas.
So while they dominate domestic games on a weekly, Celtic managed to alter their style completely to beat Barcelona despite sharing just 11 per cent of possession and completing just 166 passes compared to Barcelona’s 955.
And they did this all without their main defender Emilio Izaguirre, their captain Scott Brown and the team’s main striker Gary Hooper.
While Barcelona’s defence in Glasgow boasted Dani Alves (£31m), Javier Mascherano (£17.6m) and Jordi Alba (£12.3m), Celtic’s match-winner Tony Watt cost a mere £50,000 – in total, Neil Lennon’s starting line-up had a combined value of £6m.
This statistic is particularly symbolic of Scottish football’s financial decline. Once upon a time, Celtic paid Chelsea £6m for Chris Sutton, which remains the club’s record transfer fee.
But now they compete with Championship clubs for players, many of whom are signed on free transfers or on loan.
Five of Celtic’s starting XI against Barcelona arrived for free and they are increasingly forced into selling their star players as they did with Aiden McGeady two years ago for £9.5m. And Manchester United have already been rumoured to want to sign Celtic’s other goal scorer last Wednesday – Victor Wanyama.
But it seems that being a feeder club for the Premier League and even the Championship is fast becoming the prime means to establishing financial stability for Celtic and the rest of the SPL.
Having lost Rangers in the summer, the SPL were forced to re-negotiate their broadcasting deal with BSkyB and ESPN, which is now thought to be worth around £50m over five years, down from £80m – a far cry from the Premier League’s £1bn annual domestic TV revenue.
The financial state of the domestic game may get even worse if Hearts fail to raise enough funds after they were issued with a winding-up order by HMRC over £450,000 of unpaid tax and National Insurance. The club are asking fans to dip into their pockets to buy shares and tickets to save a club even older than Celtic.
A club statement said: “Without the support of fans there is a real risk Heart of Midlothian Football Club could possibly play its last game next Saturday, 17 November against St Mirren. This isn’t a bluff, this isn’t scaremongering, this is reality.”
Other high profile clubs are dangerously near the edge too. A survey by recovery firm Begbies Traynor showed the finances of Scottish football clubs have worsened even more in the last six months with six clubs in Scotland’s three top divisions showing signs of distress at the end of October – two more than when the survey was first carried out in April.
Without the TV investment that the Old Firm rivalry attracted and the horrifyingly poor accounts of an alarming number of clubs, it is no wonder that Scottish clubs struggle to attract the multi-million foreign investment that English clubs enjoy throughout the top two tiers.
The last major foreign investor was Vladimir Romanov, who bought an 82 per cent share of Hearts in 2006, but ever since his controversial ownership has destroyed the club on and off the pitch.
Although many English clubs are suffering financial problems too, their revenue is much more stable and predictable, not only due to television coverage but also to the significantly higher attendances.
The average attendance for SPL matches last season was 4,000 below the average for the English Championship (18,000), and without the 46,000 fans that turned up at Ibrox each fortnight last season, this figure has dropped to below 10,000 for this season.
Without the attraction of the blue half of the Old Firm, fans are staying away and many believe the loss of another of the league’s historic clubs would push Scottish football beyond the point of recovery.
So while Celtic’s win over Barcelona was watched by 60,000 at Parkhead and beamed to millions across the world, just 4,000 attended the SPL game between Motherwell and Dundee United on the same night.
If only the national team could offer some reprieve. Instead, they provide more misery – the latest Fifa World rankings place Scotland in 70th – below Albania and Uzbekistan.
One can only hope that Craig Levein’s replacement will at least restore hope for the Tartan Army, but without a win in their first four World Cup qualifying games, it will be at least four years before they can hope to see their team at an international tournament again.
Among all this gloom of Scottish football lies a positive: the abundance of top quality Scottish managers. If only the tactical astuteness of the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson and David Moyes could be replicated on the pitch and in the boardroom.
But for now, it appears the Armageddon warning issued by the SPL’s chief executive Stewart Regan in the summer about the future of Scottish football is edging towards reality.
In July, Regan said: “Clubs may be able to survive for a short period but it’s unsustainable. There would be a slow, lingering death for the game in Scotland. There are no winners, there are only losers in this.”
Despite recording one of the most memorable wins in their history last week, Celtic must be aware that they stand to lose as much as any other club in Scotland if the focus of Scottish football is not squarely aimed at the financial sustainability of the domestic game.
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