Exodus to the North: Football League Talent North of the Border

At the current moment in time the highest level of Scottish Football is awash with Football League talent, with many of the most promising individuals in the English second tier choosing SPL football over the Football League. Whilst the facts speak for themselves, Celtic and Rangers are regularly involved in European football, albeit (apart from the occasional season) unsuccessfully, and are normally guaranteed a form of silverware in one form of the other most seasons, the attraction of this is one that seemingly passes me by, and that in fact for the players involved, England’s second tier should be a greater lure.

Members of Celtic’s current squad include Gary Hooper, Kris Commons, Joe Ledley and Fraser Forster as well as the likes of Daryl Murphy and Anthony Stokes, and in Rangers squad we see Kyle Lafferty. Many of these players have been viewed as potential talents, who have proved their worth in the Championship. If we take Hooper for example, the former Scunthorpe United marksman scored 43 goals in 80 appearances for the Lincolnshire club, and despite interest from the top clubs in the Championship chose a move to Celtic in the summer. Since this move his goal scoring has continued, this season’s statistics read 15 goals in 24 matches, in any league those are fantastic figures. Anthony Stokes’ performances this season have been similarly successful, scoring 17 in 27. However unlike Hooper, Stokes’s career in England had seemingly stalled, with an unsuccessful period at Sunderland which included two unexceptional loan spells at Sheffield Wednesday and Crystal Palace. Stokes has seemingly rejuvenated his career in the SPL, and whilst this has been successful for him, is this league really the best opportunity for some of the best young talent in the Football League?

The average Championship attendance for last season was 18,106, making it around the fifth largest league in the world. These attendances are matched by viewing figures, with media companies spending large quantities on the rights for the Football League, the BBC’s recent contract for the Football League Show being the epitome of this. On the other hand SPL football averages around 13,915, however without the likes of Celtic and Rangers this figure would plummet. Whilst playing in front of 45,000 at Parkhead and Ibrox has its benefits, away fixtures at Hamilton and St Mirren in front of around 4000 limit this. Although comparing the playing standards of the leagues is difficult, if we examine some of the players to have moved between the two and the success they have had relatively it is possible to deduce a distinction between the quality. Kris Boyd, the all time SPL leading goal scorer has struggled at Middleborough, as has Scott MacDonald, and Kenny Miller during his period at Derby County in the Premier League. Stokes, a player who seemingly struggled in the English game has flourished at the highest level of the Scottish game.

The standard of Championship football is ever-increasing, with more money being invested and more supporters flocking to games. The Scottish game, on the other hand is in somewhat of a lull, with a lack of a major TV backer following the collapse of Setanta and the upcoming review of the league structure.  This is not a rant in regards to Scottish football which as a league contains one of the most compelling, competitive and highly charged derby matches, as well a multitude of enthusiastic fans and clubs. However is this really the best environment for the development of the some of the talent that has fled from the Football League to north of the border? The growing strength of the Football League should convince players that their futures lie here, and this will provide them with the experience they need to fulfil their potential.

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23 thoughts on “Exodus to the North: Football League Talent North of the Border

  1. Whoosh!

    Choice of Celtic or Middlesbrough? Hhmmmmm….

    For any proper football fan with a knowledge of the history of the game that’s a no brainer.

  2. I can only comment as an English Celtic fan but I see many reasons why Championship players choose to head to Parkhead. Could it be that we have some of the best and most state of art training facilities in the world. Maybe it’s because we regularly play in front of just shy of 60,000 fans every other week (rather than the 45,000 stated above), with a consistantly amazing athmosphere.

    Celtic also have a MASSIVE fan base. You only have to look as far as the recent pre-season tours of Amercia, Australia etc and the crowds that were drawn there.

    The chance to play in half a dozen high profile European matches per season may also be a draw but any footballer worth his salt will be compelled to join Celtic because we are simply one of the biggest football clubs on the planet, despite the sub-standard league in which we find ourselves.

    At Celtic we, clearly, cannot compete with the Premierships top 4 when it comes to finances and European success. But I don’t think it’s at all far fetched to say that a Championship player chosing to play for any other team in England, excluding the aforementioned top 4, would be making a big mistake. Remember, just beacuase a team plays in the Premiership doesn’t make them a big club. Don’t judge a team by the league they are forced to play in.

  3. Josh,

    Get your facts right. It’s Celtic Park not Parkhead and the capacity is 60,000. We have an average crowd of 48,000 this season.

    Among European clubs, only one Italian club, two Spanish clubs, four German clubs and four in England’s Premier League regularly attract more fans for their home games.

    Perhaps the reason that the likes of Stokes and Hooper perform better at Celtic is they are playing with better players than you’d find in the Championship?

    Or it could be better training facilities, more money, bigger support (9m worldwide).

    You tried to say that you’re not SPL bashing – that’s exactly what you’ve done.

  4. I think you’ll find Josh, that Celtic park has 60,000 and Ibrox 50,000.

    It’s not surprising that The Championship has more investment now. What with the money trickling down from the most inflated league in the world.

  5. Attendence wise Celtic would be third in the BPL with Rangers being 5th, and when you factor in that, as you said, the other SPL teams have smaller attendence and away support, that is quite impressive.

    Why is it so difficult to see that different league styles may suit different players differently?(see a common word there?) Does the fact that players like Charlie Adam or Shay Given being deemed not good enough in the SPL but seem to be rated down south result in the SPL being better?

    Where would English football be without its sugar daddy owners and TV revenues?

  6. The top two teams in Scotland would consistently win the English second tier, but the rest of the league would struggle in League One. There’s such a huge gulf between the top two and the rest. The Scottish Premier League as a whole is no where near as good as the Championship, but Celtic and Rangers are.

  7. I don’t agree that the rest of the SPL would struggle in League 1. Just as Rangers and Celtic would thrive with the financial backing given to clubs in the Championship/Premiership, so would the rest of the SPL. Clubs such as Hearts, Hibs and Aberdeen are at least as big as the vast majority of clubs in the Championship and even a few in the Premiership.

    Given that all signs suggest finances in the Championship are going to be severely strained in the next few years, and only a handful of clubs in that division actually make more turnover (the key) than a club like Aberdeen, there’s going to be far more of a level playing field. I had this exact argument with a fan of Plymouth Argyle a few years ago, when they were paying more than SPL clubs could afford. How did it work out for them?

    Put the argument in a context different to the simplified “the SPL is rubbish” argument. If a player was offered the chance to play for Ajax or Swansea, who would they be more likely to pick? Anderlecht or Norwich? These are massive clubs that it is arrogant in the extreme to assume are not draws.

    You could also use selective statistics to back up the opposite point. Hooper could have stayed at Scunthorpe, who are currently playing in front of an average crowd of 5618 people. That is roughly the same crowd as Falkirk or Dundee draw in the Scottish First Division, where a couple of the teams are part time.

    It’s equally disingenuous to suggest that Rangers and Celtic (or even Aberdeen or Hearts) get nowhere in Europe. In the last decade both of the Old Firm club have been involved in European finals and both have made the knockout stages of the Champions League. Aberdeen progressed from the group stages of the UEFA Cup at the expense of FC Copenhagen and Lokomotiv Moscow.

    We could equally look at the players who have arrived from the SPL shown they are a class above the Championship. Ross McCormack scored 21 in his first season there, Jason Scotland got 29. Even Kenny Miller, who you somewhat unscientifically use as an example (when he was in the Premiership with terrible sides) scored 56 goals in three seasons in the Championship.

    It’s hardly representative to use Boyd and McDonald at Middlesbrough considering their problems. You could equally point at the way that Roy Keane, Juninho, Henri Camara, Thomas Gravesen, Ian Wright and numerous others swanned up in Scotland expecting an easy ride and were seriously mistaken.

    What about the likes of Charlie Adam, Steven Fletcher, Craig Gordon, Petrov, Cuellar, Crainey, Ferguson, Hutton, McNaughton, Marshall, Rae, Burke, Quinn, Dorrans, etc, etc, etc and the many more players who have been successes following moves south?

    It’s a far greater drain on talent when Scottish players are drawn to the Rugby League of the Championship simply for the (unsustainable) money, rather than staying in Scotland and experiencing European football.

    If Kris Commons is asked by his Grandchildren what he did in his career, he has a chance to say “I won assorted honours and cups, while playing in front of 60’000 in the Champions League against the best in the world” or saying “I played for Derby, won nothing and scored some goals in front of 5000 people at Scunthorpe”.

  8. The usual ill-informed nonsense from someone who has clearly never been north of Skegness in his life.
    Boyd, McDonald, Miller, yada yada.
    Everyone and their dog could have told you they would struggle somewhere else. Most of the players Gordon Strachan took to Middlesbrough barely got a game for their clubs in Scotland. Boyd never played an Old Firm game. Why? Because his limitations against better opponents were obvious.
    The other argument is this; Stephen McGinn, Chris Burke, Charlie Adam etc. Players who were average Joes up in Scotland head for the Premiership and hey presto; they look like stars.
    It’s down to individuals mate, not tired, dull, washed out old arguments which start ‘with respect to the SPL…’

  9. This article was not a bash at Celtic and Rangers, if anything but. These clubs are steeped in history, take part in what is one of (if not the greatest) derby matches in the world, and as stated have huge fan bases. True playing in front of this is fantastic for any individual player, and the prospect European football and playing for one of the world’s biggest is a huge draw and something that any player would be look back on fondly.

    However this article was intended at looking at young players based in England moving to the Scotland and how staying in England for longer could benefit their careers. Hooper had the offer of a string of large English clubs as well but chose Celtic. Whilst the Old Firm and unequivocally bigger clubs than any Football League club, with perhaps the exception of Leeds United, the overall standard of the SPL does not match the giants that take part in it.

    Apologies for the attendance inaccuracies.

    1. Correction to attendance generalisation:
      2010-11 Season:

      Celtic average attendance: 48425
      Rangers average attendance:44429


  10. @Thomas – I fully agree with you that from a player’s point of view it would be much better to look back on your career having won trophies and played in European tournaments. I just meant that with current squads and quality levels, I can’t see many other Scottish teams, bar Rangers and Celtic, that would do very well in the Championship or League One.

  11. Josh, I think you’re right and the majority of these comments have got it wrong.

    Players like Commons and Hooper (playing in struggling Championship sides) look better in Scotland because the standard of their opponents ismuch lower.

    The likes of Dorrans, Petrov, Fletcher are decent in England because of the players they have around them.

    Charlie Adam is a good footballer who will excel wherever he plays – he might not have been a star at Rangers because they stuck him out on the left wing.

    It’s appears to be a lack of ambition – going to guarenteed silverware rather than striving to play at the highest level.

  12. The fact is that the English Championship has far more money than the Scottish Premier League.

    But there’s no doubting that Rangers and Celtic are massive clubs. Rangers are winning trophies and playing in the Champions League. It’s a much higher level than the English Championship.

    To be honest, I think the standard of the Championship is very over-rated. Just like a lot of what happens down in England.

    There’s no doubt, for me, if Scottish Football got it’s house back in order and actually had folk running the game properly, then it would easily excel the 2nd tier in England – like it has done for the decades before.

  13. I can see where you are coming from Josh,

    The Premier League is one of, if not the best league in the world, and the incentive of trying to get your team promoted to play in the worlds best league, with some outstanding world class players should (in theory) make the choice hard for these players. And to some, or most, that may be enough to keep them in the Championship, pushing for the Premier League. But maybe the lure of playing with a team that will be in Europe each year may just be too tempting. Although the overall standard of football is almost undeniably better in the championship and Premier League than in the SPL, I think most players see the silverware and flock to it.

    I think its an easy option for these minnows who are struggling in the second division to take the scape goat and play in a league where some of the teams would struggle in the Third divsion. So i agree that for them to show there real ambition and football prowes they should stick with the Championship. But if i were in there position and the lure of silverware and europe was calling i would struggle to choose between them.

  14. Josh,
    I think you’re right. As a die-hard Celtic fan it’s not an easy thing to admit but there is a worrying trend of thought that suggests these massive clubs seem to be losing out on the real top-notch European talent and as a result are having to settle for players who are proving themselves the hard way through the lower English leagues. I only hope that someone who matters can really take on board the hard truths of your well-researched article (without allowing progress to be stunted by such a typically aggressive and myopic attitude towards anyone who is prepared to speak the truth) and put in the money and effort to get Scottish football back where it belongs, at the top of the European game.

  15. the SPL. England’s favourite whipping boy as they insecurely survey thier own cash bloated yet under achieving premiershi*ts. Pulling on the Celtic shirt is indeed a huge draw. Hence so many of the greatest players to grace these shores have done just that. And by the way. The standard of spl football is unfairly lambasted by ill informed hobby bloggers like you.

    1. “Underachieving premiershi*ts”?
      Premier League teams are anything but underachieving.

      In the past six years Premier League teams have achieved:
      – Two champions league victories
      – Three further beaten finalists
      – Comprised 3 of the 4 semi finalists in 2 of those seasons, and 2 of the last 4 in a further 2 seasons

      No other league has anywhere near that

      Only two great Barcelona sides prevented English teams winning the Champions League four years in a row.

  16. With the exception of big clubs like Leeds Utd? Don’t tell me that Leeds fans are STILL bitter that Celtic beat them in the semi final of the European Champion’ s Cup when we went on to beat Inter Milan and be crowned rightful champions of Europe? ( When it was correctly restricted to champions ONLY not like today when it’s the richest teams that are heavily favoured and given more places and a handy passage….) Show us yer medals….

  17. Surely the answer is to the question is that they will get paid more, for playing against weaker opposition.

    Or in other words, an easy life.

    There were plenty of clubs sniffing around the likes of Hooper last season, he could’ve gone to a bigger Championship team and proved himself. The same has to be said for Commons and Ledley, however it was Premier League clubs looking at those two.

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