Old Firm fans swear that, if you don’t admit to supporting one side over the other, then you’re either a liar or in denial to your true feelings. That skewed logic, they insist, also applies to match referees and appointed officials of the governing body as well as all opposing club managers when deciding their team selections.
If you’re an entrepreneur thinking of opening a shop selling nuggets of reasoned debate or unbiased opinion, here’s a tip. Don’t open it in Glasgow. If however you’re involved in the business of selling conspiracy theories, you’re well on the way to becoming an entry in the Sunday Times Rich List for 2019.
But, alien as it may seem to fans of both those teams – and indeed, to many in the mainstream media – Scotland has more than two clubs with supporters who follow their teams as passionately as any Celtic or Rangers fans and who don’t view backing their side as some sort of consolation prize because they can’t get to Old Firm games.
In much the same way that NASA space missions aren’t purely about Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, football north of the border isn’t exclusively about the Glasgow giants. Okay, perhaps in the face of a growing trend of never-set-foot-on-the-moon theorists, I could have chosen a better comparison.
However, even the most hardened conspiracy theorists can’t deny the importance Celtic and Rangers have to the Scottish Football scene. Up until the recent Scottish Professional Football League split, over 1.7 million fans attended the home matches of both those clubs whilst the rest of the top division teams only accounted for a combined total of 1.3 million.
The Glasgow clubs also draw in the biggest television audiences with Celtic fans regularly tuning in to watch their rivals matches hoping to witness a Rangers defeat and vice versa. And when it comes to Cups and League titles, the Old Firm account for 220 of the total 330 trophies won by all Scottish teams in the top division since records began.
In these latterly green and white dominated times, such is the supremacy of the men from Parkhead that the other teams view the title race not as something they can actually win but, by clinging onto Celtic’s coat-tails for long enough, they may placate their supporters and lose a little more slowly.
Now teams outside of the Old Firm, long used to their duopoly, have a new landscape to negotiate. The pantomime of those clubs either winning or preventing ten in a row from happening has taken on a holy grail like obsession for both. Neither club has historically achieved this feat although both have come close with nine straight league titles. The intense nature of rivalry defines both clubs with success or otherwise viewed through the prism of their neighbours’ progress.
With Celtic aiming to claim their eighth successive title next season, the clamour for 10 in a row is nearing fever pitch. So much so, that Rangers have gambled and given the job of stopping them to an untried manager, albeit one who exerted a huge influence on the game thanks to his illustrious playing days.
If Steven Gerrard thought that the press intrusion for Thomas Markle in the Royal Wedding build-up was heavy-handed wait until he settles into the Ibrox hot seat. The new man will find every sentence scrutinised and dissected for hidden meanings, every team section pored over and subjected to criticism, each new signing expected to hit the ground running, every sub needs to be a game-changer and each defeat will invoke a crisis.
If this wasn’t enough pressure for the new boss, he faces the sprinting equivalent of giving Usain Bolt a ten yard start in a 100m race. Latest annual accounts show Celtic’s turnover as £90 million compared to Rangers’ £29 million with a wage bill of £52 million to £18 million.
Add in potential qualification for Champions League group stages which is worth approximately £30 million to Celtic and you can see the disparity in finance alone. At board level, Celtic have a level of competence, infrastructure and fiscal stability that Rangers can only dream about. And often do.
With an absentee owner, directors who have lost sense of direction and a PR operation which has seemingly learnt its trade from North Korea, Gerrard will find the ability to manage up equally as important as managing the dressing room. On the playing side, it’d be hard to think of more than one or two at best of the current Rangers players who’d make it into Brendan Rodgers’ first choice team.
The Gerrard-McAllister partnership are entering into such a confused and disorganised Rangers that it makes even the government’s handling of Brexit appear orderly.
The initial challenge facing the ex-Liverpool legend is recruitment but equally as vital will be the ability to communicate his beliefs and philosophy to the squad. The Germans, as always, have a word for it, “menschenfanger” – a coach who can influence his players thoughts and have them working under him towards a common goal.
All signings incorporate elements of uncertainty but Celtic’s greater resources mean they can afford established players who represent less of a risk. Gerrard needs to get the utmost out of the ones he has been left with in addition to his own recruits. The new manager also needs to understand the nature of Scottish football.
Some in the past, not used to the game up here, have come in thinking they can impose their strategy and ethos on Scottish Football without the need to compromise – or at least understand that ability and skill is not enough. Football north of the border is more feisty, rawer and the need to “get stuck in” counts for far more than it really should.
If Rangers are serious about developing Gerard as manager, they need to give him time which, realistically, would be a minimum of the next two seasons before the fundamental need arises to stop Celtic getting to the “decimo”. It’s not easy to dampen expectations in Glasgow however. Supporters of the big two make Scotland fans heading to Argentina in 1978 seem pessimistic.
Throughout football, patience is no longer regarded as a virtue by owners, fans and the media but has instead, been replaced by what was once considered a sin, that of envy. If, as some suggest, the Ibrox plan is merely a headlong rush to reclaim the title in the new manager’s first year and this scenario fails, it remains unclear where Rangers go from there.
Although Gerrard has been at the top-level of the game, he has previously never spent money to sign a player, never had to drop a big money signing, not been the man responsible for the daily running of the first team, he’s never been forced to straddle the tricky liaison between playing staff and boardroom, nor have responsibility for results been the be all and end all to his week. For his sake, he needs to learn quickly.
Having set their sights on a Gerrard Revolution, the Ibrox power brokers need to support him. But revolutions aren’t without casualties. Nor do they come without cost. In hindsight, this turmoil might have been avoided had Rangers promoted youth and identified promising players with potential during their spell in the lower leagues.
They could have developed a style, built up a war chest and put in place proper structures. Instead they employed varying tactics, managers, systems, players, philosophies and leaps of faith in a headlong rush to catch Celtic as quickly as possible resulting in the present need for revolution as opposed to evolution.
There is talk of £6 million being given to Gerrard from a new shares issue with a further £10 million from season ticket sales whilst potential player sales (or loans to help get players off wage bill) may top this figure up to £20 million. If true, he’ll need to be a canny buyer in today’s inflated market and anyone on his football contacts list can expect to be cheesed off with their phone ringing day and night.
Comparisons are inevitably made with Souness who was also a rookie manager but he strode into Ibrox during a perfect storm in 1986. There were fresh ideas in the boardroom, a Celtic side ahead of them but not distant, seemingly unlimited pots of cash to spend and stars from England wanting to continue playing in European football at the time of the ban on English clubs.
Rangers got a player/manager full of brio and chutzpah who relished every challenge and confrontation off the field as much as on it. But great players don’t always translate into successful managers. For every inspirational captain like Dave Mackay who’s transferred seamlessly into a fledgling managerial career, there’s a Billy Bremner.
More pertinently – as it’s closer to home – for every Souness, there’s a John Greig. Greig took over in 1978 from Jock Wallace (who had just completed the treble) but left just over five years later having not won the league title during his tenure and, in truth, rarely even coming close.
Like a poker player seeing the pot slipping away from him, forced to gamble even more in an attempt to chase his losses, Rangers have decided to go all in. However, the revolution will not be a re-run of Souness’ Rangers in 1986. The revolution will not be a lavishly-funded, money no object revolution. The revolution will not be a take-your-time, leisurely paced revolution.
But, with interest in the Scottish game at a higher stock than in many years, the revolution WILL be televised. The revolution will be boom or bust. With conspiracy theorists more than catered for. Catch it wherever you can, sit back and enjoy the ride.