Just six years ago, Rangers were playing in the UEFA Cup Final (now known as the Europa League). Five years earlier, Celtic narrowly missed out on the same trophy.
Prior to that, Rangers blew the Scottish transfer fee record away with the £12million purchase of Tore Andre Flo and three years previous arguably one of the greatest strikers ever to play the game, Henrik Larrson first walked through the doors at Celtic Park.
It wasn’t just the Old Firm who made the headlines; Hibernian once boasted Champions League winner and coveted French international Franck Sauzee in their ranks and Dundee had a World Cup runner-up in the form of Argentina’s Caludio Caniggia.
Going even further back you can look at Aberdeen and Dundee United’s European exploits and of course Celtic becoming the first British team to win the then European Cup. While the latter may seem like a lifetime ago, the former highlights are still fresh in the heads of Scottish football fans.
Today Rangers find themselves plying their trade in the lower divisions of Scottish football and Celtic managed to get eliminated from the Champions League qualifying stages. Twice. Edinburgh giants Hibernian and Hearts also managed to get themselves relegated and in a worrying comparison the combined transfer spending of Scottish clubs last transfer window was almost half of what Adnan Januzaj received as a signing on fee as part of his new Manchester United contract.
With these in mind, the question has to be asked; “What has happened to Scottish football?” I will boldly, and ironically, put money on the reason for the downturn of Scottish football being simply, money. Or to be more accurate, a mismanagement of money and unreasonable expectations.
Many people’s first thoughts would move towards the 2012 demise of Rangers – when they were sent tumbling out of the Premier League and into football obscurity – being the catalyst for the decline of Scottish football, and they wouldn’t be wrong per se. With the loss of regular Old Firm games, the league has arguably lost much of its appeal, at least to the neutral (although there perhaps isn’t such a thing as a neutral football fan in the west of Scotland).
With literally millions of football fans the world over regularly turning in to watch the battle of the green and blue in the past, Scottish football really did rely on these games to enhance their reputation, but now that it’s gone, with it went its allure, the sponsors and the money.
Today’s game is driven by big business: they’ve snatched up the rights to anything with a football shirt on its back…anything to get their names out there. When it comes to Scottish football sponsors, though, this simply isn’t true anymore.
Scottish football, at least in regards to the top flight, has always attracted credible sponsorship, but after its long running partnership with Clydesdale Bank ended at the close of the 2012/13 season, and the Premier League cannily morphed into the Premiership, the list of potential sponsors for Scottish football dwindled down, way down.
The league Cup is currently in the same lonely boat, despite having previous sponsorship deals with global giants such as Coca Cola. The Scottish Cup is now the only major competition up here with a backer, with beloved bookies William Hill paying for the right to display their names on the cup’s ribbons. Any bets on that continuing?
Now, with major competition sponsors pulling the plug on endorsing the Scottish game no more Old Firm games for at least 4 years you would assume that the television money would have been the next thing to go. If you did assume this, you would be wrong.
“Sky to cover Rangers’ Third Division games as part of new TV deal” screamed the headlines a matter of weeks after Rangers’ demotion. Okay, it might only have been five matches, but it was part of a 30-match deal with the broadcasting giants that would cover the top flight of Scottish football as well as Rangers’ quaint away trips to football outposts such as Peterhead and Elgin. And if that didn’t convince you that the television channels weren’t scared off by the lack of Old Firm games, then the new £56 million, four-year deal that the SFA has recently agreed with Sky should.
Now, if these giants of broadcasting are showing 30 Scottish games a season, for the next four years, fixtures that will include Rangers as well as Celtic AND with the possibility of a mouth-watering, money-spinning Old Firm clash in either of the cup competitions, why is no one willing to put some cash into two of the three major Scottish competitions?
Admittedly, the situation isn’t as healthy as it once was, but the opportunity to have your name broadcast on Sky television to potentially millions of viewers should still attract more suitors than it apparently is at the moment – which is zero for those who haven’t been paying attention.
Neil Doncaster, the league’s chief executive, is the man behind the phantom plan to attract some fancy new sponsors. It’s only been a year or so (sarcasm alert) since the deal with Clydesdale Bank expired, so where was Plan B? Mr Doncaster surely must have had a good idea that the bank weren’t going to extend their deal? Apparently not, but while he hasn’t managed to find sponsorship for the League and League Cup as of yet, what this tireless worker has managed to do is somehow convince Irn Bru to become the ‘Official Soft Drink’ partner of the Scottish Premier Football League (SPFL).
Rather impressive when you think that it’s a bit like selling vodka to the Russians; it’s being consumed regardless of whom or what they sponsor, so they’ve essentially just given the SPFL money for nothing. I don’t know what is more remarkable here, the fact that Irn Bru failed to see this, or that Doncaster managed to convince them that it would be worth their while.
On several occasions when confronted about the sponsorship, or lack thereof, he has responded with claims of there being ‘no rush’, and that he’s waiting for the ‘right fit’. He claims:
It is important not to put timescales on this. It’s important to work with the various brands that we are talking to and, in time, be able to announce the right brand and the right fit for the SPFL.
Perhaps Mr. Doncaster is neglecting the fact that the SPFL itself should be the brand in question, and its losing respect due to its failure to find a sponsor, and not just from a credible company, but any company at all. This makes me think that it’s down to money rather than finding the ‘right fit’. Looking for this ‘right fit’ seems to be creating more problems than solutions – by not addressing the problem that he has been charged to fix correctly, he is actually lending weight to the problem itself.
Scottish football does not have as much pull as it used to, and Doncaster needs to accept this as simple fact. Rangers certainly don’t have the draw or power they once had, and aside from Celtic’s valiant efforts in the Champions League a few years ago, it is clear that Scottish football can’t cope with the big boys of European football.
He should be seeking out a company or companies willing to sponsor the League and League Cup; one with at least respectable financial backing for a decent amount of time, and invest this money in the teams themselves. Undoubtedly a percentage of the Sky television money has went to the clubs, it must have. If it didn’t that would just be plain, old fashioned robbery. However, either way, there clearly isn’t enough money being injected into the clubs.
The clubs need this money to invest in things such as their youth systems. While Dundee United have managed to export a couple of their young talents in Ryan Gauld and Andrew Robertson, gone are the days of selling home-grown players for large fees much like Craig Gordon and Aiden McGeady left their respective clubs for. The clubs also need to reinvest in their current squads in order to be at least competitive in Europe.
Celtic progressing in the Europa League is the last hope for Scottish football in the current season, but after being knocked out of the Champions League twice as previously mentioned, the outlook is not so bright. The old saying goes ‘you need to spend money to make money’, but unfortunately Scottish football, at the moment, doesn’t seem to have any money to spend.
The task of rejuvenating Scottish football and returning to the glory days has no easy or quick fix. By looking for this supposed ‘right fit’ in terms of a sponsor, teams that should be due a percentage of sponsorship money, have missed out on at least two season’s revenue. And by not properly reinvesting the television money back into the clubs, Scottish football appears to have lost its fight.
I feel that ultimately Doncaster is trying to do the best for Scottish football, but just in the wrong way. Stop looking for big money from a big name. It doesn’t exist right now. The appropriate steps would be to take what they can get, build on it accordingly, and hope that in due time, Scottish Football will again attract the sponsors that they once did – then we can start moving forward.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will this new era for Scottish football. That is, if it is ever built.