Old Firm intrigue can’t mask deeply troubling broader picture in Scotland

Excitement around Saturday’s visit of Rangers to Celtic Park is appropriate. The extent to which Ange Postecoglou can further elevate Celtic after the success of last season remains unknown. So, too, whether Giovanni van Bronckhorst can prove himself capable of re-establishing Rangers as the finest team in the country. It is early enough in the campaign for levels of intrigue to be legitimately high.

That a nine-man Rangers slipped to a draw at Hibernian means Celtic could be five points clear of their oldest foes before the 3pm kick‑offs get under way. This would represent an ominous scenario for those in blue even on September’s first weekend. It is the broader picture that is so troublesome for anyone with an interest in competitive balance. Scottish football has a growing problem, one close to 40 years in the making but which on all available evidence will not be resolved, barring a revolution, in four centuries.

Liverpool’s 9-0 dismantling of Bournemouth is a useful reference point for supporters of Celtic, who have jibes about an amateur league thrown at them because of the same result against Dundee United. That United also lost 7-0, 4-1 and 3-0 in the blink of an eye – they sacked their manager, which suggests at least an element of pride – points towards an exceptional case. It is not; from the moment in 1985 when Aberdeen claimed the Premier Division, the gulf between one – or in this case, two – Scottish sides and the rest has never been so alarming. Those who ignore the chasm, largely on the basis of tribal obsession, are burying their heads in the sand. Scotland’s top flight has the unpredictability of the university boat race.

A solitary player, Ross County’s Alex Iacovitti, has scored against Celtic in domestic football this season. Twice, in fairness. Between them, Celtic and Rangers have notched 35 goals over 10 league games and conceded four. It is an increasingly grim scene which the riches of the Champions League – the Old Firm have both qualified for the group stages of Europe’s top club competition – exacerbates. Scotland’s league is unsustainable as a spectacle; privately, Celtic and Rangers must know that.

They have a duty to work harder than ever to find an alternative. Scottish football will never die – it is far too important in a societal context – and attendance numbers remain impressive, yet a league where third place is the best possible outcome for 10 of the 12 teams is fundamentally flawed. Outsiders with broader experience or ambition rarely take long to grow bored of Scotland’s formulaic chase for the title.

There is a not unreasonable counterpoint. That is, major leagues all over Europe are hurtling towards monopoly or duopoly. Scotland is no different, goes this logic, to Germany, France, Spain or England. The trouble is that none of these countries are approaching four decades of the same old, same old.

Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea or – no laughing at the back – Manchester United most likely will not win the Premier League any time soon but it would be no epic shock if at some period over the next decade they did. Likewise, Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen or RB Leipzig. France has had a range of champions since the mid-80s. Lille claimed Ligue 1 as recently as 2021.

It is also necessary to point out that Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Manchester City, Real Madrid and Barcelona – and even those swatted into the distance – have established themselves at various recent points as among the best in Europe. Celtic were embarrassed by Bodø/Glimt last season and, although Rangers excelled in reaching the Europa League final, mere qualification for the Champions League sends Scotland’s big two giddy with excitement. Motherwell’s conquerors in Europe this season? Sligo Rovers.

Followers of Celtic and Rangers take the pointing out of this flawed domestic picture as a slight. It’s their bald-men-and-comb fight; and how dare anybody undermine it. It is as if their beloved clubs are being blamed for this hopeless scenario. Which they clearly are not.

Strangely, celebrations from the Old Firm’s away supports at Livingston, St Johnstone or Ross County are wilder than when the league was a far more appealing contest. There are two explanations for that. Perhaps those punters are trying to convince themselves that routine strolls in the park are wonderful. Or, as is more likely, the obsession of remaining one step ahead of their city rivals is all‑consuming. Ten other Premiership teams are necessary cannon fodder until the Scottish Professional Football League cuts to the chase and lets the Old Firm play each other 38 times.

Spending power and population reach are the reasons for this unbalanced mess. The solution is much trickier to pinpoint. Celtic and Rangers will have no problem highlighting disparity around their Champions League involvement but the blunt reality of their key players regularly earning 20, 25 or 30 times the wages of domestic opposition goes unremarked upon as parties are thrown after the trouncing of Kilmarnock. The Ayrshire club’s annual income is less than Celtic spent on Jota, who scored in a 5-0 rout at Rugby Park in mid-August.

Neither Celtic nor Rangers would ever agree to the splitting of gate monies to assist those seeking to challenge them. Sky’s imminent renewal of Scotland’s main broadcast deal will retain the requirement for four Old Firm matches per season, removing the possibility of a bigger league to at least create the illusion of a challenge. Cross-border competition could save Scotland’s problems but it is difficult to foresee what English Premier League clubs have to gain from a tartan invasion.

The inevitable intensity of Saturday’s Old Firm match is to be admired and enjoyed. However, it will fail to disguise the unsatisfactory domain that is Scotland’s Premiership. Only the blinkered can deny that.