I work with a man from Edinburgh. He’s a Hearts supporter. More importantly to me: he’s the one guy at work who will talk football. He’ll talk about any aspect any match any controversy any player you like. He keeps up with the English Premier League and though he’s never shown allegiance to any English side, he’ll always chat about the Liverpool result with me, showing an enthusiasm for our wins. I know his positivity is only on my behalf. It doesn’t matter to him directly if Liverpool wins or not. But I still like that moment where the Scotsman gives me a thumbs up and congratulates me on that last-minute goal from Gerrard, Torres or Benayoun, as if I’d somehow contributed – shouting from a pub in New England – to the glory and the points.
However, as much as I want to show the same interest in the side Des loves and chat about Scottish football with him, I have learned it is not always a good idea to bring up the Hearts result. I don’t always catch the score before I see Des at work. I’ll try to gauge by his mood if it’s safe to raise the topic. But he’s a professional bartender. Part of his job is to be cheerful all the time (or at least fake it), so it’s next to impossible to know if it’s safe to ask: “How’d your boys do today?”
When Hearts took on Celtic last weekend, I remembered to check the live score online for once. Hearts were up one-nil in the first half. Suso Setanta had put one away for the home team in the 5th minute. I was ecstatic. If Hearts could hold onto this lead, I could finally go into work and channel some enthusiasm back Desmond’s way. “Nice win, on Sunday, eh, Des?” He’d be on top of the world. I really wanted Hearts to win for Des’ sake. Besides: it’d be a great upset.
I was watching Chelsea/Spurs on the television, but I kept the Hearts/Celtic gamecast on the laptop. In the 55th minute Christopher Killen equalized for Celtic. A goal slathered in that sour taste of fate. I could picture Des at home. He shoulders sunken. His lips pursed. He shakes his head a little. But he’s seen this before. There’s no shock. Just the inevitable dismay and the faint belief his side can pull off another miracle.
As the match neared its end and the scoreline remained one all, I thought, well this is still something. Not nearly as good as the win, but Des will still probably be up for talking about the match and he’ll be in an okay mood having snagged a point from the Glaswegian powerhouse. “Looked like we had it, mate. But I’ll take the point.”
Then, in stoppage time (of course), Celtic won it. I didn’t see it, but according to ESPN’s live (typed) commentary it was a Glenn Loovens header off Aiden McGeady’s assist.
With the gap in quality between the Old Firm clubs and everybody else in the Scottish Premier League this must be a painful – yet familiar roller coaster – for, well, everybody else. The promise of that goal against the giant gives a lift so big – a soaring feeling as you start to believe – tempered by the memory that you’ve seen this before. So when you are pummeled in the end, it is no surprise, as you tumble back to the ground with all it’s reality and history scattered about the terrain.
In the Premier League we can talk about the dominance of Manchester United. We can talk about the big four. But Everton, Newcastle and Leeds have finished in the top four in the not-too-distant past and clubs like Spurs and Villa have threatened to upset the so-called hierarchy with sharp campaigns filled with promise and true grit.
Compare this to the SPL. Since 1999 there has been only one season when Celtic and Rangers were not the top two finishing sides. In 2006 Hearts finished above Rangers by a point (although they were still 17 points behind champions Celtic). Apart from that the Old Firm has consistently dominated the top two spots, often with a sizable gap in points between second and third place. In 2005 the gap was only 7, but that was the only time in the SPL era when it has been a single digit number. It has been as high as 34 (2003).
We’d have to back to before 1996 to find a period when Celtic and Rangers finishing top two wasn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion and, still, we’d have to go back to 1985 to find the last time a non-Old Firm club won the league title, when Aberdeen finished seven points clear of Celtic.
Basically, like my friend Des, supporters of other Scottish clubs can’t reserve hope for a chance at the title. So what drives the supporters? Does one spend the season hoping for a chance at European qualifying? Is not getting relegated enough glory?
In the Premier League at least there’s Champions League and, now, Europa League placement to fight for even if you know the title is out of reach.
The dichotomy between the top clubs and those below exists in many leagues all over the world. But in Scotland it has been stretched beyond belief for a long, long time. In England the gap might be a gulch. In Scotland it is an abyss.
So the question comes up (and this isn’t the first time): Should the Old Firm play in the Premier League rather than the Scottish League? Take the two teams who are a class apart and let everybody else enjoy a more leveled terrain?
Bolton’s chairman Phil Gartside is the man pushing for this to come into effect in a new system that would involve a two-tiered Premier League of 18 sides each. Gartside has also suggested eliminating relegation to the football league.
It seems a lot of change to ask of the current structure and it will be interesting to see what the governing bodies involved will say when the issue is brought up in a league meeting in November.
I don’t know how I feel about the two-tiered Premier League. I’m against it if it severs the ties with the leagues below. But the Old Firm look out of place where they are now. It might as well be a league of two as far as they are concerned. Perhaps we should make room for them someplace else.