As Rangers walk out at Old Trafford today, old timers will recall when clashes between English and Scottish clubs were some of the biggest, most vibrant, most electric games imaginable.
The European Cup semi-final clash between Leeds and Celtic in 1970 was one of the most momentous games of that decade, possibly of all time. It was billed at the Battle of Britain and an incredible 136,505 watched the 2nd leg which was played at Hampden Park. Celtic ran out winners.
Even in 1992 when Rangers played Leeds, it was also a huge game – the first clash between Scotland and England in the European Cup since 1980 when Liverpool beat Aberdeen home and away.
However, despite this history this latest game has hardly cast a ripple of excitement across the British football firmament. The police are worried about it, fearing a clash of supporters erupting into running battles in the streets. But a far as the football goes, it’s just another game.
This is a measure of how far Scottish football has fallen. Rangers are 30 million quid in debt and playing in a league which just doesn’t generate much money. Manager Walter Smith has no money to buy players and is so cash strapped that when Ferguson offered him a couple of United squad players on loan, the Ibrox club couldn’t even afford the wages.
There is a distinct air of decay about Scottish football. Recently the national side only managed to beat Liechtenstein in the seventh minute of injury time. Scotland just isn’t producing top rank footballers in the way it used to.
Thirty years ago, Scottish players were crucial to every major side; now, not so much. Darren Fletcher is pretty much the only first team Scot at a top club. Somewhere along the line, for some reason, Scottish football atrophied. Some say it was an influx of cheap overseas players in the 90s that stifled the development of youth.
Whatever the reason, Rangers are simply not regarded as the football force they once were. It is now a smallish club coming to Manchester to try and nick a point as massive under dogs.
It is a very odd state of affairs because while Rangers are a small club in the Champions League in footballing terms, they are simply not a small club in any other respect. They have a global presence and can attract big crowds – an average of 47,000 last season. They’re a big name but without any weight or presence at this level.
But their diminished status in world football means tonight’s game will not be attracting much more than a casual glance from the impartial fans of the game. If they could somehow get a win, it would boost the profile of Scottish football at least briefly. However, there is a feeling about Scotland – which is where I live – that the game north of the border is in terminal decline. They’re losing ranking in Europe and Celtic’s capitulation at Utrecht in the Europa League will only make things worse in that regard. If Rangers don’t perform well in the Champions League and find themselves bottom of the league and out of all European competitions, it will be a new nadir for the Scottish game.
To those of us who remember the big clashes of the past, this is a sorry state of affairs. It should be a huge game tonight but outside of the two clubs’ supporters, it simply isn’t anymore.