Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Scottish Football Decade: SPL Champions

It would be nice to be writing a different article. One where I could wax lyrical about the SPL being one of the most open and competitive leagues in Europe. But I can’t. I can’t because Celtic and Rangers dominated the league in the past decade to a far greater extent than they have ever done in the past.

The truth is the Clydesdale Bank Premier League, as it is currently called, is a league within a league. The rest are playing for third. It’s depressing and it makes all our teams weak. Unfortunately it's not about to change.

The SPL in its current guise was only a year old as the old century turned into the new millennium. In 1999/2000 Rangers overcame the non-challenge that John Barnes presided over at Celtic Park to win the title. It was a harbinger of the seasons of doom to come that Celtic, despite Barnes’ Colonel Blimp impression, finished second.

John Barnes comedy failure did, in it’s own way, transform the landscape of the Scottish game. Surveying the wreckage of the Barnes experiment Celtic were forced to find a saviour. They duly appointed Martin O’Neill.

Just three months after O’Neill arrived in Glasgow Rangers spent £12 million on Tore Andre Flo. The pendulum of power had swung to Parkhead.

O’Neill won the title in 2000/2001 and successfully defended it a year later. By this time his foe in the Rangers dugout had transformed from Dick Advocaat into Alex Mcleish, poached from Hibs in December 2001.

And it was McLeish who was to earn the bragging rights in 2002/2003 when Celtic lost out on the final day – just days after their defeat in the UEFA Cup Final. O’Neill got the upperhand again the following year before McLeish nipped in again in 2004/2005 to deny O’Neill a final championship as he departed to move out of football temporarily to care for his wife.

That was to prove McLeish’s last title. Debates have raged over who was the better manager. In the end both won seven trophies, although O’Neill won one more league title and one more Scottish Cup. O’Neill reached a UEFA Cup Final, McLeish took Rangers into the last 16 of the Champion’s League. These comparisons are essentially pointless but, if I were asked to make the argument for either one, I’d have to go for Martin O’Neill.

In the end McLeish’s departure was messy and he took Rangers to third place in the league. That was their worst position in almost twenty years and, given the dominance the two clubs now enjoy, it's unthinkable for a manager not to guide them to first or second. It shouldn’t mask the good work that McLeish did but it remains a bad, bad addition to his CV.

With O’Neill gone it was the turn of Gordon Strachan to take the Celtic hotseat. It was the start of a relationship that had all the traits of a classic love-hate affair. Without the love. Whatever his battles with the Celtic fans, however hard he found dealing with the Scottish press and however embittered he eventually became Strachan delivered on his remit.

It was Strachan who became the only manager to win three straight SPL championships, the first Celtic manager to do so since Jock Stein. But for a late collapse in 2008/2009 he would have made it four before taking his leave.

Strachan also provided a stability that seemed lacking at Rangers. Alex McLeish was replaced by Paul Le Guen and Rangers had suddenly found their own John Barnes.

The story of Le Guen’s time at Rangers covers nobody in much glory. The players that undermined him, the board powerless to stop it happening and a manager who had failed to grasp the culture of the club. A shoddy mess.

In their desperation Rangers sent for Uncle Walter. The former manager had survived a bruising stay at Everton before rejuvenating his career by reviving the fortunes of the Scottish national team. Rangers had found their man and the Tartan Army were left to cry into their lager.

Walter Smith brought stability back to Rangers. And then he brought the league title back to them. For that he’s been awarded with the loss of his contract, conclusive proof that Rangers mismanagement of their affairs extended beyond Paul Le Guen.

Any survey of a decade of champions must make mention of Rangers winning their 50th league title: even Scotland’s uneven playing field can’t detract too much from that remarkable achievement. They’ve now got 52, Celtic have 42. And all the rest have 19 between them. It’s a gap that is only going to get bigger and bigger.

And what of Alex McLeish’s third place fiasco? It was Hearts who broke the stranglehold. Early in the season they looked like they might even win the whole shebang before Vladimir Romanov threw the first of a great many wobblies.

Some have begun to think that no team will ever repeat Hearts feat of splitting the big two. They might well be right. But as the decade ends and Rangers travel to Edinburgh to face third placed Hibs there might just be a glimmer of hope. A win for Hibs would throw them right into the title race. How heartening it would be if one of the last acts of this decade was to open up the possibility of a different name in the top two as the next decade begins.