Battles of Britain – Why does the Old Firm Premier League debate continue?

With Arsenal to meet Celtic in the Champions League qualifiers the ongoing debate surrounding the Old Firm clubs’ entry into the English Premier League will undoubtedly resurface. This argument has now perpetuated for the best part of two decades, with little sign of it being put to rest. Those that want Rangers and Celtic to compete with the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea on a weekly basis appear influential enough to keep the issue running. Yet if it was to happen, questions would arise as to what it would really mean for all parties involved, and whether or not it would be a fast-track to wealth and success for Scottish football’s big boys.

By the early part of this decade, with proposals for an Atlantic League shelved, the Old Firm clubs were enviously eyeing up the wealth and glitz of the Premier League. Even Alex Ferguson weighed in on the debate, arguing some kind of union was inevitable, but nothing concrete was ever proposed. Recently, new Celtic manager Tony Mowbray added his voice to those in support of such a proposal, and his comments followed those of Phil Gartside back in April. The Bolton Wanderers Chairman called for some kind of amalgamation, with the Scottish sides joining an 18 team ‘Premier League 2’ to complement a new 18 club top division.

There is clearly interest in making this a reality and particularly in the current football climate – if there is money to be made from any kind of scheme then it will carry a lot of weight no matter how far-fetched (i.e. Scudamore and his 39th fixture). For Gartside – a businessman with a stake in the financial security of the top level of English football – the addition of two well-supported clubs to the Premier League makes sense. Both Glasgow clubs’ average attendances top fifty thousand and they have an away support that will sell out most allocations. They can boast of a worldwide fan base and the inclusion of these famous clubs will only serve to increase the appeal of the Premier League’s global brand.

For Rangers and Celtic it would also be a good idea, both on and off the pitch. Competitive football on a weekly basis against top English clubs will be more of a draw than against the likes of Hearts, Falkirk and Hamilton – some of whose home attendances does not surpass five figures. In theory at least, playing in a stronger league will make for increased sources of revenue, and the Glasgow giants will be able to attract a better calibre of player in order to compete effectively in Europe. So far so good then, but hardly anything in football goes according to plan.

For Gartside to voice his support to such a scheme may appear like the proverbial turkey voting for Christmas. For two bigger clubs than his own to suddenly be thrown into the English football mix could be damaging for Bolton. Perhaps his proposal for a ‘Premier League 2’ was an insurance policy, yet if the Old Firm entered the current league structure at the top level, it would effectively mean relegation for five Premier League clubs. It is not too far-fetched to suggest the Trotters would be involved in a relegation battle that season. There would be serious objections to any such proposal for owners of clubs struggling in the lower half of the table, but also for those teams trying to break the into the top four, such as Aston Villa, Everton and Manchester City.

As for Rangers and Celtic, there is absolutely no guarantee that they would immediately compete for a Europa League place, let alone the Champions League spots, particularly if they did not immediately join the top division as some have suggested. When looking at this summer’s pre-season friendly results between the Old Firm and English league opposition the signs are not too encouraging for the Scottish clubs. Having played six games against Premier League sides, Rangers and Celtic managed just one win each and lost four. Obviously, it is foolish to read too much into these games, but if these were league matches, six points from a possible eighteen would be a relegation form. They would have to immediately spend big to have any chance of playing European football in the near future, and any prolonged absence from the Champions League may be even more financially restricting than remaining in the Scottish Premier League. But as fans of Newcastle United, Sunderland and Tottenham know only too well, spending big does not always equal success.

As for the rest of the SPL, they would immediately lose out on the television revenue, and gate receipts that the two giants routinely bring in, yet that is not the only strand to the debate. As Dundee United manager Craig Levein suggested in reaction to Gartside’s proposal: “On a purely selfish note if they were not in the league it would be easier for us to win it. I think there would be five or six teams in with a chance of winning the league.” Like Terrors’ fans, supporters of Hibs, Hearts, Aberdeen and Motherwell – for whom finishing third is as good as it gets – might actually see their sides lift more than the odd League Cup.

However, this alone is not a strong enough argument for the Old Firm to join the English Premier League. The Arsenal vs. Celtic ties to be played later this month will undoubtedly be noisy, passionate and exciting affairs. Murmurings will arise about how this could be the reality every week of the season, but perhaps it is the infrequency of such Battles of Britain that is the real appeal.

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