WERE you anywhere near Hampden last Tuesday morning?
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Hear a sort of dull thumping sound from inside? That would have been the Scottish Premier League folk who’d just read their copy of The Telegraph, the one in which Craig Whyte revealed that Rangers were “actively” trying to find a way to leave and play in England. That’s the sort of line which would have Neil Doncaster, the SPL chief executive, clearing his diary so he could spend the morning banging his head off the nearest wall.
So Rangers are actively trying to quit the SPL for England. Still? How is that working out, then? There can’t have been a more wearisome and unchanging issue in Scottish football in the SPL era than the Old Firm trying to breathe life into the idea that they could play in England. Long before Whyte was on the scene, Sir David Murray used to talk it up. Eventually, even he admitted defeat and conceded that Rangers’ future lay in Scotland. Celtic worked even harder to find an escape route before quietly scaling down their efforts, too. Mercifully, it had all gone quiet . . . until Whyte opened up last week.
What was most dispiriting about the comments wasn’t the futility of flogging this dead horse again, but the fact the Rangers owner didn’t actually open up at all. With all due respect to Whyte, he said exactly the same stuff we all first heard over a decade ago: “We are not there but we would like to be. Joining the [English] Premier League is clearly something that we would like to see examined, it is something we are working on behind the scenes. But there are other potential ideas in terms of European leagues, joining some of the Nordic countries, the Netherlands, to create a league.”
There was enough there to make headlines, but it’s all been said a million times before. Rangers and Celtic going to England has been pursued and examined to death, and then put to bed. The last vote among the English clubs was a 20-0 “no thanks” to letting in the noisy neighbours.
Whyte may be new on the scene but he knows that as well as anyone. Given the earning potential of a move it would have been one of the first possibilities he examined when discussing a takeover with Murray. You can understand why Whyte – or Dermot Desmond at Celtic – would periodically throw out a line to keep the idea bubbling along. But an Atlantic League? Please. If ever an idea was dead in the water, it’s that one. Look at the crowds when potential Atlantic League clubs met in the Champions League or Europa League this season (when the stakes and appeal were far, far higher than they would be in any cobbled-together event for also-rans): Standard Liege v Copenhagen – 17,000, Braga v Brugges – 12,000. Whyte needs only note that the lowest attendance at Ibrox this season was for the Rangers v Malmo game, exactly the sort of fixture which they could face in any Atlantic League. Just 28,000 turned out. There were 15,000 more when they played Kilmarnock.
As for the claim that Rangers are “working behind the scenes”, if that’s true then Whyte needs to say more about it. What exactly are they working on? Are they receiving any encouragement? Rangers are one of the two biggest stakeholders in the SPL and that governing body is either about to commit to a two-year contract extension with Sky and ESPN (on improved terms), decide it can do better with another broadcaster, or even pursue the launch of its own pay-per-view channel. The options will be presented to the clubs next month and they will make a decision on it. They are entitled to know what Whyte was talking about.
Last season may have been ugly but it didn’t lack an audience. SPL viewing figures were up 28%. One of the Old Firm games gave Sky its highest ever viewing figures in Scotland. Everyone knows the standard of the teams and the league but if the SPL can tell broadcasters that people tune into it – even out of grim fascination rather than appreciation of the fine arts – then they have a chance of squeezing out better terms on a deal. That’s why Doncaster would have been entitled to feel exasperated and let down by what he read. How can he sit at a table with the broadcasters, bumming up the quality and strength of the SPL “product”, when Rangers are still going around briefing that they’re trying to get out of it?
Friday night football? No thanks. The experiment was a success the other night. Aberdeen and Partick Thistle drew respectable crowds – better than expected – and resounding home wins ensured that they went home happy. The novelty of it seemed to appeal to people. The SPL and Scottish Football League will extend the experiment and now have the option of scheduling certain fixtures on a Friday night (previously the police would not allow it). The exercise was rewarding for them.
But they haven’t stumbled on anything revolutionary here. It’s an option, no more than that. Saturday afternoon always has been the default slot for weekend football because it is the most convenient and attractive time for working people and schoolchildren. The fewer Fridays we have, the better.