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So, we’re back with the footie.

The juggernaut grinds on; and we salute the titans. Manchester United, Chelsea, Barca. Jose Mourinho’s sneer, Roberto Mancini’s rather dandyish scarf, Alex Ferguson’s gum shredding jaw muscles. What glamour, what passion, what thrills.*

*Except for viewers in Scotland.

There was a fair bit of anticipation when Hearts were drawn against Spurs in the Europa League qualifier, a rare bit of early-season excitement for Scottish football. God knows I’m no fan of Hearts, but at least they could look forward to a big, famous team coming to Tynecastle, on official business. Apparently the tickets sold out in record time.

How disappointing, then, to see Hearts 2-0 down almost before people had settled in their seats. And how deflating to see them lose 5-0 – five-nil! – at home. Deflating, but not surprising. God knows what the aggregate score will be. For Hearts’ sake, I hope Spurs put out a reserve team in the second leg at White Hart Lane, but even at that, I fear for them.

There’s mitigating factors. I doubt Jim Jeffries’ team would have lost 5-0. They’d still have lost, but not that badly. Romanov reaps what he sows, there.

But even so… It was hellish to watch. And I don’t like Hearts.

I’m a Celtic fan, and as such I am spoiled. We’re a big fish in a small pond, and while we’ve been bested three years in a row in the league by a supposedly financially moribund Rangers side, I can’t complain too much. We win trophies – most football fans can only dream of that. We win at least one of the cups every other year. And we’ve played in Europe. In the past 10 years I’ve seen my team contest a European final, while AC Milan, Juventus, Barcelona and Manchester United have all appeared at Celtic Park in competitive matches – and lost.

But that was 10 years ago. The decline since then – in fact, the decline since 2005 – has been stark. Even in the three years since Rangers got to the Uefa Cup final in 2008 (wrecking Manchester in the process; but let’s not be churlish), the drop in quality in Scotland has been shocking to see.

Rangers’ recent European record has been dreadful, but there’s nothing for Celtic fans to get smug about – at least the Gers were playing in Europe. Last year, Celtic were taken apart by Braga and Utrecht in the Champions League and Europa League qualifiers, respectively. Out of Europe before the season had actually started.

This was ignominious, but they still managed to win more matches at home in Europe than Rangers, who were pummelled in the Champions League. I remember them taking a big beating at home off such European luminaries as Unirea Urziceni a couple of seasons ago. No disrespect, but they sound like a bladder complaint. There may be a few bladder problems for Celtic and Rangers in the next few days, in fact – mainly relating to the one inside the match ball itself. Because the ball is burst for Scotland on the big stage.

This week, both Celtic and Rangers will have a hard job getting past sides they would have been expected to beat comfortably even two or three years ago in order to reach the group stages of the Europa League, the continent’s second-tier competition. In their first leg qualification ties, Celtic could only manage a 0-0 draw at home with Swiss outfit Sion, while Rangers lost 2-1 to Maribor of Slovenia.

If both the Ugly Sisters get knocked out after this week’s second legs – a distinct possibility, though I’d argue that Rangers have a better chance of making Friday’s draw than Celtic – this will see Scottish football rated somewhere about the level of Moldova and Andorra under Uefa’s coefficient system.

And with that, the chances of our top sides featuring in the Champions League group stages will get slimmer. There will be more and more qualifying rounds to go through, and more and more awkward opponents standing in the way of the group phases. It’ll be like the national side’s fate, in fact – seeded in the third pot for qualifying groups, and thusly with little or no chance of progressing to tournaments. I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever see Scotland play in the World Cup again.

Because of this European drought, it will be even more difficult to attract the kind of talent which we had gotten used to seeing at Celtic Park and Ibrox. If there’s no European football carrot – only the stick of SPL business – then the decline will continue.

Harry Redknapp said some harsh, but fair things last Thursday about the gulf in class between Scotland and England after his Spurs team embarrassed Hearts.

The gap is financial, of course, with the Sky TV money on offer even to teams like – no disrespect – Stoke, Wigan and Sunderland at least ten times that which Celtic and Rangers can expect to get from the SPL rights. The days of having Martin O’Neill as manager and seeing players like Chris Sutton, Henrik Larsson and John Hartson in the Hoops are long gone.

It’s annoying to get a ribbing from English colleagues about Scottish football. Only one of two teams can win your tinpot league, is the common argument.

I used to be able to hit back with: “Well, what do you call the English league, then? Who’s going to win that, outwith Manchester United and Chelsea?” No-one, is the answer. And, of course, I could always point to recent victories over English sides. Blackburn, Liverpool and Manchester United have all adopted a bit of a swagger before playing Celtic in recent years, and they all backed off with their tails between their legs.

But that was years ago – firmly in the past. The ass-kicking Hearts suffered was an ass-kicking for Scottish football. After seeing Celtic stumble to a 1-0 defeat at home to St Johnstone on Sunday, who’s to say that Spurs wouldn’t inflict similar damage at Celtic Park?

God, that self-same Spurs team went to Old Trafford last night, and they in turn were blown away, 3-0. That’s a frightening gap. The yahoos who say that Scotland’s top SPL sides would struggle in the Championship are being proved right. In some cases, even that comparison is generous.

Another common counter-argument is that Celtic and Rangers would dominate the English Premier League over time, with access to that revenue. This is usually met by scoffing – you might have had a wee scoff yourself – but look at the facts. They are massive clubs, well used to winning things as well as the constant pressure that comes with the expectation of victory every week.

I do believe that Celtic and Rangers, with the funds enjoyed by clubs like Manchester United and Arsenal, would be winning that league inside five years.

But I also believe that the fantasy of moving into the English system must now be dismissed.

It’s not going to happen. It wouldn’t be fair, for one thing, even if both clubs moved into the Conference. What about the teams in the league below that? Do their champions simply sit it out for a year? Plus, let’s be frank: they don’t want us. Look at what happened to Neil Lennon last year. Look at Manchester 2008. “No thanks,” would be my reaction, too.

With hindsight, it seems clear that Scottish football experienced some boom years in the wake of the Scottish Parliament being set up in 1999. Much like the media experienced a boom up north, with English titles taking a big interest in Scottish readerships, then interest rose over the two big football clubs in Celtic and Rangers. Money was spent on big, big players, and formidable teams were built. Although Martin O’Neill beat him handsomely, it’s worth remembering that Dick Advocaat put together a phenomenally good Rangers side, who were very unfortunate they didn’t make a real mark on Europe.

As for O’Neill’s Celtic, on their day, they could – and did – beat any team put down in front of them. Luck deserted the Northern Irishman in the Champions League, and one or two weak links in the side were all that stood in the way of the Uefa Cup in 2003.

O’Neill’s successor, Gordon Strachan, wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but he did an outstanding job with far less cash at his disposal. And he did what O’Neill couldn’t do – steered us through the Champions League group phase into the knockout round, twice. You can’t take that away from the wee man. Even thinking about Strachan’s finest hour – when we had a right go at Barcelona in the last 16, losing narrowly to a team which would become one of the best Europe has ever seen – seems like looking back into prehistory.

Here’s the thing, though. I reckon the only reason people like Advocaat and O’Neill (and also Paul LeGuen, for what it’s worth) came to Scotland in the first place was because there was a strong – and long-standing – suggestion Celtic and Rangers might defect to England. There can be no other reason that funds were found for John Hartson, Paul Gascoigne, Brian Laudrup, Neil Lennon, Tore Andre Flo (chortle!) and a host of other household-name stars. These were great days to be a fan of Celtic or Rangers, but they had to stop when it turned out that home-grown SPL fare was as good as it got for the bread-and-butter business of league football.

Factor in a recession, and there are worrying things happening in Scottish football, even among the big boys. On Sunday, there were around 40,000 people at Parkhead; the place was two-thirds full. For a league match in August!

During cup matches – even quarter-finals, unless against Rangers – the stadium looks empty. This was unthinkable six or seven years ago, with 60,000 sell-outs every other week. The signs are there; the decline looks like it can’t be arrested.

But there is a solution – we can turn things around. And we can do that by getting away from football’s troubling worship of money.

There are peaks and troughs in every football fan’s life, even if you’re into a big club. What Liverpool wouldn’t give to have the sort of success they had in the 1980s, now (although the spoiled gits did win the Champions League in 2005, with pretty much the same team Martin O’Neill’s Celtic wiped the floor with two years beforehand… I know, I know! I should leave it…).

Leeds United may be a better example. 1992 – Champions of England. 2001 – Champions League semi-finalists. 2009 – Third tier of English football. Nottingham Forest supporters will tell you a similar tale. These are the things that can happen. It could always be worse, folks!

But the money in the modern game is creating bloated, unpleasant behemoths. Some of the players seem to follow suit in behaviour, too. There’s a disconnect between top-earning footballers and the rest of society, even compared to as recently as 1995. Who can you relate to in Manchester United, or Chelsea, or Arsenal? In Wayne Rooney there’s a lad from a modest background made good, but as a role model he is hardly Bobby Charlton. Ditto John Terry, or Ryan Giggs.

And this constant spend-to-win attitude is not healthy, or fair. There’s a sense of entitlement about the so-called Big Four and one or two satellite sides, now, that sticks in the throat a bit. Chelsea, Man City and others in this non-stop billionaire-owned cash carnival seem a bit like that plonker you probably know who can’t wait to tell you about their new car or their big house or their talented children and how much lovely money they have.

You smile, and you put up with it, but… really, you’re thinking: get over yourselves. What we’re seeing in the English Premier League (as well as the Scottish top tier) is that this isn’t a level playing field. Victory is nothing to be smug about, in such a context. What we see is greed dictating merit, and this is never a good thing.

With this in mind, I can’t help but feel for poor old Arsene Wenger, though. My god, he is trying to do the right thing – building teams around young players, playing a good passing game that’s pleasant to watch, not splashing out on marquee signings, keeping a tight rein on his budgets.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s out of a job soon – and yet, he’s the only guy who has consistently tried to instil an ethic of quality, whether that’s in the way his teams play football or in the way he tries to build a hierarchy, and not a parade of star names.

To be fair to Sir Alex Ferguson, he’s setting his stall out in a similar way. Time will tell if you can or can’t win it with kids this year, but there’s a frugality in place at Manchester United which I find pleasing, in my Scottish closet-presbyterian way. Compare that to events at their near neighbours, and the gargantuan amounts of money being blown on superstar players. And yet, I can’t totally write Man City off for the league. It’s like when Chelsea started winning titles about seven years ago; they’ve got too much cash not to be successful.

But when all that’s said and done, even a less than earth-shattering signing like Nani still costs more than the entire first team squads of both Celtic and Rangers are worth in total. That’s the kind of gulf we are looking at, today.

What I’m trying to say is, Celtic and Rangers shouldn’t try to compete with this type of spending power. There is a way through the current predicament, and that is to look to local grassroots clubs and players, bringing through talented youngsters and teaching them good habits – being a local employer, in other words, with a sustainable business model on the pitch and off it, and not just being a staging post for over-priced signings who are, in all honesty, using the club as a shop window in order to win a transfer to England.

Ignore the hype, as Neil Lennon suggested the other week; stop comparing bank accounts and wallet sizes. We can’t compete there, so it’s pointless worrying about it. Let’s look at what we can do, and where we can go in the future. Never mind quick fixes and short-termism, loan signings and last-minute Bosmans. Let’s build teams, hierarchies, with local heroes.

What happened to Hearts hurt everyone in Scotland, and fuelled the clowns down south who cannot resist slating our game. I say, let them sneer. Mountains rise and fall; it’s just a matter of time. Once Sir Alex Ferguson finally bids farewell to Old Trafford (feet-first, in a box, I suspect), it wouldn’t shock me to see Manchester United’s fortunes nose-dive. We’ve all seen what happens when the plug gets pulled on money streams. Imagine if Sky were to collapse one day; if media revenues and advertising were to be slashed. What would happen to the English Premier League then? The Scottish situation would be replicated.

And you could argue, given the English national football team’s stunning failures in recent competitions, that the country is reaping just rewards from using a free-market system based on the ability to spend. The English top league is stuffed with foreign players, to the detriment of English-born ones missing out on opportunities. For all I praised Wenger earlier, I would draw attention to the fact that Arsenal have fielded teams with no English players in their ranks, which is a scandal. A truer representation of what English football used to be like can be found in the Championship – which, it must be said, has a comparatively high percentage of Scottish players.

Who knows – if the decline continues, perhaps the unthinkable will happen, and Celtic and Rangers will one day be overhauled. Maybe someone like Dundee United or Hearts will win the league. It would be a seismic shock if it happened, but I don’t think it will this year. Another couple of years like this one, though, and you never know.

It has to happen at some time. The mountains fall. And you can’t stop it. So ignore the big money, ignore the sniping, forget about playing the aristocrat; Scottish football needs to rebuild, and look to its own children for a brighter future. It’ll take time. We might well become a backwater, if we aren’t already. But at least get the infrastructure right, invest in talent, nurture it carefully, and there will be rewards.

The national side will benefit, too – we might even find ourselves at a World Cup. That qualifying group isn’t the worst we’ve ever had. Every single one of those teams could come to Hampden Park and lose. I can’t remember the last time I said that. Look to the future; Brazil 2014, to be precise. It can be done.

With planning, proper coaching and opportunities for our young players now, we can be there. Hey, even Euro 2012 isn’t out of the question. If we win our three qualifiers at home, we’re in the play-off position. Then a favourable draw – against England, ideally – and who knows?

Besides: the World Cup in Brazil. The idea of Scotland being there is almost too silly not to happen.


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