There was a report in the British press earlier this week in which the UK prime minister David Cameron is said to have expressed his desire for the Glasgow “Old Firm” of Celtic Football Club and Rangers Football Club to join the English Premier League (EPL). One may question Cameron’s political motives behind the proposal as he seeks to influence the vote north of the border in the oncoming referendum on Scottish independence to be held in September 2014 but the idea is far from new. In the Former Soviet Union (FSU), momentum has also gathered pace as a number of owners from top clubs in Russia and Ukraine seek to form a breakaway championship run along the same lines as the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) which has been a major success since its inception in 2008. In the United States three Canadian clubs feature alongside their American counterparts showing that cross-border championships do happen in soccer as well as in other sports such as ice hockey, basketball and baseball. If the ideas proposed in the UK and the Former Soviet Union are eventually given the green light in the future will the leagues be as super as they look on paper or will it destroy the essence of the game?
As the Scottish Premier League has diminished in strength over the last 25 years it was always going to result in calls for the big two of the Scottish game to apply to join the English league system. Since Aberdeen FC, under the management of Alex Ferguson, became the last team from outside the Old Firm to win the Scottish championship in the 1984-85 season, Rangers and Celtic have completely dominated the league to the point where any potential third force capable of breaking the duopoly seems almost impossible. But where would the Old Firm begin any potential English journey? Some have suggested that they should begin the Conference league (fifth tier), some say in the Championship (second tier) whilst some call for the Old Firm to join the Premier League at the first opportunity in order to increase what is already a substantial TV contract. Were the two Glasgow giants to join the EPL any time soon they see themselves playing against the likes of traditional major English clubs such as Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea, to name but four, as well as the possibility of facing the two biggest Welsh clubs of Swansea City, who are already in the EPL, and Cardiff City, who look very likely to join them next season, in order to create a truly British super league.
This proposal, although attractive to many, would also see any number of clubs voting themselves out of a certain league in order to accommodate the Old Firm. Therefore the situation would be unlikely as it would be like turkeys voting for Christmas but it seems unlikely that the issue will go away. The alternative for the Old Firm would be to create what has been termed the “Atlantic League” along with the biggest clubs from the likes of Portugal, Netherlands, Belgium and Scandinavia in order to create more meaningful and lucrative opposition. The biggest clubs from those countries, for example FC Porto, Ajax Amsterdam and RSC Anderlecht, continue to dominate leagues in which competition over the years has weakened due to the increasing financial and sporting might of the big leagues. An Atlantic League would, therefore, allow stronger competition outside of officially sanctioned UEFA tournaments such as the Champions League and Europa League.
In the case of the Former Soviet Union there will be many who miss football matches of the calibre of Spartak Moscow v Dynamo Kyiv, Zenit Saint Petersburg v Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk and Shakhtar Donetsk v CSKA Moscow. Owners and sponsors of the some of the biggest football clubs in the region are behind the idea to merge the top leagues of Russia and Ukraine together. Just like with the situation in the UK, there are perhaps political machinations at work in relation to the proposed new set-up here too. Ukraine is a country which is stuck between a rock and a hard place and seems to face a choice as to whether it wishes to become a member state of the European Union or to align itself with its former master of Russia. Whatever the political issues the new money which is prevalent amongst the biggest clubs in both Russia and Ukraine could force the hand of European football’s governing body UEFA who are naturally against such mergers. Increasingly, in the modern game, money talks and one wonders if the status quo will remain in place for much longer especially as the sport of ice hockey in the FSU region provides the footballing hierarchy with a prime example of a trans-national sporting competition which provides ice hockey clubs from Russia the chance to compete in arguably the second best competition in the world (after the National Hockey League in the US and Canada) alongside clubs from Ukraine, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Belraus, Czech Republic and Slovakia.
It is not just in ice hockey where the trans-national approach has been broadly welcomed. Rugby union has embraced such competition in both the northern and southern hemispheres with the Anglo-Welsh Cup, Celtic League (top 14 clubs from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy), Heineken Cup (equivalent to the UEFA Champions League) and the Super 15 (featuring the top 15 provincial teams from Australia, South Africa and New Zealand). The other oval ball code of rugby league also embraces such competition but on a much limited scale with one French club, the Catalan Dragons, playing in the northern hemisphere UK-based “Super League” whilst the New Zealand Warriors feature in Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL). As mentioned at the top of the piece there is currently one example of a football championship which currently uses such a system, namely Major League Soccer. Three of Canada’s top clubs – Toronto FC, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps – play alongside the best 16 American clubs in a league which is run alongside similar lines to the other major leagues of ice hockey (NHL), baseball (MLB) and basketball (NBA).
These events have largely come about for two reasons. With travel getting easier and the world becoming smaller thanks to modern technology it is natural that teams and individuals want to constantly challenge themselves against the very best on a regular basis. With the financial rewards that this brings then it is, for better or worse, another natural consequence that such teams and individuals will try to gain those rewards and, if necessary, upset the status quo in order to do so. If UEFA was to allow such cross-border league mergers along the Russia/Ukraine route or allow more of the MLS style leagues to become a reality (for example, a British League as discussed) then this could, and probably would, open up a can of worms for the game’s administrators at both UEFA and at FIFA, world football’s governing body. If such eventualities occur in Europe then how long before mergers become commonplace in South America, Africa, Asia and Oceania? Whereas administrators from other sports have had to think outside the box and have undertaken such measures in order to broaden their appeal, football is the one truly global sport and it seems that whatever the traditions and customs which have made the game great in the past, its future could and probably will take a financially driven path down a whole new route.
While the rest of European football shuts down for a well-earned break at Christmas time there is no such luxury in the United Kingdom. It has long been a traditional within the Home Nations to continue over the festive period and this season will should see some interesting action.
In England there is the very real possibility of the top two teams pushing away from all the rest to indulge in their own private dual to win the Barclays Premier League. Manchester City (Played 17, Points 44) will top the standings on Christmas Day for the first time since 1929 but they only have a two point advantage over arch-rivals United who, as usual at this time of year, are peaking are just the right time. Having trailed City by seven points only a few weeks ago, United are now breathing down their neighbours’ necks and have dropped only two points out of the last 24 available since they suffered an embarrassing 6-1 at the hands of City in the Manchester derby.
City will hope to preserve their place at the top but will face tough challenges against West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns on Boxing Day followed by a home tie against a Sunderland team revitalized since Martin O’Neill became their manager a fortnight ago. Roberto Mancin’s men have done well to remain at the top given all of the antics happening on and off the field. The Carlos Tevez saga has annoyed and bored everybody in equal measure whilst Mario Balotelli remains a constant source of fascination whether he is setting off fireworks in his home United, meanwhile, will play two home games, both of which look very winnable on paper. Wigan Athletic have taken points from both Chelsea and Liverpool in their last two games but recent history suggests that the Latics will do very well to take anything off United as the Lancashire side have lost every game against United in thirteen matches since they came into the Premier League in 2005. Blackburn Rovers are the visitors to Old Trafford on New Year’s Eve with Rovers fans’ campaign to get rid of their coach Steve Kean likely to take up the headlines going into that match.
In case either of the Manchester teams slip up Tottenham Hotspur are still the best placed team to take advantage despite their 1-1 draw at home to Chelsea FC on Thursday night. Spurs face two of last season’s three promoted sides in the form of Norwich City and Swansea City over the festive period. Three-time Premier League champions Chelsea hope to maintain their top four ambitions with wins in the local derby at home to Fulham FC and against struggling Aston Villa. Just outside of the Champions League places Arsenal FC have two home games against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Queens Park Rangers whilst Liverpool, who have had to contend with recent allegations of racism towards star player Luis Suarez, also have two home games with Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United providing the opposition. Nothing less than six points will do for the Reds who have struggled for consistency and dropped too many points against teams they should’ve beaten this season. If Kenny Dalglish’s men are to challenge for the Champions League spots then they really need to start a good run from here.
In Scotland defending champions Glasgow Rangers (Played 19, Points 48) have an early kick off today away to St Mirren with three points essential if the Gers are to at least preserve their current four point lead going into next Wednesday’s Old Firm derby against eternal rivals Glasgow Celtic. Neil Lennon’s Celtic side have a home tie against sixth placed Kilmarnock today with the former having enjoyed a run of seven straight wins following a tough start to the season. Old Firm games always have something riding on them and Wednesday’s encounter will be no exception. The first meeting between Rangers and Celtic this season saw the former etch out a 4-2 win over the latter after Celtic had led the game 2-1 at half-time. Celtic, however, will have home advantage next time and go into the game in better form. Even so coach Lennon must prove that this is a Celtic team that will be capable of taking the champions all the way in this season’s title race following a three year title drought at Parkhead.
Outside of the Old Firm, Motherwell have had a great season under Stuart McCall and they hope to continue their impressive form with wins against Heart of Midlothian, who have been beset by internal upheaval with players in dispute over unpaid wages throughout the season, and Dunfermline who are currently bottom of the table on goal difference with Edinburgh side Hibernian just above them on goal difference. Speaking of Hibs they will face local rivals Heart of Midlothian in the capital city derby on January 2nd in a game neither club dare lose given their current predicaments.
In the Welsh Premier League there is currently an exciting tussle at the top with the best three sides – Llanelli AFC, The New Saints and Bangor City – all separated by just two points. With just two games left before the twelve team league is split up into two groups of six it is imperative for clubs to see out 2011 on a high. League leaders Llanelli (Played 20, Points 45) will face off home and away against fourth place Neath Athletic, who are ten points behind the league leaders, whilst The New Saints and defending champions Bangor City will also face double headers against Newtown and Prestatyn Town respectively.
In Northern Ireland table toppers Linfield FC (Played 22, Points 52) have a five point lead over Portadown and Cliftonville going into the festive period. Record champions Linfield, who won their 50th championship last season, will meet fifth placed Glentoran and ninth placed Glenavon over the next seven days. Should Linfield slip up then Portadown and Cliftonville will be looking to close the gap. Portadown, whose last league title came in 2002, have games against Glenavon and sixth placed Crusaders to look forward to whilst Cliftonville, whose most recent title triumph came in 1998, meet Crusaders and fourth placed Coleraine FC.
All of the four major championships in the United Kingdom are under way for the 2011-12 season. The big kick-off took place in the English and Welsh Premier Leagues on Saturday whilst the Northern Irish championship and Scottish Premier Leagues are two and four weeks old respectively.
It may only be the opening weekend but The Barclays Premier League saw, just like in previous seasons, yet another round of games in which champions Manchester United enjoyed a late win whilst many of their title rivals dropped points to lesser teams. Sir Alex Ferguson’s United were being held 1-1 by West Bromwich Albion before a Steven Reid own goal gave the Red Devils three points with eight minutes remaining. This happened on a weekend in which Chelsea (0-0 v Stoke City), Arsenal (0-0 v Newcastle United) and Liverpool (1-1 v Sunderland) all faltered early on to ensure that the Premier League kept up its tendency to allow perennial champions United the opportunity to take advantage of opposition ineptitude. Bolton Wanderers take the plaudits for their 4-0 thrashing away to newly-promoted Queen’s Park Rangers whilst Wolverhampton Wanderers came from behind to defeat Blackburn Rovers 2-1 at Ewood Park. There were opening day draws for Fulham (0-0 v Aston Villa) and Wigan Athletic (1-1 v Norwich City) whilst Manchester City begin their campaign at home to Swansea City on Monday night. The game between Tottenham Hotspur and Everton, scheduled to be played at White Hart Lane on Saturday, was postponed due to the recent rioting that affected the area last week.
The Welsh Premier League also began this weekend with a win for the champions Bangor City. In a highly entertaining game Bangor gained some revenge for their Welsh Cup final defeat last season to Llanelli AFC by defeating the same opponents by three goals to two. Alan Bull scored twice including the winner in the 85th minute to ensure that the champions got off to winning ways. The biggest winners of the opening weekend were Neath Athletic for whom Lee Trundle scored twice in a 4-2 win over Aberystwyth Town. Elsewhere the other two teams enjoying a winning start to the new season were Newtown AFC (1-0 v Carmarthen Town) and Prestatyn Town (1-0 v Afan Lido) whilst five-time champions The New Saints could only draw 1-1 to Bala Town which was the same score line seen at the Airbus UK versus Port Talbot Town fixture.
The Carling Premiership sees familiar faces at the top of the table with both Linfield FC and Glentoran FC as the only teams to enjoy a 100% record after two matches. Defending title holders Linfield FC put five past Donegal Celtic this weekend with Philip Lowry getting on the score sheet four times in their 5-0 win. Glentoran FC scored both goals in their 2-0 win over Dungannon Swifts in the first half as an Adam McMinn own goal and Darren Boyce strike sealed the three points for the home side. Elsewhere Ballymena United and Cliftonville followed up opening day wins with closely fought draws with the former involved in a thrilling 3-3 at home to Glenavon and the latter saw a first half lead equalized midway through the second half by a Leon Knight goal in a 1-1 draw.
The Clydesdale Bank Scottish Premier League began a couple of weeks early this season and, having played four matches so far, Motherwell FC are currently enjoying life at the top of the table. They sealed their third win of the season this Saturday when defeating St Mirren 1-0 thanks to a Tom Hateley free-kick in the penultimate minute of the match. Both of the Old Firm also enjoyed wins as Glasgow Celtic thrashed Dundee United 5-1 while Glasgow Rangers made hard work of a 2-0 win away at Inverness Caledonian Thistle. With the Old Firm having a game in hand Motherwell may not find themselves in first place for very long. At the bottom of the table Aberdeen FC find themselves struggling along with Inverness and Perth-based St Johnstone as the only clubs in the league without a win. It is a blow for former Scotland coach Craig Brown who left Motherwell FC in controversial circumstances last season to take up the job at Pittodrie which has become something of a poisoned chalice in recent seasons.
The Scottish Premier League (SPL) returns to action earlier than usual having been brought forward by three weeks. The feeling is that an earlier start to the season will help those clubs who are to represent Scotland in UEFA club competition be more prepared from a fitness point of view as well as make fixture congestion less likely to occur later on in the campaign. This move follows last season’s chaotic finish due to the harsh winter that affected the league midway through the campaign.
Champions Glasgow Rangers are looking forward to a new era under the guidance of club legend Ally McCoist. The former Scotland international striker will be fighting it out, although one hopes not literally, with his counterpart from arch rivals Glasgow Celtic Neil Lennon who, in his second full season, will expect to go one better than last season and win the SPL title. There is no love lost between the two managers who are both strongly associated with their clubs from their playing days. The two almost came to blows after a fiery Scottish Cup match last season with the rivalry between the two clubs reaching boiling point as they met seven times in all competitions. Last season saw Rangers clinch a record extending 54th Scottish championship by just a single point following a last day 5-1 victory away at Kilmarnock.
But now that Walter Smith has finally left the Ibrox club it is hoped by fans of the Hoops that Lennon may just have his turn to win the title for Celtic which would be their first championship in four seasons. But the clubs will have to make do with most of last season’s squads as neither club has had a lot to play with in the summer transfer window. It says much about the parlous state of Scottish football that even the Old Firm clubs are reduced to signing players on a limited budget. Victor Wanyama and Juan Manuel Ortiz, Celtic and Rangers’ most expensive signings this summer respectively, were signed for the modest sums of £1 million and £500,000 whilst all of the other SPL clubs have had to offload players before they can buy or have made the most out of free transfers and loan deals in the summer period.
In the annual race to finish best of the rest the usual suspects such as Heart of Midlothian and Dundee United will be prominent in the fight for third place and maybe one of the cup competitions although both teams have been very limited in adding to their squads thus far. The likes of Aberdeen and Hibernian, both of whom would normally expect to finish in the top six, struggled last season with respective finishes of ninth and tenth. Both Colin Calderwood (Hibernian) and Craig Brown (Aberdeen) joined their clubs as manager in 2010 so have only been at the helm for just over half a year and will hope that their squad changes will herald better fortune. Motherwell have shown some consistency in recent years having finished in the top six three times in the last four seasons and will hope to continue such form under Stuart McCall who replaced Craig Brown at Fir Park last season whilst Kilmarnock hope to progress from their fifth place finish in 2010-11 and compete for a European place.
Amongst the likes of St Johnstone, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and St Mirren the realistic target at the start of the new campaign will be to preserve their Premier League status. All of those clubs finished comfortably ahead of Hamilton Academicals at the end of last season but won’t know what to expect from newly promoted Dunfermline Athletic this time around. Last season’s First Division champions Dunfermline have recruited mainly from the lower leagues but hopes are high at the club that manager Jim McIntyre can surprise a few people and help the club remain competitive throughout the season.
On the opening weekend of the season Glasgow Rangers will perform the traditional unfurling of the championship flag at home to Heart of Midlothian on Saturday lunchtime with Aberdeen meeting St Johnstone and Motherwell playing Inverness CT later that day. Another clash of Scotland’s two biggest cities happens on Sunday when Edinburgh club Hibernian meet Glasgow Celtic at Easter Road with Dundee United having a home tie against Kilmarnock on the same day. The final match of the opening round will take place on Monday night as Dunfermline will unfurl the First Division championship flag at home to St Mirren.
All four championships of the United Kingdom have been completed for another season. Stoppage Time – International Football Blog reviews the situation in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
Manchester United finally broke the stranglehold of their arch-rivals Liverpool FC and won a record 19th English championship thanks to a combination of some late-winners and ineptitude of their fellow title challengers. The Red Devils were unbeaten for their first 24 matches of the Premier League season despite the fact that they played far from free-flowing football but the team’s spirit allowed them to remain at the top of the table for most of the season. Manchester City, forever living in the shadow of their more illustrious neighbours, finally had a trophy to show for their efforts as they defeated Stoke City in the English FA Cup final. Chelsea FC, who were defending the title at the start of the season, started superbly but saw their form dip from November into the early weeks of the new year and allowed North London rivals Arsenal FC to overtake them as United’s main challengers. However Arsene Wenger’s men also collapsed in a manner which used to befit the English national cricket team as they saw their chances of winning four trophies in one season reduced to dust in the last couple of months and they finished the season empty-handed. Tottenham Hotspur pipped Liverpool FC into fifth place and the final UEFA Europa League spot but both teams will consider the season to have been a disappointing one. At the other end of the table West Ham United lost their first four games of the campaign and remained rooted to the bottom of the league all season. Birmingham City, who defeated Arsenal FC in the Carling League Cup final, also drop into the Championship (2nd tier) next season along with Blackpool FC.
WATCH MANCHESTER UNITED DRESSING ROOM CELEBRATIONS HERE:
It was a troubled season in the Scottish Premier League but, despite the negative headlines which affected Scottish football in the last few months, there was a fantastic title chase between the two Old Firm giants. Glasgow Rangers finally managed to clinch a world record extending 54th domestic championship on the final day of the season when their 5-1 victory away at Kilmarnock saw them over the line. Outgoing manager Walter Smith leaves the club having won his tenth SPL title with the Ibrox club and will go down as a club legend, especially as he also sealed a double triumph having beaten arch-rivals Glasgow Celtic to the CIS Insurance League Cup in a tense Hampden Park final in March. At least the green and white half of Glasgow had some silverware of their own to celebrate as they won the end of season showpiece Scottish FA Cup final with a 3-0 win over Motherwell, allowing manager Neil Lennon the chance to reward the loyal fans who had stood behind him during difficult times. Outside the Old Firm Hearts of Midlothian showed signs of a title challenge in the early months of the season which, sadly for them, evaporated as the season progressed but at least the Edinburgh club could claim to be the “best of the rest” finishing third in the table. They will play in the UEFA Europa League next season along with fourth place Dundee United whilst, at the bottom of the table, Hamilton Academicals will go down into the First Division (2nd tier) next season.
WATCH GLASGOW RANGERS TITLE CELEBRATIONS HERE:
The Welsh Premier League had a final day title decider which was worthy of the name. With just a single point separating them, Bangor City and defending champions The New Saints would face off on the final day at the former’s Farrar Road stadium to decide the destination of the title. Bangor City scraped a 1-0 win and claimed their third league title by just two points allowing them the opportunity to compete in next season’s UEFA Champions League qualifying rounds. Bangor City were in line to celebrate a league and cup double for the first time in the club’s history having also reached their fourth consecutive Welsh Cup final but blew their big chance, going down to a 4-1 defeat at the hands of Llanelli AFC which proved to be a maiden Cup triumph for the victors. The New Saints got their hands on the final piece of silverware, winning an exciting Welsh Premier League Cup final against Llanelli by four goals to three. As well as the two victorious cup sides, Neath Athletic will also feature in the UEFA Europa League next season after they won an end-of-season play-off tournament. At the bottom Haverfordwest County look set to drop down into the second tier having only accumulated 19 points in 32 games.
WATCH BANGOR CITY v THE NEW SAINTS TITLE DECIDER HIGHLIGHTS HERE:
There appears to be no stopping Linfield FC at the moment. The dominant force of the Northern Ireland Premiership easily won their 50th championship from nearest challengers Crusaders FC by a gaping margin of eleven points. The latest league triumph was the fifth in the last six years for Linfield who also secured the Irish Cup at the hands of Crusaders winning the final in their Windsor Park home by two goals to one. The League Cup final saw a new name on the trophy as Lisburn Distillery defeated Portadown and, at the very least, allowed somebody else to experience some success. Crusaders, Glentoran and Cliftonville FC will compete in the UEFA Europa League qualifying rounds next season whilst Newry City will find themselves playing second division football in 2011-12 having finished bottom of the table.
WATCH LINFIELD FC v PORTADOWN FC & TITLE CELEBRATIONS HERE:
The attack on Glasgow Celtic coach Neil Lennon by an opposing supporter in Wednesday’s Scottish Premier League match against Heart of Midlothian is the latest in a string of unsavoury incidents that have been directed at the former Northern Ireland international player. Surely now is the time for such ugly personal attacks on Lennon to stop.
It has been well documented in the recent past that Lennon, a lifelong Celtic fan from Northern Ireland, has been the victim of a targeted campaign including death threats, parcel bombs and assaults throughout his career and the latest episode, which took place in Celtic’s 3-0 win over Hearts in the SPL, has completely overshadowed what has been an exciting championship chase between the Bhoys and their Old Firm counterparts Glasgow Rangers.
How much more abuse and personal vitriol Lennon is expected to take is open to question and one wonders whether he will tough it out beyond this season. The attack on him from the Hearts supporter, who was promptly arrested at the scene, was all the more suprising considering he has 24 hour security on the back of the recent discovery just two months ago of a parcel bomb which was intended for him in the post. This incident, therefore, could either be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, thus calling time on Lennon’s insofar brief tenure at the club, or it will drive him on to show his critics that he will continue no matter the provocation. Lennon appears to be, on the surface, a tough nut who has handled most things thrown at him but even the man himself must wonder if it is worth carrrying on given the circumstances.
One hopes, for his sake and for that of Scottish football, that this catalogue of disgraceful incidents will stop before he, or anyone else for that matter, ends up on the receiving end of something truly tragic.
In the continuing struggle to find a format to make the Scottish Premier League more interesting it is quite astonishing that the top administrators can think of nothing more radical than to reduce the number of teams in the top flight from twelve to ten. This would, in no way, improve the situation and would only allow the Old Firm to further dominate both on and off the pitch.
Stoppage Time – International Football Blog argued in a post in on April 13th last year (“SPL In Need Of a Shake-Up”) that the Scottish game should be changing the format comprising of a 16 team top flight. Here is the proposal I made in that post:
“…….the Scottish Premier League should be looking at ways to increase the league to sixteen teams, therefore playing thirty league matches. This will mean that clubs have more time to recuperate inbetween matches, even allowing for the fact that there are two domestic cup competitions in Scotland. At least there will be a balanced fixture list which is drawn up at the start of the season with teams not playing against the same opposition so many times. The clubs may talk about losing potential revenue, especially the smaller clubs who rely on the Old Firm coming to their grounds at least four times a season, but I think the financial aspects will sort themselves out over time. If one wants an example of a country with a sixteen team league and two domestic knockout competitions which is doing well in UEFA’S Co-Efficient table (a system used to rank leagues across Europe) then Portugal is perfect. Using a similar system to the one suggested Portugal currently ranks as Europe’s ninth strongest league in the UEFA rankings and their clubs have often performed well in European competition, an area where Scottish football as a whole really needs to improve despite the heroics of the Old Firm reaching UEFA Cup finals in recent years.”
However it seems that the 16 team SPL isn’t such a good idea for SPL chief executive Neil Doncaster who says that if such a move were to take place you would “take away half of the big games”. In that sentence it would seem that he is accepting that the over-reliance on the Old Firm to provide the “big games” in the SPL is still prevalent to the thinking of the game’s administrators in Scotland. What harm can it do to have just two Old Firm games in the SPL every season as opposed to the current four? The people who should matter but seemingly do not – the fans – think that the current set-up is boring and that a reduction to ten teams would not make a jot of difference other than making it easier to get rid of the “split table” which occurs in the current system after 33 matches. Also, looking down the league pyramid, there would be another 26 teams who currently occupy the leagues below the SPL to consider in the event of any restructuring. For me the answer would be to have two divisions of fourteen teams below a 16 team top-flight. Before you think my maths have gone astray let me explain: a fourteen team Division 1 would leave twelve teams left in Division 2. An additional two teams can, therefore, come up from the Highland Football League into Division 2. There is a precedent for this eventuality which occurred in 1994 when the likes of Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Ross County joined the Scottish Football League (SFL) when the league system was changed in order to accommodate four leagues of ten.
Advocates of the ten team model are at pains to stress that the last time this model was used between 1975-2000 the likes of Aberdeen FC and Dundee United won four league titles between them but all of those titles were achieved in the 1980s which was a very different time when the top flight was pretty much comprised of good Scottish players spread throughout the league in an age when money wasn’t the be all and end all. The Scottish game at that time also had much bigger crowds because there was more competition between teams. If bringing this competitive streak back to Scottish football was to be the main principle behind restructuring the league – as opposed to solely those of a financial nature – then the fans would come back to games. Seeing as Scottish football enjoys more people per head of population going through the turnstiles than any other league then the prospect of increased attendances should appeal to all in the SPL.
One aspect in which I agree with Neil Doncaster is that there should be play-offs between the various divisions and not at the top of the SPL which should be decided by first-past-the-post. Various leagues in Europe presently have either a play-off system (e.g. San Marino) or split the league into a championship group and relegation group (e.g. Israel) in order to add more excitement but, as a traditionalist, my preference is to maintain the theory of whoever scores most points over “x” number of games wins the championship. Again hardly a radical solution but sometimes its the simplest things that make the most sense. Scottish football please take note.
Despite all of the terrible weather causing many a game to be postponed in the Scottish Premier League over the Christmas period the title race has, momentarily, had new life breathed into it due to the re-emergence of Heart of Midlothian as a potential third force ready to take on the might of the Old Firm. Speaking of the Old Firm the last significant game of the festive programme took place at Ibrox Park between Glasgow’s big two, Rangers and Celtic, and the result could prove to be significant.
The heavy snow which has affected the United Kingdom, and Scotland in particular, had a profound effect on the football programme as many games were called off in the last couple of weeks. In that time Heart of Midlothian have provided a shot in the arm for the SPL having improved on their recent good form which has seen them take 25 of the last 27 points available, the 1-1 home draw against Inverness Caledonian Thistle on December 18th being the only points to have been dropped since the Edinburgh side last lost a game on October 31st. On New Year’s Day Hearts got the better of their local rivals Hibernian FC for the second time this season with a last minute goal from Kevin Kyle proving decisive just days after the Jambos had beaten St Mirren in their second match over Christmas.
Glasgow Celtic had played three consecutive matches at home in December with a draw at Kilmarnock being followed by narrow wins over St Johnstone and Motherwell. Glasgow Rangers, on the other hand, had only featured in one match which resulted in an easy 4-1 away win over Motherwell. Leading up to the big one, however, the champions hadn’t played a game at their Ibrox home since early November and their next match there would take place on a date with tragic significance. January 2nd, 1971 will always be remembered in Glasgow as the date of the Ibrox stadium disaster and today was the 40th anniversary. The day started with the laying of a wreath at a statue of the lengendary Rangers player John Greig who was there in person today to begin the commemorations. He and former Celtic captain Billy McNeill walked both of the teams out on to the pitch where a minute’s silence was observed. When the game began it took some time for both teams to get into a rhythm following the emotion of the day. However the game was stuck in a goalless rut before a mistake by Rangers keeper Allan McGregor in the 62nd minute allowed Giorgios Samaras to knock the ball home to give Celtic the lead. The same player made sure of the three points eight minutes later after converting a penalty kick. The resulting 2-0 victory allowed the Bhoys to increase the gap at the top of the table to four points but the Gers do have two games in hand.
After the top three, Kilmarnock FC have the best recent record with the Christmas period proving kind to them following two wins against Hibernian and Inverness CT and a draw away at Celtic. Inverness CT, whose form had been good until Christmas, saw their progress take a downturn falling from third to fifth following Xmas defeats to St Mirren and St Johnstone as well as Kilmarnock. The dip in fortune for Inverness was all the more strange given that they had held all Rangers, Celtic and Hearts to respectable draws in the games right ahead of the Xmas programme.
In the rest of the lague the most significant event saw Craig Brown controversial leave his old club Motherwell in favour of a move to fallen giants Aberdeen FC after the Pittodrie club sacked previous coach Mark McGhee following a string of terrible results. Since Brown’s appointment Aberdeen FC have improved with two wins and a draw in their last three games since a 5-0 defeat to Heart of Midlothian saw the last of McGhee. Motherwell FC have failed to win a game in their last six matches with losses to the Old Firm making up part of that record. However new coach Stuart McCall only took charge of his first game on New Year’s Day and a 0-0 draw away at bottom club Hamilton Academicals sees the Fir Park remain in a respectable sixth place in the table.
SCOTTISH PREMIER LEAGUE – TOP 3 (Games/Points)
1. Glasgow Celtic 19/45
2. Glasgow Rangers 17/41
3. Heart of Midlothian 19/39
Correct as of January 2nd, 2011
Just three weeks into the new season and it’s a case of as you were in England and Scotland as familiar names lie in the top spots in each league. In England champions Chelsea are the only team with a 100% record following their 2-0 victory over Stoke City at the weekend but familiar foes Manchester United and Arsenal FC aren’t far behind. In Scotland the two Glasgow clubs, Celtic and Rangers, are the only teams with a perfect three wins from three games following wins over Motherwell and St. Johnstone respectively. Stoppage Time – International Football Blog reviews the latest action as both leagues take a break for international week.
There doesn’t appear to be any stopping Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea team at the moment. Fourteen goals scored in their first three Barclays Premiership games shows that the firepower at the Stamford Bridge club’s disposal is as reliable as ever with last season’s Golden Boot winner Didier Drogba carrying on where he left off last season having scored four goals so far including a first day hat-trick against West Bromwich Albion. He was on the score sheet again on Saturday as Chelsea beat Stoke City 2-0 with Florent Malouda also joining the Ivorian on four goals for the season with his 31st minute strike to give the Blues the lead. Arsenal FC and Manchester United are two points behind the league leaders with the Gunners edging second place at the moment through a better goal difference. Arsenal’s coach Arsène Wenger got the better of his old adversary Sam Allardyce in Saturday’s early kick-off against Blackburn Rovers with Theo Walcott and Andrei Arshavin scoring the goals in a 2-1 win. Later that day Manchester United easily disposed of a West Ham United team who remain rooted to the bottom of the table following a 3-0 victory for the Red Devils in a game which saw Wayne Rooney’s first league goal since March.
Aston Villa went up to fourth place on Sunday with a narrow 1-0 win over Everton thanks to a Luke Young goal in the 9th minute which arguably gives caretaker boss Kevin McDonald a winning conclusion to his short spell as coach as an announcement on a new full-time coach seems to be imminent. Everton, on the other hand, have started the season poorly with one point from three games but were unfortunate not to take anything from Sunday’s game as they had more shots and possession than their hosts but for boss David Moyes the pressure could soon be on if results don’t improve in the very near future. Manchester City were confident of following up Monday’s 3-0 drubbing of Liverpool FC with a win away at Sunderland AFC but the game would go wrong for City on two fronts. Carlos Tevez missed an open goal in what was an embarrassing moment for the Argentine and he would later rue that miss as City eventually lost to a Marcus Bent penalty in the fourth minute of stoppage time to give Steve Bruce’s team all of the points. Liverpool FC won their first league game on Sunday but laboured to a 1-0 win thanks to a sole Fernando Torres strike midway through the second half against West Bromwich Albion.
In other results this weekend Tottenham Hotspur, fresh from UEFA Champions League qualification, surprisingly lost 1-0 at home to Wigan Athletic who had lost both their opening matches by 4-0 and 6-0 before going to White Hart Lane. Hugo Rodallega’s 79th minute goal took his side out of the bottom three and relieved some of the pressure on his boss Roberto Martínez. Blackpool FC continued their maiden Premiership adventure with their first home match of the season against Fulham FC and a famous win was on the cards before Dickson Etuhu’s late equalizer gave the West London side a share of the points in a lively 2-2 draw over Ian Holloway’s side who have a respectable four points from three matches. Two further matches ended in draws as Newcastle United scraped a point away at Wolverhampton Wanderers thanks to Andy Carroll’s fourth goal of the season in a 1-1 draw while on Sunday Bolton Wanders came from two goals down at home to Birmingham City to gain a welcome point in a 2-2 draw at the Reebok Stadium.
The Scottish Premier League has a familiar look to it after three matches with Glasgow Celtic leading their eternal rivals Rangers by goal difference after this weekend’s matches. After Rangers had come from behind to beat bottom club St Johnstone at Ibrox Park on Saturday it was important for Celtic boss Neil Lennon to keep up his 100% winning record in the SPL since taking over from Tony Mowbray at the end of last season. The Bhoys travelled to Fir Park to play Craig Brown’s Motherwell FC who, like Celtic, were knocked out of the UEFA Europa League on Thursday in the play-off round. There were no goals in the first forty-five minutes of the match and the Celtic fans began to get impatient as the second half dragged on but then came the decisive moment in the 73rd minute after Celtic’s Shaun Maloney was brought down in the penalty area with Motherwell’s Steve Saunders shown a red card for his trouble. Daryl Murohy stepped up to score his first goal for Celtic to gift the Hoops a 1-0 win which allowed his team to leapfrog over Rangers at the top of the SPL. Rangers were on top after goals from Saša Papac and Kenny Millar gave the Gers all three points after coming from behind after St Johnstone’s Danny Grainger had scored an amazing goal to give the Perth-based side the lead. As usual the Old Firm take control of the league early on and nobody expects them to relinquish the leadership for the remainder of the season.
In the other SPL matches at the weekend the only other 100% record going into Matchday 3 was lost as Aberdeen FC, who had beaten Hamilton Academicals and St Johnstone in their opening two games, were surprisingly beaten at home by a Kilmarnock side who had yet to score a point before going to Pittodrie Stadium on Saturday. Jamie Hamill rounded Aberdeen keeper Mark Howard to slot the ball home two minutes into stoppage time to give Killie a much-needed first win of the season. Dundee United, who had high expectations following their Scottish Cup win last season, are second bottom in the table and remain without a win after Morgaro Gomis sneaked an equalizer five minutes from time in the Arabs’ 1-1 draw away at Hearts of Midlothian. Craig Dargo scored the only goal of the game as St Mirren won their first game of the season against a Hibernian side who have lost their last two games and are in a tight bunch of five clubs who have three points in the table. Another team to gain their first win of the season this weekend was Hamilton Academicals who beat Inverness Caledonian Thistle 1-0 thanks to an opening minute goal by Dougie Imrie on Saturday.
Football is well and truly coming home this weekend with each of the individual championships up and running in the British Isles. The Carling Premiership in Northern Ireland is already seven days old whilst its equivalents in England, Scotland and Wales all look forward to the big kick-off. Stoppage Time – International Football Blog previews the weekend’s action.
Many pundits are predicting that this could be one of the most open Barclays Premiership titles ever with a multitude of teams catching up to those clubs who have graced the top of the league for many years, namely Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal. West Londoners Chelsea, who won their fourth English title in 2009-10, have what appears to be an easy start on paper at home to newly promoted West Brom. Manchester United, who were denied a history-making fourth consecutive Premiership title by a solitary point last season, also start off against a club who have risen from the Championship (i.e. 2nd tier), namely Newcastle United. Amongst the usual suspects Arsenal have the toughest start playing against a Liverpool side who are under the stewardship of former Fulham boss Roy Hodgson and hope to challenge for the title again after a dreadful campaign last term. Amongst the other title hopefuls there is an intriging first match of the weekend when Tottenham Hotspur, buoyed by last season’s fourth place finish, meet Manchester City in the 12:45 kick-off at White Hart Lane on Saturday. Everton hope to get off to a good start but will have their work cut out away at Blackburn Rovers whilst Aston Villa, still getting used to life after Martin O’Neill after the Irishman surprisingly handed in his resignation last week, face off against West Ham United. In games affecting the predicted strugglers Blackpool FC start life in their first ever Premier League with a home tie against Wigan Athletic, Sunderland meet Birmingham City, Wolverhampton Wanderers play Stoke City and Bolton Wanderers meet Fulham FC.
Having won a record extending 53rd domestic championship last season Glasgow Rangers are under even more pressure to lift the trophy again after a very limited transfer market for the Ibrox club this time. With money scarce not just in the blue half of Glasgow but throughout the league most teams haven’t spent heavily on new recruits this time around. The only exception are Glasgow Celtic under new coach Neil Lennon and the Bhoys open up this weekend’s action in the the Clydesdale Bank Scottish Premier League with an away tie at Inverness Caledonian Thistle, who return to the SPL after a twelve month absence. Champions Rangers have a home tie against Kilmarnock at Ibrox Park where the traditional unfurling of the championship flag will take place before kick-off. Dundee United, for whom Peter Houston enjoys his first full season in charge after taking over from Craig Levein midway through last season, hope to keep up momentum following a successful 2009-10 season with an away win against St Mirren. The usual wannabes such as Heart of Midlothian, Hibernian and Aberdeen will start afresh and will hope for winning starts against St Johnstone, Motherwell and Hamilton Academicals respectively. Once again the Scottish Premier League has maintained the “split league” system whereby after 33 matches the league splits into two halves of six teams each, with teams playing every other team in their section once.
The Principality Building Society Welsh Premier League, to give it its full name, resumes this season with just twelve teams (reduced from eighteen) after the clubs voted to restructure the league in order to increase the quality of the competition and to provide a new criteria which aspirant clubs should adhere to if they wish to play in the Welsh Premier League in the future. Rhyl FC, Welsh Premier League champions in 2004 and 2009, were the biggest name casualities of the restructure as their stadium didn’t meet up to requirements and, thus, have been demoted to the Cymru Alliance which forms a new second tier of football in the principality. As a result of the restructure teams will play each other twice before the league splits for the top six and bottom six. The teams in each section will then play each other twice again to determine championship and relegation issues. This weekend sees The New Saints, who claimed their fifth title last term, get the new season under way on Friday night with a home tie against Prestatyn Town. Llanelli, runners-up in the last two seasons, begin away at Airbus UK Broughton whilst Bangor City, another team who hope to be there or thereabouts at the end of the season, entertain Neath FC. Three more games make up this weekend’s opening round with Haverfordwest v Newtown, Carmarthen v Aberystwyth and Port Talbot, third in last season’s title race, facing off against Bala Town.
The new Carling Premiership began last weekend in Northern Ireland with champions Linfield FC hoping to claim their 50th league championship this season but they got off to a goalless start last weekend only able to muster a 0-0 draw at home to Ballymena United and will hope to improve on that by beating Dungannon Swifts on Saturday. Glentoran, who last won the title in 2009, are hoping to reclaim the Premiership trophy and made a fantastic start to the new campaign with a 6-1 demolition of Lisburn Distellery in the opening round of games and will hope to keep up momentum at home to Coleraine this weekend. Two teams who didn’t get play last weekend get their new seasons under way with Portadown away at Glenavon on Friday and Cliftonville starting away at Newry with Cliftonville a good outside bet for the title after they finished five points behind Linfield in the championship race last season. In the other games this weekend Ballymena United play at home to Donegal Celtic and Crusaders, who won their opening match last weekend, at home to Lisburn Distillery. The Northern Ireland championship takes on a similar “split league” system as that in Scotland with twelve teams playing each other three times before they split into two groups of six.