Glasgow Rangers have secured yet another Scottish Premier League (SPL) title taking their record to an amazing fifty three championships. For Rangers coach Walter Smith it is the 9th league title that he has won in two separate spells at the Ibrox club but his future is now uncertain, especially as he has been working without a contract since January due to the club’s financial worries.
Their neighbours Glasgow Celtic had won earlier in the day away at Dundee United. Diomansy Kamara and Robbie Keane gave the Bhoys a 2-0 victory in a bad tempered match which, at least, gave Celtic the satisfaction of knowing that their arch rivals still had a bit of work to do before they could be crowned champions. Rangers had to win their away match at Hibernian to seal the title today otherwise the trip to Tannadice Park on May 1st against Dundee United would’ve been their next opportunity. Nonetheless the destination of the SPL has been on the cards for some time and it is credit to Walter Smith for having steered his troops comfortably to the trophy in a season when he has had no money to bring in new players.
The only goal of the game was scored by Northern Ireland international Kyle Lafferty whose 17th minute strike proved enough to give Rangers all three points. Sadly for Rangers only 1,500 of their supporters were allowed into Easter Road to watch the game due to the construction work that is taking place on the stadium at the moment. Despite this the club’s players and staff began the party in earnest as soon as the final whistle sounded amongst whom was David Weir, the club captain who is just a couple of weeks off his 40th birthday and has played in every match for Rangers in their successful league campaign this season.
The triumph completes a successful season for the Gers who also won the Scottish League Cup against St Mirren in late March although their ambitions for a treble were thwarted by Dundee United in the Scottish Cup three days after their Hampden Park success. Nonetheless it will be interesting to see what comes about throughout the post season period as Rangers’ thoughts now surely must turn towards winning three-in-a-row next season.
The voices seem to get louder and louder at this time of year from the Scottish Premier League (SPL), and the clubs within it, over the issue of the controversial “league split” system which sees the twelve clubs in Scotland’s top flight split into two groups of six for the final five matches of the league season. This season is no exception with many critics of the system expressing disbelief in this year’s end of season fixtures with some teams having to play certain opposition for a third time away from home. The SPL have argued that there was no way that the post-split fixtures could have worked out with everybody having two home and two away games against all opposition this season because of the way the table finished after 33 games. If that’s the case then there is only one thing to do and that is to scrap the current system.
After the announcement on Saturday that champions Glasgow Rangers will have to play three away games in a row in the final games of the season the club have lashed out at the SPL saying that the system lacks “sporting integrity”, especially as they have to play Dundee United for the third time in four league fixtures between the two clubs this season away from home. Seeing as Rangers finished top of the table at the time of the split it seems like they’re being penalised for their success. It also doesn’t help Rangers that the three away games against Hibernian, Dundee United and Celtic come in the space of ten days so it’s just as well that Rangers will have a double digit lead going into the final five games of the 2009-10 season. But Rangers are far from the only team that are unhappy with their lot. Motherwell are angry at having to play Glasgow Celtic for a third time away from home and St Mirren also have a third away game at Falkirk. For any team that is fighting for European places or against relegation it is invariably going to be controversial to keep a system which can throw up these sorts of anomalies from time to time.
So what changes should be made to eradicate the need for a split? Rangers’ coach Walter Smith has often called for an eighteen team league with each team playing everyone else twice a season, instead of the usual four times as it is currently, meaning thirty four league games a season for each club – four fewer than it stands at the moment. If anything, in my opinion, eighteen teams may just be a couple of teams too many as the necessary quality and finance just isn’t there at the moment to sustain a league of such numbers. Gradually I feel that 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.
In my view the split, which has been a part of the SPL since 2001, has not helped the quality of the league whatsoever. It was used as a balancing measure between those people who advocated a smaller league but who wanted the income and additional revenue by the extra end-of-season matches created. Now that this silly situation has come about it is time that the powers-that-be in Scottish football began to produce a new system which reflects fairness, balance and which is seen, most of all, to help the quality of the domestic game.