There's nothing more exciting in European football right now than the race for second place…
For Rangers and Hibernian fans the 2018/19 season began today. Forget your summer holidays, forget the calm, lazy days of transfer rumours and World Cup football; the Europa League qualifying games have been decided and all of a sudden the next campaign is suddenly front and centre for fans at Ibrox and Easter Road.
Indeed, as you most likely know, Rangers will face Macedonian side FK Shkupi while Hibs go toe-to-toe with NSI Runavik of the Faroe Islands in the first round of Europa League qualifying. Aberdeen, who of course finished second to treble-winning Celtic, will enter in the next round and face English Premier League side Burnley.
We’ll be sure to dissect all of these unfamiliar opponents – including Celtic’s Armenian foes Alashkert in the Champions League qualifiers – nearer the time, but from this vantage point of viewing the entire battlefield before a single shot has been fired it’s really worth noting just how important these coming games are for both of these sides, Aberdeen and all of Scottish football.
For fans of Scottish football as a whole (yes, some of us do exist), the country’s standing in UEFA has made for depressing reading over the past few years. Since 2009-10 we’ve seen the Scottish Premiership (or SPL before that) go from having two Champions League spots to just one – and that now requires Celtic to play through four qualifying rounds just to reach the group stages.
Despite a relatively impressive run from Celtic in that period it’s clear that they alone can’t prop up the SPFL’s standing in European football. As we can see from the graph above, no other Premiership team really took advantage of Rangers’ demise and for the past three seasons Celtic have been left to fly the Saltire across the continent on their own. Scottish football not only needs a strong Rangers, but it needs a strong Hibs and Aberdeen too. Each and every coefficient point won in Europe makes a huge difference to the overall wellbeing of our domestic league.
While fans often tend to look inwards when presented with pan-SPFL concerns, such as coefficient points won in Europe, it’s clear that each and every club could benefit from other Scottish teams pulling their weight. If even one team had performed in Europe over the past three seasons then Celtic may not now be faced with four qualifying rounds. And rather than having two teams in the first Europa League qualifying round and a third in the second, we could have had our teams entering later in the competition and finding a far easier path to the riches that come with qualifying for the group stages.
Even if we want to focus in on what these coming European tests mean specifically for the three clubs in question, we can clearly see how success or defeat could come to define their coming seasons and the reputations of the managers involved.
Perhaps the most drastic is the current situation at Rangers. Rarely has the limelight of Scottish (and British) football shone so brightly on a club as it currently does on the Ibrox side and their new manager Steven Gerrard. Unlike other, untested managers, the former Liverpool captain will have every game, every player and every decision analysed over and over again from the very first competitive game of this coming season.
That poses a huge issue for the incoming coach. Not unlike his predecessor, Pedro Caixinha, Gerrard knows that failure to qualify for the Europa League will be an immediate black mark on his record in Govan and apply further pressure on him to seek success elsewhere. Rangers fans will accept second place in the Premiership as long as they’re enjoying European trips abroad, but an early exit in the Europa League will redirect focus and expectation to the domestic scene.
Couple that with the Rangers’ chairman, Dave King, stating quite unequivocally that the club’s business model relies on additional income from European competition and Gerrard already has a huge amount of pressure to succeed in this season’s qualifying games. The Liverpool legend may be used to dealing with that expectation on the pitch but when he walks out to the sidelines in Macedonia it will be an entirely new experience for him. And he’ll need to adapt quickly.
Gerrard’s opposite number at Aberdeen, Derek McInnes, also knows that his reputation at Pittodrie is undoubtedly tied to his team’s performances in the coming qualifying rounds. The Dons manager has done some superb work in a domestic sense, but one of the most notable – and fair – criticisms of McInnes’ time in the Granite city is his team’s abhorrent record in Europe.
While McInnes was unfortunate at his first stab at Europe in the 2014/15 summer, after losing in the third qualifying round to Real Sociedad, his team have since gone out to Kazakhstan side Kairat Almaty and Slovenia’s NK Maribor. Sure, these teams are hardly minnows, but they’re not exactly unopposable giants either. And each time Aberdeen falter in European crunch games against sides they ought to be challenging McInnes’ critics simply add another notch to his dismal record in the big games.
Indeed, Aberdeen fans know their club will never match Celtic and are somewhat sympathetic to their manager when it comes to toppling Brendan Rodgers’ chokehold of Scottish football, but in return, they hope and quite rightly expect the second best team in Scotland to be making a stronger push in Europe. A run in the group stages would transform McInnes’ reputation among some of the more apathetic sections of the Pittodrie faithful as well as the club’s own bank balance.
On the other hand, Hibs and Neil Lennon certainly won’t be going into this season’s qualifying games with nearly as much pressure as the other aforementioned duo. The Easter roadside performed superbly last season and down founded critics and fans alike with an impressive fourth-place finish after challenging for second for the duration of the league campaign. These coming clashes are, in a sense, a novelty for a club still trying to find its feet after returning to the top flight.
However, there’s no doubt that Lennon and his staff view things very differently. No matter how much pressure Hibs fans may apply to their fiery coach, it will never quite come as close to the pressure he alone applies to himself and his players. And while Hibs will face minimal expectation when they come up against Runavik, Lennon will be demanding complete and utter dominance.
Of course, the 46-year-old coach will have his reasons for that. While Lennon unquestionably enjoys developing players and taking Hibs to new heights, he’s aware that this entire venture is one that will need to ensure his reputation as a coach is not only intact but increasing each and every season. The former Celtic captain has always feverishly demanded success and while his boss and the fans that pay his wages may not be expecting too much in Europe this season he truly is.
And he’d be smart to do so. While John McGinn may remain a Hibs player, for now, Lennon and Leeann Dempster will be well aware of the allure European football brings to the negotiating table. A Hibs side with Lennon in charge and the guarantee of Europa League football is far more enticing to not only keeping a player like McGinn but bringing new players on board. And that alone could prove the difference between the Easter Road side losing ground on Rangers and Aberdeen and finding a way to keep up with them each and every season.
These coming Europa League qualifiers are hugely important for a number of reasons.