in the near future?
A story that could have huge ramifications for the future of Scottish football has been…
As the Scottish football season begins once more there is a palpable sense of optimism among onlookers. Aside from a Jim White-shaped exception, most see signs of renewal and reason for hope. Much of this sentiment is focused on the upper echelons of the Premiership. Aberdeen, Rangers, Hearts, Hibs and even Kilmarnock have good reason to believe this season could be a milestone one.
Dare to say that any could realistically challenge for the title, however, and you are likely to be ridiculed. As ever, optimism in Scotland only stretches so far. Celtic are going for eight in a row and few will bet against them.
Yet optimism remains. It has been fuelled by criticism from south of the border. Fans have correctly stressed that with teams retaining strong links to their local communities, the Scottish game remains accessible to most supporters – something which has been corroded by legions of PR managers and the extreme wealth of players in the English Premier League.
That is not to say that Scots should switch over when Gary Lineker graces the screen on a Saturday night. The English Premier League can offer something which the Scottish Premiership simply can’t – variety at the top. As Football365’s Daniel Storey has pointed out, none of UEFA’s member nations has gone longer than England without the top division title being retained.
Though the league crown now seems destined for the head of one of the top six super clubs in perpetuity, the EPL remains more balanced than in Scotland. The ratio between the highest paid team and the lowest paid team in Scottish Premiership last season was 17.7 to 1. In the English Premier League, it was only 5.1 to 1.
The imbalance is skewed by Celtic’s comparatively enormous wage budget – the best indicator of league position there is. The average first-team pay of a Celtic player is 5.4 times bigger than that of a player for their nearest rivals last season, Aberdeen.
For comparison, when Leicester upset 5000-1 odds to win the Premier League in 2015-16, the average pay of their players was 2.7 times smaller than that of the highest spender, Manchester United.
It seems there is no end in sight to Celtic’s dominance. But aside from the bitter murmurings of rival supporters and the dampening of the competitive spirit, does it really do all that much harm?
To find out, it’s best to look east.
Dinamo Zagreb, who Celtic edged out in the 2014-15 Europa League group stage, have won 12 out of the last 13 titles in Croatia. Situated in the country’s biggest city with financial ties to the mayor, Dinamo have established a domestic financial hegemony even greater than Celtic’s. With a population size not dissimilar to Scotland, football authorities here have been urged to learn from Croatia’s World Cup success. Perhaps the most important lesson could come from Dinamo’s domination of the league.
Aleksandar Holiga, a Croatian football writer, calls their supremacy a “vicious circle”. Armed with an academy which has a higher budget than some entire clubs do in the Croatian First Football League, Dinamo “have been able to hire all the best youth coaches, improve their youth facilities and almost monopolise their catchment area to include the entire country and beyond”.
Luka Modrić, Eduardo, Vedran Ćorluka, Dejan Lovren, Mario Mandžukić and Mateo Kovačić were all recruited and developed before being sold abroad for around £40 million in total. Aided by the mismanagement of their closest rivals, their coffers have been bloated by annual qualification for European competition.
Doing so allows them to market their starlets on the biggest stage. “With that money, they can invest even more in the team,” Holiga explains, “which means they become even more dominant in the league and, as champions and a club playing in the CL they also get higher transfer fees paid for their players.”
Perhaps ignoring the focus on putting their players in the shop window and the help from a corrupt national footballing federation, the tale of Dinamo’s success is a familiar one to Scottish football fans. And for Holiga the impact on the league is simple – “it completely disrupts competitiveness in the league”.
Fortunately for other clubs and fans, left “depressed” in Holiga’s words, Dinamo’s dominance appears to be on the wain. Rivals Rijeka, Hajduk and Osijek have all made up ground on the champions. Rijeka even managed to put a blotch on Dinamo’s scorecard in 2016-2017 by winning the title. Although Dinamo regained their crown last season, improved on-field and off-field, management from their challengers ensured their victory was not won at the usual canter.
It seems an end to their reign is in sight. Holiga says: “Dinamo are not like Celtic — they have low attendances, low interest among sponsors because of the criminal involvement in the club and they are just not run sensibly in the football department, either.”
Bulgarian football writer Metodi Shumanov may also have some useful insight for Celtic’s nearest rivals. He has witnessed the rise and reign of Ludogorets – a team from a town of just 31,000 people who have ruled over the big boys from Sofia for seven straight seasons. Like Celtic, they are hoping to match a nine-in-a-row record.
Bankrolled by owner Kiril Domuschiev’s, believed to be worth around £530m, they won their first top division title on their first attempt in 2012. They have since established their monopoly thanks to canny work in the transfer market, highlighted by their record-breaking €7m sale of Brazilian Cafu to Bordeaux last year. “Add their constant Euro appearances to their recruitment strategy, and you’ll get the richest club in Bulgarian football, with an annual budget north of €10m,” Shumanov explains.
“That’s the flaw of the ‘UEFA system’ I guess. Once you enter the Champions League group stage, your financial power skyrockets compared to your fellow title contenders on the domestic stage.”
Domestic challengers have indeed struggled in recent years. The underachievements of CSKA Sofia, 31-time champions, and Levski Sofia, 26-time champions, left the door ajar for Ludogorets to establish their hegemony. Suffering in Sofia does not appear to be over either. CSKA are recovering from bankruptcy while Levski exited this season’s Europa League to Liechtenstein’s FC Vaduz.
Shumanov concludes that “Ludogorets are an exception to the rule, rather than a reflection of Bulgarian club football being on the rise. They have no strong competitors, which weakens the league as a whole”.
Scottish clubs hoping to topple Celtic will not be able to rely on Dinamo-style mismanagement if they are to stave off the deflating effects of successive title processions. Instead, the Croatian and Bulgarian examples highlight the necessity for rivals to get their own house in order. Perhaps Steven Gerrard could take heart from the words of Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who argued that the key to happiness was recognising that some things are simply out of your control. “If you have the right idea about what really belongs to you and what does not…You won’t have a single rival, no one to hurt you, because you will be proof against harm of any kind.”
For Rangers, the only team with realistic expectations of eventually getting close to Celtic’s spending power, a good place to start would be improving on last seasons’ transfer business. They paid around £8.7m in the summer of 2016 on transfers, £5.5m of which was spent on players no longer at the club. Time will tell if this season’s recruits will fair better.
On paper at least, things appear to have gotten off to a good start. Nikola Katic and Connor Goldson are surely better bets than Bruno Alves and Fabio Cardoso; Jon Flanagan and Borna Barisic should at the very least add competent cover at full-back. Similarly, Scott Arfield and Allan McGregor are upgrades in their respective positions too – all for roughly the same price as last year’s recruits.
Aberdeen, Hibs and Hearts, meanwhile, are relying on player development and innovative recruitment to bridge the gap. For them and for fans of the league in general, more must be done to prevent the league from becoming any more top-heavy.
To establish a model which is closer to matching the relative equality of the Premier League, the SPFL would be wise to replicate their model for establishing it – a bumper TV deal for all. That will require a marketing strategy which builds on the footballing community’s newfound positivity and a willingness to embrace cutting-edge streaming services.
Optimism in Scotland can be a rare thing, and those in charge of football must be careful not to take it for granted. Whatever the solution is to establishing a more competitive Premiership and counteracting UEFA’s cash injections for the few, lessons from Eastern Europe suggest that a failure to do so could disillusion the fans so willing to devote themselves to our game.