Celtic are the richest football club in Scottish football by quite a margin and, as…
English football has cursed us. Our insecurity as a footballing nation in its own right, our irresistible urge to company our game with what’s happening down south, the warping of our expectations… it’s all the Premier League’s fault. This is the ripple effect of The Greatest League In The World and it often gives the perception of Scottish football struggling to keep its head above water.
Of course, perceptions and reality often differ. Scottish football, despite the general air of negativity which has come to fester around our national game, is in good shape. And yet there is no denying that when it comes to the financial side of the sport, Scotland lags well behind England, and the top level of the European game.
In the transfer market, this has put us at a disadvantage in recent years. Scotland’s best players have been poached by English clubs for much smaller fees than if they had played elsewhere, in another country. Look at Virgil Van Dijk, for instance. Earlier this month, the Dutchman became the most expensive defender in history, joining Liverpool for an astonishing £75 million, yet Celtic received only £11.5 million for him despite having proved himself in the Champions League, a higher level than Southampton have ever reached.
The Premier League, and even the English Championship and leagues below that, has long looked at Scotland as a footballing bargain bucket, exploiting the gross financial gulf between the two countries. Not even Celtic, as a club that regularly qualifies for the Champions League, have been able to keep their best players from the Premier League’s grip.
But is the dynamic changing? Is the transfer market now, finally, in Scottish football’s favour? Of course, the Premier League will still have its pick of the best players north of the border, with their financial might only getting greater. But with that greater financial might, the kind that allows Manchester United to pay Alexis Sanchez £500,000 a week, comes opportunity.
It’s true that the gulf between English and Scottish football is gigantic, but that gives our clubs more room to manoeuvre in. It gives them more leverage to demand more money for their best players and when they receive that money, they can do more with it because the transfer market inflation doesn’t apply in the same way to Scottish clubs.
Using the example of Moussa Dembele as a case study, it’s entirely feasible that Celtic could collect as much as £20 million for the striker this month, with the Frenchman attracting attention from the Premier League and across Europe. That’s less than the numbers that were mooted this time last year, but it would still mark the biggest ever transfer involving a Scottish club.
With that money, Celtic could scrape the market for offcuts discarded by the chuntering, inefficient Premier League machine. Look at how just £3 million got them Scott Sinclair, arguably the best player in Scotland over the past 18 months. They also managed to sign Olivier Ntcham for £4.5 million purely because the young Frenchman was highly unlikely to ever be given a chance at Manchester City.
Rangers have also recognised where shrewd signings can be picked up, with Jason Cummings, Russell Martin, Sean Goss and Jamie Murphy all arriving at Ibrox from England this month. It’s still very early days in their Rangers careers, but all four have thus far shown themselves to be good additions having been cast aside by their respective clubs down south.
English football is now so wasteful, so reactive, so impulsive, that the Scottish game can now benefit from what they reject. The cycle is so rapid that players are chewed up and spat out without even being afforded much of a chance. And Scotland can provide those players with a platform for rehabilitation.
We’ve already seen Scottish football benefit from a similar sort of dynamic in management. Brendan Rodgers, for instance, became something of a figure of fun following his sacking at Liverpool. Now, he’s on course to becoming one of the best managers in Celtic’s history, reviving his reputation. Steve Clarke, Neil Lennon and Owen Coyle have also followed a similar path, moving north having been rejected by the English game. Coyle might be struggling at Ross County, but the other two have thrived in environments where they are afforded more freedom.
It feels counterintuitive to suggest the transfer market might now be in Scotland’s favour when the gap between the English game and ours has never been bigger. But it’s because of that gap that Scottish clubs can now benefit. There is growing evidence of this and there might be more to come in the final days of the January window.
Naturally, whether this dynamic is favourable is down to personal interpretation. If fans still hold on to the somewhat unrealistic hope that they can keep their best players when the Premier League giants come calling, then the dynamic remains the same. Nothing will change in that regard.
However, if fans can accept the way of the modern world, then there is a way to make the system work to our advantage. Even further down the Scottish Premiership, where clubs are generally unable to pay any sort of fee for players, there is an advantage to be gained. Ross County did that last week by signing former Liverpool striker David N’Gog. Kilmarnock did the same by pulling off the impressive capture of Youssouf Mulumbu, a player who even the most ardent fan would confess is naturally above the level of the Rugby Park outfit.
The Premier League, such is its obnoxious self-importance, doesn’t care about anything else besides itself. But inadvertently and certainly not deliberately, England’s top flight is putting Scottish football in a better place. It’s up to our clubs to make the most of that, and there are signs recently that they are.