On a chill November evening in 2002, more than 10,000 Scots made the three-hour journey from Glasgow to England’s north-west to watch Celtic face Blackburn Rovers in a Uefa cup tie. These encounters with top-class Premiership outfits tend to come along once every five years or so, and often conclude with a reminder to English supporters and commentators alike that belonging to the richest league in the world doesn’t automatically confer class, style or a sense of decorum.
On that night nearly 15 years ago, Celtic dismantled a decent Blackburn side before finally outclassing them in a 2-0 victory that should have been 5-0. Later in the same competition, they would visit Anfield and take down a very good Liverpool side by the same score. Before the match at Ewood Park, Graeme Souness, Blackburn’s manager, described the first game in Glasgow as “men against boys” because his team had played better than Celtic despite losing 1-0 on the night.
There was no such disrespect or rudeness coming from Anfield, before or after their meeting with the Scottish champions. This is because Bill Shankly bequeathed to that great club an abiding sense of propriety and dignity that always characterised its dealings.
Since meeting Liverpool in the semi-final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1966, Celtic have been drawn to play English opposition in European competition on 10 occasions. Their record in these two-legged encounters reads: won seven, lost six, drawn seven. Their latest head-to-head with the cream of the Premiership came late last year when they faced Manchester City and gave a lesson to the rest of the English Premiership on how to combat City’s high-energy, high-pressing tactics which had made them look unstoppable before meeting Celtic. The English side had in their line-up one player who cost more than the entire Celtic first team.
Accompanying all of these matches is a thinly veiled sneer by some in the English press, bordering on outright contempt. “Do we really have to play these backwoodsmen in Jockoland?” is the message that is conveyed.
Perhaps they are simply sick of their fathers telling them how many of the great English sides of the 1960s and 1970s had Scottish skill and grit running down the spine of their teams. Perhaps they remain resentful of the admittedly juvenile position of too many Scots who still like to see England getting pumped. It’s an attitude, though, that demeans those who espouse it and which has contributed to generations of raw English talent being wasted.
In recent weeks, several English writers and commentators have cast a prejudiced eye towards Scotland as Celtic progress to another league title win by a margin so big that it may become a European record. “What is the point of Scottish football?” asked one English quality title in a poorly researched article which, oddly, didn’t make it into the paper’s Scottish edition. On TalkSport radio, a former footballer called Jason Cundy, who flirted with mediocrity throughout his career in the English Premiership, became the latest media personality to dismiss Scottish football. He described it as “embarrassing” and suggested that Celtic would struggle to beat Stoke City.
The team from the West Midlands certainly ought to start as favourites against any Scottish team. Last year, they were ranked 27th in world football’s financial league, thanks to the money they get annually from Sky. Their revenue in 2014-15 was just shy of £100m. Should they stay in the Premier League they will increase that significantly, owing to the £5.1bn televisiondeal with Sky and BT. Stoke City’s financial ranking puts them ahead of Benfica, Marseille, Hamburg and Celtic; all of which have lifted the European Champions Cup.
Stoke City’s only significant achievement in football was winning the League Cup in 1972, thanks to a goal scored by George Eastham, then the oldest player to gain a medal in that competition. Like other clubs of their status: the West Broms, the Southamptons, the Crystal Palaces; they will muddle along in the Premier League, their income and profile grossly distorted by revenues they have not properly earned.
Instead of aiming at the soft target of Scottish football, whose television deal is a tinyfraction of what the English game receives, Jason Cundy and his fellow trolls on TalkSport ought to be concerned about the lowly status of English football in European terms despite the riches of Sky and BT. Arsenal were defeated 10-2 on aggregate last week by Bayern Munich in the last 16 of the Champions League. It is by no means certain at this stage if its two remaining representatives, Manchester City and Leicester City, will progress further either. Perhaps some German and Italian commentators will soon be asking what the point of English football is other than to make multimillionaires out of very ordinary footballers.
While Germany, Italy and Spain routinely contend for the World Cup or European Championship, England has wretchedly underperformed in these competitions throughout the past three decades. It shouldn’t be like this. English club football remains the most competitive in the world and if you doubt this then take a look at the English Football League. The second tier of the game south of the border possesses eight clubs who have reached the final of a European club competition, almost as many as exist in the Bundesliga, Serie A or La Liga.
Yet these clubs, too, squander their television windfalls on the instant self-gratification of an overpriced overseas forward of dubious ability, a one-season wonder of suspect temperament, destined to have difficulties adjusting to the cultural and social challenges of 21st-century England. Meanwhile, they allow native young English talent to wither and die from an absence of long-term sustainable strategy for growth.
In Scotland, where the champion club makes a mere £2.8m for its endeavours, the game, for all its faults, is in a happy place. Attendances have increased; debt has been cut and in the past eight years nine clubs outside of Celtic and Rangers have won a national cup competition. In Scotland, real football is thriving. In England, the game is eating itself.