A NEW era in Scottish football was launched yesterday with the help of two former players boasting star quality of the kind Scotland will hopefully one day start producing again.
Graeme Souness and John Collins were recruited by the marketing company hired to promote the Scottish Professional Football League, and nobody could question their credentials. Their substance, in terms of footballing talent and achievement, is obvious. Well dressed and camera-friendly, they possess abundant style as well.
Making them even more appealing to those charged with promoting another new league set-up in Scotland is the fact they are so easily recognisable south of the border, where it is clear more than a little inspiration for the new league was found. Both Collins and Souness are also well-established pundits on television, a medium that, in the absence of a title sponsor, is providing much of the SPFL’s income at present.
It is perhaps painfully apparent where the idea behind the names of each league competition came from. The new top-flight will be called the Scottish Premiership, with the old First Division renamed the Scottish Championship. Divisions Two and Three will now be known as Scottish League One and Scottish League Two.
These are all names associated with the shake-up in English football in the 1990s, although the Premiership has long since been re-branded as the Premier League. Indeed, “Premiership” is now associated with a creeping venality within English football.
Neil Doncaster, who emerged as the successful candidate in the race with David Longmuir to become the chief executive of the new league, explained that the new branding was chosen because it is so “familiar” to Scottish football supporters, given that it was in use in England in recent years. Doncaster referred to the Championship in England being “elevated in status” after a name change.
“We hope it is the same here,” he said, with reference to the Scottish Championship – or the old First Division. This is a tier set to benefit most from wealth distribution as well as the popular introduction of play-offs.
Doncaster is comfortable with the absence of a sponsor on the new logos, pointing out that the Scottish Premier League did not have one until its maiden season was well underway. “We have only been in existence now for around three weeks,” he said. “It is a bit early to be looking to announce anything quite yet. The market needs certainty and clarity and we are working with a number of people who are clearly interested in the Scottish game. Now we have created that certainty and clarity let’s see what emerges.
“In terms of how desperate is the need, the reality is that the vast majority of the league income comes from sources other than the title sponsor and that is all committed for the season ahead,” he added. “It is nice to have clearly, but when the SPL first started in ’98 it did not have a title sponsor at the outset and acquired one partway through the first season.”
It is the third time in the last 30 years that Scottish football has sought to reconstruct the league system on such a grand scale. The cynics were alerted by Souness’s involvement in the launch. Had he been brought up from England with the aim of bringing Rangers fans on board? The last days of the SPL are defined by the absence of the Ibrox club, whose financial collapse meant they were forced to begin life again the Third Division – or what is now known as Scottish League Two. This coming season, it will be Scottish League One.
In contrast to his heyday, Souness was in conciliatory mood yesterday and urged bygones to be bygones.
It was, though, impossible not to recall his own belated impact on the domestic game in Scotland on his return to his native country with Rangers in 1986, having played all of his career up to that point in England and Italy.
His name has since become synonymous with the high-spending era in the late 1980s that some claim contributed to wrecking the Scottish game, while hampering the development of young players. New league set-up or not, both Souness and Collins were both keen to stress that the nurturing of young players is the only way forward for Scotland.
What is termed the “Souness Revolution” began under the Marlborough administration at Rangers and was set in motion by then chairman David Holmes. The phrase still packs a punch today. “They were great times, exciting times for the guys who witnessed it,” said Souness yesterday, when asked whether he was comfortable having his name associated with a period that continues to divide opinion. “They were exciting times for me.”
Souness persuaded David Murray to become involved after Lawrence Marlborough decided to sell the club, which opened another new chapter in Scottish football history, the ripples of which are still being felt. “I don’t speak to him every week,” said Souness, when asked whether he is still as close to Murray. “In fact we text each other more than we speak.”
The ramifications of Murray’s high-spending, the eventual departure and then the catastrophic decision to sell to Craig Whyte are still being played out, but one significant outcome is the presence of Rangers in the lower league, and the temporary suspension of the Old Firm clash.
Souness described the absence of Rangers from the top flight in Scotland as “a blow” to the game. He added: “As much as the most ardent Celtic supporter might have enjoyed Rangers’ problems, were Celtic bang at it last year in every game they played? They didn’t have to be.”
As a pundit for Sky Sports, he is well placed to gauge the views of other football observers. “Without Rangers, people see it as a weaker league without a shadow of doubt,” he said. In his opinion, the absence of the Old Firm fixture weakens Scottish football, although he is optimistic for the future.
“Reconstruction will help make it more of a product that people want to watch,” he said. The return of the Old Firm fixture is perhaps just two campaigns away.
Souness recalled rooming together with Kenny Dalglish in their days together at Liverpool. “We would spend our time gloating over who had won the last Old Firm game,” he said.
“So there was interest throughout the world and it’s missed. It was – and will be again, when it comes back – the biggest derby in the world. It’s the biggest one I’ve been involved in, by a mile.
“I was involved in Galatasaray v Fenerbahce, Liverpool v Everton and there is no comparison.”
Would he ever have planted a flag in the centre circle at Celtic Park, as he famously did at Fenerbahce, after a cup final win while manager of Galatasaray?
“Why not? If I would do it in Istanbul then I would do it at Parkhead.”
He revealed that the Old Firm was “madder” than the derby matches he experienced in Istanbul, although there was one significant difference. “The players tended to carry a lot of guns in Istanbul,” he smiled.
Fortunately, nobody needed to be put up against a Hampden boardroom wall at gunpoint in the long process that led to yesterday’s launch of a new league set-up. Not quite, anyway.