SEPARATED though they are by three divisions, Celtic and Rangers are united by a common task this season: to maintain their playing standards in what amounts to a footballing vacuum.
Results over the past week have suggested that, contrary to what would be reasonable to expect, the SPL champions will find success harder to achieve than their fellow Glaswegians from the Third Division.
As Rangers manager Ally McCoist said a few days ago, his squad have found the mental side of life in the bottom tier harder to deal with than the physical demands. The “surrealism” of the situation, he said, was taxing, with visits to new grounds every other week, and games against teams who put in a phenomenal effort in an attempt to cause an upset.
It is that very difficulty which will help Rangers. The more they become accustomed to tough battles, even ones against teams of patently inferior technical ability, the more able they will be to raise their game when they come up against SPL opposition. They did so last week in the League Cup against Motherwell, and they will surely do so again in the next round of the competition towards the end of the month.
By contrast, Celtic have an altogether different, and unhelpful, novelty with which to contend: the relative impoverishment of almost all of their top-flight opponents. Look down the SPL table and you will be hard-pressed to find any club which is in better shape financially or in playing terms than it was last season.
Motherwell have just lost to both halves of the Old Firm; Hearts are clearly not the force they were last season; Dundee United lack the collective toughness which was so important a part of their relative success over the past two or three years. Aberdeen are better, as are Hibernian, but in both cases that is to damn with faint praise: Craig Brown’s team could hardly get much worse than they were two years ago, while Hibs had also sunk so low that any improvement on last season was almost inevitable.
And, besides this general decline, there is the fact that SPL teams do not raise their game against Celtic in the way that the likes of Annan, Brechin and even Forres Mechanics have done against Rangers. There is nothing sinister or conspiratorial about that; its cause is simply greater familiarity. When Third Division and non-league teams take on Rangers, few if any of their players will have taken the field against the Ibrox club before. When Motherwell or St Mirren or St Johnstone face Celtic, they are likely to have half a team or more whose tally of games against the Parkhead club runs into double figures, often without a single victory having been achieved.
This has a cumulative effect. As Motherwell’s Keith Lasley tellingly put it after his team’s 2-0 defeat by Celtic on Saturday: “If you look at the bigger picture, the size of squad Celtic have and the quality they have throughout it, I think they were always going to be top of the league. It’s not being negative from our point of view. It’s just a reality.”
Of course, any Third Division player with a decent handle on reality would also accept that Rangers should be top of their league. But the novelty value of their encounters with the Ibrox club makes them less likely to bow down to “reality”, and more likely to throw everything into the match.
In the SPL, the other clubs have accepted that it’s all about the chase for second place behind Celtic. The problem is that none of them has adopted a decent pace as they set about that pursuit.
At times, it is a good sign if anyone can beat anyone in a certain competition. Once we get to the last eight of the European Championships, for example, that unpredictability is an indication of how strong the best national teams are.
In the case of the SPL, unfortunately, it is a sign that our clubs, barring the champions, are more or less equally dire.
Why does this matter? Because in the long run, no club can keep up its standards, never mind improve them, without decent domestic competition. And once Celtic slip further back, as they surely will unless they get that competition soon, Scottish football will decline still further.
We may become dejected by the ease of Celtic’s 2-0 win over Motherwell which has taken them back on top of the SPL, or by Rangers’ victory by the same score against the same opponents three days earlier.
But even those of us with no love of the Old Firm should accept that the game will not benefit at all if those two clubs become more beatable merely as a result of falling to the same level as their would-be competitors.