The debate over our too-small top flight had gone a bit stale. It was the man on the Drumchapel omnibus arguing with Neil Doncaster arguing with a lower-league chairman arguing with some supporters’ associations. The same people making the same points over and over again and not really getting us anywhere.
The debate had gone on for so long, indeed, that maybe some of those desperate for change had become a bit zombified by it. The colour had drained from their faces, their eyes had turned pale and, accompanied by involuntary nervous twitching, they were starting to ape the dull mantras spouted by the other side: Twelve teams... four Old Firm games... all anyone wants.”
Well, if the atmosphere of this debate had started to resemble that of a lift which had got stuck between floors – maybe between the 12th and 13th for the required symbolism – then a stranger to our weird world has just happened by and injected some much-needed oxygen.
His name is Mark Warburton and he thinks we should have a 16-team Premiership. And your point is, caller? Don’t all right-thinking folk want that? Yes, of course, but it’s not very often that you hear the view from Rangers or Celtic.
Warburton approaches our game with an innocence which must be blissful. He also comes at it as a former City trader who knows a thing or two about money matters, what’s worth investment and what palpably isn’t. “I’m not an expert,” he says, “just giving my opinion.” Nevertheless, it’s an opinion worth hearing. “Is playing teams four, five, six times a season a disincentive for fans? I think it is,” the Rangers manager argues. He calls this “overkill” and maybe he isn’t aware that last season Rangers and Hibs actually thudded into each other on seven occasions. Or that a few years before that Rangers and Celtic went one worse.
Warburton acknowledges the “excitement” of Old Firm matches but he’s more concerned with the game as a whole. “We must get investment into Scottish football,” he stresses. There has to be “quality” but there also has to be “variety”. This is the bit I like best: “Anyone involved in the process has to look at what’s best for Scottish football, what’s best for the long-term future.” Yes, club treasurers would fret if an 8,000-strong Rangers away support were only to visit once a season, but “in the longer term, the health of Scottish football would be better”.
The health of Scottish football. It’s a matter of grave concern, or at least it should be. Warburton, though, has pitched up and my guess is he’s a bit surprised by the lack of ongoing debate on the subject. He looks at our game with an outsider’s eye – the first Englishman to manage Rangers – and thinks: “It’s dying”. A Martian would deduce this in a millisecond and Warburton has only come from Brentford. So why is no one admitting this? Can’t they see it? Don’t they want to believe it? Or are they simply waiting for Rangers to get back to playing Celtic four times a season and then Scottish football can request more TV money and suddenly we’ll all be fine?
Warburton adds: “If it’s always about short-term fixes you’re never going to make significant progress in solving what is a problem.” Most of us who’ve been sent, thanks to cup draws, to a place like Kilmarnock four times in the same season and thought “Great history, excellent pies but, please, kill me now” will not think of league construction dating back to 1975 as being anything like short-term. But the man is saying the right things.
Maybe he’ll change his view after his first Old Firm match. Perhaps he’ll get caught up in the deranged drama. Or he’ll be like Tony Mowbray. Not in terms of record, he won’t want his reign to be as brief or unhappy, but I’ll never forget a radio interview in the minutes before Mowbray’s debut as Celtic’s manager. Surely, slavered the excitable reporter, struggling to be heard above the ditties of hatred, this was football’s most epic fixture and he must have felt as if his life was only just beginning? “Not really,” he shrugged, “it’s just another game.”