Aidan Smith: What’s the point in England’s Premier League?

Arsenal's Champions League defeat by Bayern Munich was a disillusioning result for English football.  Picture: Clive Mason/Getty Images
Arsenal's Champions League defeat by Bayern Munich was a disillusioning result for English football. Picture: Clive Mason/Getty Images
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Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel? That was the headline on a famous 1967 newspaper leader column which wondered why it had been necessary to have Mick Jagger, pictured below, paraded in handcuffs then sentenced to three months’ imprisonment when his four Italian pep pills had been bought legally and were not dangerous. To translate: did he really deserve such a stiff kicking?

This past week we’ve been wondering: did Scottish football really deserve such a stiff kicking as to have the same paper publish an article basically asking why we were bothering to play the game? What was the purpose of Scotland’s top league, the Premiership, when the current so-called title race was the worst anywhere for 85 years?

Now, I have nothing against the Times. William Rees-Mogg’s defence of a Rolling Stone was brilliant, epochal journalism. The editor of the Scottish edition of the paper is one of my closest friends. Its Scottish sportswriters are fine fellows. The “investigation” into the peaky state of oor fitba didn’t actually appear in the Scottish edition and, while it caused a stooshie elsewhere in our media, I was initially going to let it go. But two results last week have forced my hand.

“Is there any point in the Scottish Premiership?” asked the paper. Well, after Arsenal exited the Champions League humiliatingly, one wag couldn’t resist the tweet: “Is their any point in England’s Premier League?” Then, 24 hours later, another wit responded to Paris Saint-Germain’s collapse by asking: “Is there any point in French football?”

In football you never know and you cannot presume anything. Arsenal are one of the best teams in England’s Premier, a league routinely described as the greatest in the world. Always top four, they were tipped by many to win it this season. But in the competition where English teams are always anxious to parade their glitz, Bayern Munich thrashed them 10-2 over the two legs. In its own way is such a result not as disillusioning for England as Celtic’s stroll to the title is for us?

Maybe PSG presumed, 4-0 ahead against Barcelona, that they would at last gain entry to the big boys’ common room of the Champions League having defeated one of the super-elite teams. But surely failing to stop Barca scoring the required three when the clock read 88 minutes is a disaster. Surely PSG were actually doing better when facing sneers they were a dilettantes’ club and a rest-home for flatter-to-deceive footballers seeking easy millions and medals (domestic ones at any rate). And surely the credibility of their new coach, a so-called Euro specialist, is now in tatters.

As an addendum to a well-worn phrase, people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones … and neither should people in glass dugouts, sat in aircraft seats, heated against the late winter chill but not the threat of an embarrassing defeat. Even glamorous clubs can have shockers, so please forgive fans of some of the grottiest if they indulge in tiny smirks.

Actually, we in Scotland don’t think our football is grotty, and neither can the Scottish edition of the Times which covers Partick Thistle and Hamilton Accies’ every move. This makes for a nice balance: the paper’s traditional fascination for swanky hooses juxtaposed with three-men-and-a-dug entertainment, as befits a journal of record.

We who’re in it for the long haul know the game here has problems and we’re trying like mad to rectify them. Some of the problems can be traced back to copying England and filling our teams with foreign players. We don’t blame England; we were sober when we did this. But our imports were of a poorer standard and held back the development of young Scots. Then the telly money ran out.

Just as lots of people in England thought Arsenal would mount a serious challenge for once, so many in Scotland thought the return of Rangers would test Celtic. But it didn’t quite happen for Ibrox’s first English manager (that’s not a dig, by the way).

The telly money didn’t run out in England; it just kept multiplying. As a consequence Stoke City are stinking rich. But do they have more heritage than Dunfermline Athletic, a club not even in the pointless Premiership, whose record Euro comeback among many stirring nights in continental competition – against Valencia in 1962 – was finally beaten last Wednesday by Neymar and Barcelona?

The writer of the Times article spoke to Archie Macpherson and Gordon Smith, good men with sound opinions, but not to any Scottish football fans. It was as if his encounter with an abrasive Glasgow taxi driver scared him off back down the road. That’s a pity. The last three winners of the Scottish Cup – when Celtic, in view of Rangers’ difficulties, had been expected to complete an easy hat-trick – were St Johnstone, Inverness Caley Thistle and Hibernian. Each set of supporters would have had a great story to tell, as would fans of Dundee, enjoying bragging rights in their city for once, and followers of Hearts who saved their club from extinction. None of these hardy souls believe their devotion to be pointless just because Celtic always win the league. And, anyway, doesn’t Scotland per capita still have more punters rolling up at the turnstiles than anywhere else in Europe?

In football you never know, you cannot presume anything and there can be extenuating circumstances. Barca are Barca and the impossible can sometimes happen. The award of the Catalans’ second penalty was poor judgment by the referee, and Arsenal can feel aggrieved by some of the decisions in their tie. Still, PSG’s timidity was astonishing, just as the Gunners’ failure to address the long-standing problems which always cause them to fail at this stage was astonishing.

Pointless? There was a pointlessness to the English Premier’s hegemoney when Leicester City grabbed the title. And what’s the point of the Premier when the England team always flop? But, to my chums at the Times I say the game’s all about opinions and this has simply been another.