It’s only Celtic and Rangers pulling their weight in Europe for Scotland

Non-Glasgow clubs – starting with Motherwell and Aberdeen this week – need to get their finger out when it comes to Europa League football

Kilmarnock, with Scotland defender Stephen O'Donnell in their ranks, lost to Connah's Quay Nomads in last year's Europa League qualifying. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS
Kilmarnock, with Scotland defender Stephen O'Donnell in their ranks, lost to Connah's Quay Nomads in last year's Europa League qualifying. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS

There really is no other way to put this. Clubs representing Scotland in Europe that do not hail from Glasgow really need to get their finger out when it comes to their continental showings. Starting with Aberdeen and Motherwell this week.

It is often championed that there is so much more to the game in this country than Celtic and Rangers, that the standard is much better than the sneering detractors would have you believe. European results fly in the face of such contentions.

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Frankly, the performances of clubs other than the big two in the arena across the past five years have been abject. That Scotland have risen from 25th to 14th in the European pecking order during that time is firmly in spite of the efforts of our representatives beyond Celtic and Rangers.

Only Scotland and Denmark of the top 18 ranked nations have had just two teams contesting group-stage football in the past five years. How is it that five clubs from Switzerland and three clubs from the Czech Republic, Norway and Cyprus have been able to do so?

Scotland’s slide down the rankings, necessitating clubs entering at the first qualifying round, was supposed to provide more opportunities for harvesting co-efficient points. Instead, it has meant more ignominious exits.

In the previous five European campaigns, only Aberdeen – in 2016-17 and 2019-20 – and Hibernian – in 2018-19 – have made it even through two rounds. Only Celtic and Rangers have competed in the Europa League play-off round.

Last year Kilmarnock lost to Welsh club Connah’s Quay Nomads, Hearts lost to Maltese club Birkirkara in 2016, and the following season St Johnstone lost home and away to Trakai. In doing so the Perth club exited Europe with a fat zero against their co-efficient point column. Is it so much to expect they might have been more competitive against the third best team in Lithuania?

Hibs, in 2018, reeled in four such points, before a tolerable loss to Molde. That is the highest total by a 
non-Glasgow club since 2015. To put that total in context, though, Linfield last year claimed 4.5 points. Granted the Belfast club were given two bites at group-stage qualification courtesy of their champion status.

Of course, Rangers’ dumping by Luxembourg part-timers Progres Niederkorn in 2017 was as egregious as any Scottish swatting in Europe of recent times. Meanwhile, Celtic were turfed out of the Champions League qualifiers by a Cluj side with a fraction of their budget only last year. But both these teams have more than made amends for such grim reverses. Celtic have competed in a European group in each of the past nine seasons. Rangers have started to more than pull their weight as a result of Steven Gerrard leading his team through four qualifying rounds of the Europa League in the past two years before commendable group-stage exploits for both Glasgow clubs followed. In that period the two clubs have registered landmark wins over pedigree teams such as Lazio, Leipzig, Porto and Feyenoord.

Sometimes, Scottish teams have had unfortunate draws, as was the case with Aberdeen drawing Maribor in 2017 and Burnley the next year. But they have tended to fail to meet reasonable expectations, and almost never exceeded them.

Indeed, here’s a chilling thought: if the Glasgow clubs didn’t play in Scotland and were replaced in Europe by two teams similar to those who have earned the continental placings in recent years, then the overhaul would see Scotland drop to 37th of the 54 nations – below Liechtenstein and Luxembourg.

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