bordering on the ridiculous

SOME mightily confused conclusions were drawn from Scottish teams’ latest European letdowns. Results that, wouldn’t you know, are being presented as irrefutable evidence our game is going to hell in a handcart. Yet it makes absolutely no sense to bracket together the Europa League play-off experiences of Rangers, Celtic and Hearts. The two Glasgow clubs were guilty of inglorious, but not necessarily fatal, outcomes. Hearts’ 5-0 thumping at Tynecastle by Tottenham Hotspur, meanwhile, was the sort of horrible night a team can endure against Champions League quarter-finalists boasting a wage bill eight times greater.

What befell Hearts has no relevance for making judgments about the state of Scottish football. The toe-curling nature of the rout, however, is precisely why so many are steaming in to declare our game a steaming pile. Our obsession with English neighbours who just happen to have the most monied and marketed football league on the planet is leading to a form of self-loathing this side of the Border that is wholly destructive. A point not lost on two Irishmen seeking to improve the lot of a Scottish game no-one is denying is on the slide as books are balanced – a time of reckoning yet to reach England’s top flight. Celtic manager Neil Lennon and his Kilmarnock counterpart Kenny Shiels believe this country would be better served by putting up a footballing Hadrian’s Wall when it comes to our mindset.

“I think we over-familiarise ourselves with the English league,” Lennon says. “We drool over it instead of just concentrating on what we have got, trying to improve it and making the most of it. The comparison is night and day because there is a huge financial difference. I don’t work myself into a tizzy about the Premier League, I don’t look on enviously. I think we should look at what we’ve got and start making the most of it instead of always comparing ourselves to England. There is a huge over-reaction at the minute. I don’t think there’s a lot wrong with the Scottish game but you can’t compare it with England.”

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Lennon says it could hardly be considered a surprise that Spurs, who he points out beat Inter and AC Milan on their way to the last eight of the Champions League, won at Tynecastle. “There is huge financial difference and that brings a gulf in the quality of the players,” he says. “Maybe the surprise was the scoreline and maybe the Hearts players didn’t do themselves justice.”

Shiels points out that Harry Redknapp’s men aren’t simply a middling team in their own environment. “People have to understand you have the English Premier League then you have the Elite Premier League,” he says. “There’s about six teams in the Elite league and they are six of the best teams in Europe. Spurs are one of them. Then you have the Premier League with the Sunderlands and Blackburns. We played both recently, and they’re better than us. But it’s marginally better, not like Spurs where there’s a big gap.”

Of course the gap is ever widening and Scotland, as a consequence of its geographical location, is diminished by its proximity to England. Championship players, never mind those in the English top flight, are increasingly proving too rich for Celtic and Rangers. This week Lennon admitted his club would struggle to prevent their much-vaunted 15-year-old Islam Feruz being enticed away by a head-turning agent and an offer from Chelsea. At a senior level Lennon concedes Scottish football “is a hard sell”. That is what makes European football so important, he says. It is all about the “prestige” and showcasing the match experience at Celtic Park with the arena last Thursday playing host to the largest crowd – in excess of 52,000 – for a Europa League tie that night. “You don’t want to lose that, which is why the result was disappointing. If we can get through, you never know where it could take us,” Lennon says.

In 2003, Celtic travelled all the way to the final of the UEFA Cup. They did so by slapping down hubristic English opposition in Blackburn Rovers and Liverpool. “Yes, but in those days we could compete with the Premier League, wages-wise and in transfer fees,” says Lennon. Then, indeed, Celtic had the sixth highest wage bill in Britain. Now it’s believed to be the 25th. “At the minute, unless we have a good run in the Europa League, we will find it hard to compete. But it’s not all doom and gloom. We can still look around for bargains and at other markets that we can use. We did that last year with Emilio Izaguirre, Beram Kayal and Gary Hooper. We hope these guys come in and make us better.”

Down the football chain clubs are doing that and Lennon applauds the efforts of St Mirren and Kilmarnock. The opening weeks of the season have produced enterprising and entertaining football that belies some of the pittance budgets. The Rugby Park club today host Hearts fresh from their scintillating 4-1 victory over Hibernian a week ago and their efforts show what can be achieved through being imaginative on and off the park.

“I think because it’s a small country with big expectations people tend to lean on the extremes and there’s knee-jerk reactions from people in the media. You have to sensationalise the negativity and if it’s positive you do likewise,” says Shiels. “That’s the industry and I understand that but I don’t think we should dwell too much on what happened to Hearts.

“If we look at the positives and how teams are playing and how we’re trying to improve the standard of play, well that’s what we want. I don’t think we can blame the people who are working with the players. My club are bringing players in from York, Crewe, Luton, teams in the non-league and League Two, while Tottenham are bringing players in from the best leagues in Europe.”

None of this is to let Celtic and Rangers off the hook. Scotland’s UEFA ranking, presently at 16, is plunging. On current trends, it could be below 30 in two years’ time, with consequences for the number of qualifiers our teams would be required to negotiate. In 2003, Scotland stood ninth. If Celtic do not do enough to progress to the Europa League group stage in Switzerland on Thursday, it will mean them exiting at their point of entry in three consecutive European tournaments for the first time in their history. If both they and Rangers are put out this week, it will mean eight out of ten Scottish clubs being eliminated at the earliest possible stage in continental competition over the past 14 months.

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As for Scottish clubs competing in the Champions League, it is becoming ever more conceivable that the elite competition will only visit this country on rare occasions. We’ll have to satisfy ourselves watching it on the telly. From England.