Without Rangers and Celtic Scotttish top flight has European standing of League of Ireland - Aberdeen and Hibs damned by the parallel

More than just Motherwell’s progress in the Conference League is at stake against Sligo Rovers.

The credibility of the Scottish game will go on the line when Graham Alexander’s men attempt to overturn a 1-0 deficit in the return leg of their second qualifying round tie at The Showgrounds on Thursday evening. The neglible impact made by Scotland’s top flight clubs outside of Celtic and Rangers on the continent for more than a decade has led to a certain charge regularly being laid at the door of the rest. In the form of the contention that, without Glasgow’s big two, the status of Scottish football in European club competition would be akin to the League of Ireland. On the basis of their jousting last week it could well prove a struggle for the Fir Park club even to match a Rovers side that hail from this set-up. Yet, the malaise cuts much deeper. Much, much deeper.

Ireland is a lowly 40th in UEFA’s country rankings. Scotland is a giddy ninth. What is the issue then, you might say? Well, Scotland’s position is almost exclusively attributable to the co-efficient points harvesting of Rangers and Celtic in the past five years - in that order. Helped significantly by the Ibrox club’s progress to the Europa League final last season, between the bitter rivals they have earned 131 points. Meanwhile, the rest of Scotland’s representatives combined have accumulated, eh, 22 points. Over that period, League of Ireland teams have posted a 32.5 figure.

Of course, the comparison is not like for like. There were 20 Irish participants in Europe while, if you discount the Glasgow powerhouses, there were 11 from Scotland. Factoring this in means the average co-efficient haul from each European entrant in Scotland and Ireland was two points to 1.625 points in favour of this country. Furthermore, from what we could call the ‘other’ Scottish clubs, the aggregated co-efficient total over the most recent five-year period would have been 11 points. A figure that would place the nation 33rd in UEFA’s rankings. Sandwiched between Moldova and Lithuania.

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However unimpressive, slightly better than the Irish some might be tempted to petition. Yes, but the situation isn’t that simple. The League of Ireland totals are dragged down by the fact that, in all but one of the past five campaigns, the bottom-placed of their four participants had a big fat zero in their co-efficient total. Had there been no Celtic and Rangers on the scene, there would have been an additional nine Scottish participants. All of these would have been going into cross-border tournaments on the back of inferior seasons to those clubs that did compete. Thereafter, it is reasonable to assume a few of these would also have earned nil points, which would have suppressed the aggregate tallies. Indeed, St Johnstone in 2017-18 suffered this very fate. As a result, the 11-point combined total for Scottish clubs minus the country’s two heaviest hitters is probably inflated against the numbers posted by the League of Ireland who have no such superclubs.

What really damns our top flight sides beyond Celtic and Rangers over the latest five-year cycle is what they didn’t do compared to their Irish counterparts. Last season, Bohemians racked up 4.5 co-efficient points in contesting three qualifying rounds. None of Scotland’s title also-rans bagged as high a total across the period….wherein Aberdeen and Hibs were supposedly leading Scotland’s best of the rest charge in the continental arena. Two seasons ago, Dundalk successfully negotiated three qualifying rounds to snare a place in the Europa League group stages. Aside from Celtic and Rangers, no Scottish club has ever - ever - accomplished that feat. Heck, there was a fair amount of hoopla when Neil Lennon’s Easter Road team merely won back-to-back European qualifying ties in 2018-19. But in retrospect maybe that is forgivable since, outwith the Glasgow behemoths, only Aberdeen last year achieved that over the past five campaigns. Moreover, to give a Scottish context to Dundalk’s group stage appearance in 2020 (where admittedly they lost all six games) not since the Pittodrie club made it to the UEFA Cup sectional phase in 2007-08, has one of the country’s top second tier clubs - for essentially that is what they are - progressed to the group stages.

In measuring up Scotland’s such representatives in Europe over the previous five seasons - a band comprising Aberdeen, Hibs, St Johnstone, Motherwell and Kilmarnock - to their Irish equivalents - a bracket into which can be placed Dundalk, Shamrock Rovers, Bohemians, Derry City, Cork City, St Patrick’s Athletic and Sligo Rovers - there will be those who will seek to factor in the time of year of European qualifiers. With the League of Ireland running from March to November, these come midway into the season across the water, while they are often the first competitive games of a new term for Scottish teams. Too often, though, our bigger clubs beyond the country’s football capital look for excuses for their failures. They will cite the scheduling, lack of seeding and unfortunate draws as devils to overcome.

Yet, in coming up short with the best showings from the League Of Ireland, this ‘ah, but’ attitude falls apart when considering the scale of Scotland’s cinch Premiership compared to the Irish Premier Division. Sligo’s player budget is around a third of Motherwell’s outlay. In Irish terms, it is pretty average, which means that the squad wage bills of such as Aberdeen and Hibs were up to six times Dundalk’s when they made their group stage breakthrough two years ago. Any way you want to dress it up, Scottish teams’ under-performing in European competition when removing Rangers and Celtic from the equation doesn’t merely not add up; it is nothing short of criminal. As Motherwell now find themselves firmly in the dock.

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Motherwell players are slumped following their defeat to Sligo Rovers in the UEFA Conference League Second Qualifying Round first leg tie at Fir Park last week. (Photo by Rob Casey / SNS Group)
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