British League: What would it mean for Celtic, Rangers and Scottish football?

Rangers and Celtic joining the English Premier League is not a new subject, despite the latest proposal for a British League being concocted by some of the minds behind the European Super League.

The Old Firm could be invited to a new 18-team set-up as part of ‘Project Big Picture’ – the think-tank driven by big clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool seeking reform for league football.

That scheme was headlined by the failed European Super League plan – but the domino effect of its present ‘standby status’ could be developments closer to home.

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Background

Rangers' Filip Helander (left) tussles with Celtic's David Turnbull during a Scottish Cup tie between Rangers and Celtic at Ibrox Stadium, on April 18, 2021, in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Rob Casey / SNS Group)

Since the creation of the Premier League and the TV wealth and prize money associated there has been talk of Scotland’s big two making a move to share in the riches. But it has never materialised.

In 2009 Phil Gartside, then Bolton Wanderers’ chairman, attempted to capitalise on the Old Firm fan-bases and marketability by adding the pair to the English system with reform plans for a two-tier Premiership. These failed, but like the club’s geographic proximity, the notion has never gone away too far.

Just last autumn Celtic’s major shareholder Dermot Desmond made the case. “Celtic and Rangers are in the top eight clubs in Great Britain by any metric - support, attendance, international appeal. At some stage, there’s going to be the realisation that if they want to maximise their revenues, then there’ll be a British Premier League.

"And there should be a British Premier League, because you already have a couple of Welsh teams in the English leagues. So why not?”

Derrmot Desmond (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

What has changed?

Well, nothing really – except that six clubs in England have come forward with revolutionary attempts to restructure football leagues as we know them. That European Super League plan provoked so much controversy in 48 hours that most reneged on their interest.

However, they have shown their hand in their search for reform and now the ‘Big Six’ are believed to be exploring Plan B – a reformed domestic league. Could the appetite for change in the product and the opprobrium shown to the ‘closed-shop’ ESL throw up the possibility of an open border competition?

Given the history and doomed nature of previous proposals and discussions that appears unlikely, but the same was said of the ESL before the weekend’s dramatic movements.

Phil Gartside was Chairman of Bolton Wanderers in 2008 and attempted to redraw the English top divisions - including the Old Firm (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

There's also been positive steps on cross-border leagues between Belgium and Holland – so the precedent might not be set, but the notion is creeping forward elsewhere too.

Why would they leave?

Well, money, to put it bluntly. The marketplace and TV revenues enjoyed by English clubs far outweighs anything Scotland can offer. Frustrating when the financial gulf is merely the length of the M74, and several million per mile.

A slice of that financial pie, allied with the already established fan-base foundations of the Old Firm clubs should open up a whole new level for the two clubs who have the status of two big fish in a small pond, while significantly smaller clubs in England command much higher turnover.

Diego Laxalt of Celtic vies with Ryan Kent of Rangers during the Scottish Cup game between Rangers and Celtic at Ibrox Stadium on April 18, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. Sporting stadiums around the UK remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

Those revenue streams would have potential for bigger players, more games against the bigger names in world football, more glamour and bigger business – and the ability to hang on to quality players like Kieran Tierney and Virgil van Dijk for longer.

Is there a but?

However, Rangers and Celtic have benefited from frequent forays into European football. Entering a more competitive market-place with clubs of similar, or greater, size could lead to less opportunities of on-field success. Not just in trophies and titles, but against European qualification itself.

Both are used to annual European exploits – could they survive the odd season or more without them? And what would that do to their European pedigree that saw Aleksander Ceferin – UEFA president – namecheck them among the clubs important for UEFA competitions?

As was argued against the successful clubs creating the ESL – ‘which of these illustrious names is signing up to be the ESL mid-table version of Stoke City?’ It’s a risk when stepping into a more competitive marketplace with an appetite for frequent success.

Those on-field risks would have to be weighed up against the off-field merits.

What would they leave behind?

Of course, there is more to a proposal than just the effect on Rangers and Celtic.

Stepping out in the manner suggested would leave behind the Scottish football system and take away two of its own glamorous and historic names.

Would Scotland's football be as alluring as a destination for players? Or for TV companies and viewers?

What would the effect be on Hibs, Aberdeen and Hearts – big clubs in their own right, but in the shadow of the top two? Someone would have to step into the vacuum and space created at the top to take the place as top of the league after three and a half decades of dominance.

Could they become European regulars themselves? But would their continental competitiveness struggle without the co-efficient assistance of the big two?

And what of the domestic scene?

There might be a fairer spread of success between the non-Old Firm clubs for a start.

But fewer healthy away supports would pass through four times a season resulting in a loss of gate (or stream) income… but would increased competition and more frequent success encourage more home fans’ regular attendance?

It’s a fine balance, regardless of your position.

What are the chances?

Well, since the subject has been floated fairly frequently and never materialised, perhaps little.

Among fans dismissing the idea has been the suggestion for a reformed cup competition across the borders which could be a test event.

But at the crux of the matter is self-preservation. For Rangers and Celtic to join the English set-up would require turkeys to vote for Christmas. Smaller teams would need to accept two new, yet established and large-sized rivals trying to take a share of what they too aspire to achieve, and potentially at their own expense.

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