It is hardly unusual for Celtic and Rangers to carve up the domestic honours; as they have this season as a consequence of Ange Postecoglou’s men having annexed the cinch Premiership and the League Cup. Heck, Celtic’s quadruple treble remains fresh in the memory. However, it is unknown for all the other teams in Scotland to be so thoroughly incapable of landing a glove on either of them at the same time.
Yet, this is where we are right now. It is now exactly six months since either of the big two suffered a domestic loss outside of their own tribal confrontations. And that occasion, Hibs’ League Cup semi-final slaying of Rangers on November 21 last year, came with the Ibrox men destabilised and disorientated by the departure of Steven Gerrard and his backroom staff to Aston Villa. So much so, they were under the charge of two club youth coaches as a hat-trick from the now departed Martin Boyle condemned them to a 3-1 defeat. A loss Giovanni van Bronckhorst looked out on aghast from the Hampden stands in then not officially having taken up his Ibrox role.
Since the Dutchman has been at the Rangers helm properly, his side have failed to overcome domestic opponents. Yet, never at any stage have they appeared as if they would be overcome by them. It was a smattering of draws and two derby reverses that did the damage to their championship prospects. As this scenario panned out, Celtic put together a 32-game unbeaten run to land the league championship. The third longest such sequence in a top flight campaign for 54 years. Chillingly for the rest of the Scottish game, not once during it were they seriously threatened with defeat.
Many considered the Tynecastle men would never have a better opportunity to record a first final victory over Rangers at Hampden owing to the possibilities the timing of the latest Scottish Cup decider seemed to present. It was considered their opponents would be weary and in a fatalistic fug following the energy-sapping agonies inflicted by their Europa League final loss on penalties to Eintracht Frankfurt in searing heat of Seville merely three days earlier. As it turned out, a chasm ultimately existed between the teams.
Approaching the hour, Rangers – exhibiting the immense conditioning they have time and again as domestic commitments have been juggled with continental considerations these past three months – clicked up the dial on their performance level. In doing so, Hearts were dialled out of the decider completely. The only wonder of it was how they succeeded in taking the encounter into extra-time before coughing up only two goals. In that added half-hour they looked every inch a team that had finished a mammoth 28 points adrift of their Ibrox executioners in the cinch Premiership.
In turn, the Gorgie club were in a league of their own in top flight terms. A full 13 points separated them and fourth-placed Dundee United. Against such a backdrop, Hearts have been presented as the best hope the Scottish game possesses of having the wherewithal to mount a semblance of a challenge to the Glasgow behemoths. What events at the national stadium nakedly demonstrated is that the Tynecastle club are in the altogether. Even when it comes merely to applying a fig leaf to the notion of entering the competitive orbit of Celtic and Rangers.
This is the depressing reality before it is even considered the summer spending that lies ahead for Scotland’s duelling rivals. Celtic, already commandingly recast by Postecoglou, are about to be enriched and further strengthened by reinvesting notable tranches of the £40million bounty direct entry into the Champions League group stages guarantees them. Rangers, with van Bronckhorst vanquishing early doubts, could yet have access to similar sums … though they face two hazardous qualifying rounds to earn such a money pot. Yet, even without that, they will have the largesse to tool up and take a title challenge to their rivals. Their European run was worth in the region of £20m. Moreover, the Ibrox club appear set to raise the sort of serious dough through player sales – Calvin Bassey, Ryan Kent and Alfredo Morelos potential high-end cash-ins – to which they have not had access in their six seasons since to flight football was returned to Ibrox.
Where this all leaves the rest of Scottish football is obvious. Nowhere. The cup double achieved by St Johnstone only last year already feels like a mirage. A by-product of the peculiarities that ensued from pandemic-era football, however unfair that might sound. The only two honours of the past 18 contested in Scottish football that haven’t taken up residence in the boardrooms of the Glasgow titans, mulling over when another might by level Scotland’s footballing capital may be a futile exercise for the short-term. Instead, if looking for footballing kicks that amount to the boot being put into Celtic and Rangers, frankly the wholly pitiful comes into play: when in heaven’s name will another Scottish team just simply beat the two teams over 90, or 120, minutes? No-one should hold their breath over that happening any time soon.