Mark Warburton: Fewer Old Firm matches better for Scots game
The Ibrox club are on course for promotion to the Premiership and Warburton was provided with a sneak preview of the future when a crowd of almost 50,000 crammed into Ibrox to witness the Championship leaders’ 4-2 victory over Hibernian on Monday.
The 53-year-old conceded afterwards that he had never experienced such an atmosphere and, should his players reach the Premiership next season, it has made him all the more anxious to savour the ambience in his first meeting with Celtic.
However, Warburton stressed that he would prefer it to be the first of two – as opposed to four – Old Firm fixtures, claiming that the Scottish game would benefit from less of an emphasis on its two biggest clubs.
Indeed, in what seemed dangerously close to socialism for a former City trader, he made the case for a redistribution of wealth among the members of the top tier, claiming that competition and quality would rise as a result.
SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster claimed, after signing the then latest broadcasting agreement in 2011, that the TV companies had insisted on at least four matches between the Glasgow giants.
The most recent deal with Sky and BT Sport lasts until 2020, but the former Brentford manager argues that an improved and expanded elite division would make sacrificing two matches against Celtic a price worth paying.
“My personal opinion is yeah,” Warburton stated. “Last year, playing in the [English] Championship, Brentford fans hadn’t been to the City Ground for many years, hadn’t been to Blackburn Rovers, hadn’t been to Elland Road, hadn’t been to Carrow Road, and they were big days out.
“They hadn’t been to Fulham for a while and took 6,500-7,000 there and those type of big days out were great for the fans. It was fantastic. The backing we received was magnificent. “Here we’re not at the end of the year yet and we’ve now played Hibs four times already [and 11 times since the start of last season].
“That tells you everything… we’re not at the end of the year yet and we’ve played our nearest rival four times.
“I’m not sure how you maintain the uniqueness or the attraction of a fixture if you have that many games. I think the sacrifice may be that, if you’re going to try to improve the elite end, you’ve got to look at improving the product and that, to me, would be the benefit.
“If you want things to change, if you want things to improve, then there has to be some short-term pain for longer-term gain. I think sometimes you’ve got to embrace some different ideas, but my personal opinion is that you’ve got to improve the quality of the product.”
Which is why he would like to see more money channelled towards the likes of Aberdeen, Hearts and Hibernian.
“You’ve got to make it where there is investment coming into the clubs, into the top end, and then you close the gap between the haves and have nots,” he said.
“When you have that quality of fixture and you challenge your players accordingly then the fans are excited and look forward to it. If they know this is one of 11 over the course of a year, though, then I’m not sure it has the same attraction.”
Doncaster made clear his opposition to a 16-team top tier in 2011, claiming it would be financially unsustainable.
“There is no room to manoeuvre in terms of expanding,” he insisted. “Fourteen teams might potentially work in terms of having a split league and retaining four Old Firm games. Maybe. That would be feasible.
“But it has never been feasible to have 16, 18 or 20 [clubs] because you automatically go to one home game and one away. We think that will take £20 million out of Scottish football.
“That is a massive amount of money per season, in terms of lost gate and TV revenue. The lost gate revenue is not to be underestimated. So going to 16, 18 or 20 – financially – is impossible.”
Warburton disagrees and believes that the presence of his club, plus Hibs and Falkirk, could enhance the top flight, while taking nothing for granted when it comes to automatic promotion.
“I always think: ‘What will Hibs be saying this morning?’ – and they’ll be saying that they’re just three points behind Rangers,” he said.
“That’s what I’d be saying if I was in their boots. ‘It didn’t go our way at Ibrox and the best team won but we’re still only three points behind.’
“If that win had put us 10 points ahead it would be a different proposition, but if I was them or Falkirk I’d be saying that we still have to play Rangers again,” he added.
“There are lots of twists and turns left but our focus is on Rangers. If we do what we do well then we’ll be all right.”