IT’S very near now, the end of this Championship, a league like no other in the story of Scottish football. Never again, you think, will three of our most famous institutions find themselves playing outwith the top flight. Today Hibernian and Rangers take part in a contest which the Premiership cannot match for intrigue, with both desperate to achieve promotion and return with runaway leaders Hearts to where they rightfully belong.
Well, yes, that’s the official version. But what do the fans of these clubs think? Have they enjoyed this season for its infinite variety? Are they looking forward to getting back in the old routine of four games against St Mirren, a querulous quartet of fixtures with Motherwell, that long road to Kil… Kil… Kill-me-now… Kilmarnock, assuming these teams all retain their Premiership status? Or would they not be too devastated to linger longer at the likes of Alloa Athletic, home of the Wasp Burger (black pudding, potato scone, bacon), provided the Wasps keep on buzzing in the Championship?
Hearts? Surely not. They’re on a mission – manager, players, board, supporters. It’s a crusade, a cause, and about much more than mere qualification to a higher tier. And it won’t stop until the regeneration is complete, although this time no one will be talking about winning the Champions League, which was the start of all the original trouble.
Rangers? Would they take another season in the Championship? Surely not. Like Hearts but unlike Hibs, who only cocked up and got relegated, the fallen Glasgow giants would seem to need a ticket back to the Premiership at the first available opportunity to restore credibility and a good name after the wrongdoing and mismanagement. The Ibrox club, like Hearts, have taken their punishment and supped their medicine. Now Rangers want to rev up that old coal lorry which once delivered the Cup Winners’ Cup to the boardroom for another grand procession, returning the team to all the grounds they once visited as part of their entitlement, with Celtic Park naturally the top destination.
But Barry Ferguson has just yanked on the handbrake. “Another season in the Championship for Rangers won’t be the disaster people are predicting,” he wrote in his always-readable newspaper column the other day.
If promotion was to be achieved, he reckoned, they would struggle to stay fifth. “Of course Rangers should be in the top flight and battling for the title against Celtic, but that’s not the priority after all that’s happened in recent years. Too many things need fixing and the Championship may be the best place to do that.”
It’s a bold statement from Baz and one, I would guess, which won’t excite the Copland Road End cognoscenti overmuch. For them, the lower leagues have lost what novelty they possessed. The light-blue legions have had their fill of Wasp Specials and the other local delicacies at those funny, wee football outposts. But Hearts fans have been able to adopt a more romantic perspective.
The longest-serving Jambo of my acquaintance goes all the way back to our first day of secondary school 46 years ago. I caught up with Jim, a retired police sergeant and leading light in the campaign to have Hearts’ First World War enlistees commemorated, as he waited for a train at Crianlarich: “Funnily enough, passing Dumbarton’s ground earlier today and also Clyde’s, even though we haven’t had to play there, got my friend Russell and me talking about how much we’ve enjoyed this season.
“Firstly for Hearts fans it’s been good for the soul to help build up our club again at these grassroots places. Secondly it’s just been great fun. We went to Raith Rovers for the first time in ages and, because all the pubs were full before the game, ended up in the Westend bowling club. A big competition was about to start but they were lovely to us and when I got home I wrote to the secretary thanking them for their hospitality. At Raith and elsewhere our kids have stood on terraces for the first time and we’ve been able to tell them: ‘This is how all football used to be.’
“Would we mind if we have to stay to stay another year in the Championship? It would be easy for us to say yes, when it doesn’t look like we’ll have to. Am I looking forward to going back to Killie and Motherwell and the repetitiveness of the Premiership? Not really. But I think, because we’re determined to see Hearts back where they belong, that we want it to happen as quickly as possible. The Championship has been great, though, and it will always be where we got our club back. And I think what this season has proved beyond doubt is that Scotland needs a bigger top league, more teams, to stop us all dying of boredom.”
Which leaves Hibs. Hibbies, too, after initially seeing their team stumble along some of football’s byways, have enjoyed the Championship ride. This happened the last time they went down, too, with 15,000 turning out for a festive fixture with Raith. Fans are simple creatures: we want to see our team win and score a few goals. The difference this time is that Hibs had to make up for the dire, cloudbursting football of the previous season’s collapse. Like Jambos, then, the Hibbies can thank the Championship for having aided in the rehabilitation of their team, enabling Alan Stubbs to restore the kind of football they like to watch.
The fans of both Edinburgh clubs, and some at Rangers too, are trying not to be patronising: Alloa and Dumbarton have been exotic experiences in 2014-15. So who’s going back there and who’s going up? Hearts are certainties, of course, a brilliant effort from the mobilised maroons and, sorry Ronny Deila, but unless Derek McInnes scoops you to the Premiership title, Robbie Neilson is the manager of the season.
Hibs fans, if they had to choose between promotion and the Scottish Cup, although being terribly aware that neither could come their way, would plump for the latter. Indeed, I know of some who’d flip the club’s curse – and be willing to spend the next 113 years outwith the top flight – if the holey pail could finally be paraded down Leith Walk.
Meanwhile Rangers supporters wait for the bounce. The boardroom revolution bounce, the new manager bounce, any kind will do. Would they wait a whole other year to regain their Premiership place? If going up too early would bring embarrassment in the Old Firm game, you wonder why they wouldn’t. The fixture, it seems, remains our raison d’etre. The rest is mere grouting, no matter the interesting colours.