'Old Firm must go or game will die'

RANGERS manager Walter Smith has stepped back into the debate about where the Old Firm will ultimately play their league football. He insists that, for the benefit of Scottish football, it won't be in Scotland.

He believes change is needed to arrest a currently irrevocable decline in the game in the country but accepts that a switch to England is not a feasible option. Instead, he agrees with the principle of a European league, to run separately to the Champions and Europa Leagues. Rather than diminish Scottish football, he is confident the move will lead to its restoration. He delivered an apocalyptic vision of the alternative. "I take the opposite view to a lot of people; I think if we don't (go], Scottish football is in danger of dying," he said yesterday at Ibrox, following another swelling of interest in the subject of the Old Firm's future ambitions.

This was sparked by the attendance of Martin Bain and Peter Lawwell, chief executives of Rangers and Celtic respectively, at a Leaders of Football conference last week at Stamford Bridge, and their subsequent high-profile appearances on national radio. Both made clear their determination to explore alternative frontiers to the SPL.

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Smith, too, fears that Scottish football will continue to suffer if Rangers and Celtic do not take the bull by the horns and establish an alternative market in which to operate, although he stressed that his preference is for a meritocracy to exist. Clubs such as Aberdeen and Hearts should also be allowed to play their way out of the SPL, Smith explained.

Tony Mowbray, Smith's counterpart at Celtic, also broached the currently hot topic yesterday, but proved more circumspect in his comments. He recognised Celtic's responsibility to Scottish football, though also understood the need to keep their "ear to the ground" for opportunities elsewhere.

But Smith ruled out England as an option. He recognised the futility of waiting for an invite to join the English Premier League, or even, in the event of it being formed, an 'EP2'. "I don't see that a league would ever vote for two teams that are going to be bigger than the majority of teams that are in it," said Smith, who, having managed Everton, is alert to the thinking of such clubs.

While the Old Firm will be the ones at the vanguard, he hoped other Scottish teams might prove ambitious enough to follow them into a pan-European league of clubs frustrated by the lack of opportunities in their own domestic game. "Let me make it clear, when I see a situation of Rangers and Celtic going to play in a European league, there would be the possibility that other Scottish teams could get there," he said. "The Scottish team who wins the league should have an opportunity to get into the (European] league as well."

Last week Bain said Rangers will be playing elsewhere by 2019. Smith, though acknowledging that he probably won't still be in charge when change is finally effected, feels it is a matter of when, rather than if.

"What we have got to watch in Scotland is that we don't lose our profile altogether," he warned. "That's the biggest thing. If our football gets dragged down financially, then our profile gets dragged down along with it. If Rangers and Celtic can keep the profile of Scottish football high then that is obviously good for everyone. Who else is going to do it?"

He continued: "It is a natural thing for talks to take place. It would seem to be a natural progression. I don't think there is any doubt that at some stage in the future it will happen. It is just how it will happen."

The frustrations of being big fish in a small pool are not felt only by the Old Firm. Smith cast his eye across Europe, where other clubs feel inhibited by their circumstances. "It is not just Rangers and Celtic, it is big clubs all over Europe," he said. "For example, two years ago we went to play Red Star Belgrade. They have an average gate below 10,000 yet they get 75,000 for their local derby and European games, so that's a huge disparity. They had a situation where they signed three players for 15million and failed to make the Champions League; they immediately sold the players. That's the kind of financial situation that clubs have been put in. Clubs in these countries cannot gain a level of finance that will allow them to be competitive."

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Smith believes the annual jousts for the title between the Old Firm rivals is sustaining football in this country, providing the level of interest that "keeps us going" in straitened times. He imagines Rangers and Celtic will retain a presence in the Scottish game in the form of reserve teams.

"There has been a gradual decline," he said, reflecting on his first stint as Rangers manager, when he signed Paul Gascoigne and Brian Laudrup. "We can't deny it while we're losing decent players to the Championship every year, and while Rangers and Celtic can't compete for top level players. It's how you arrest that. It's not just in Scotland, it is everywhere. The difference to last time I was here to now means we have to do something about the situation. There is still interest, but it is Rangers/Celtic interest. Who'll win what? What they will do in Europe?

"It's not the other clubs' fault."