• Walter Smith
Having been assured by the SPL that the circumstances where the club were required to play three successive matches away from home two years ago would not be repeated, Rangers were surprised to learn on Saturday that this was again to be the club's fate. In 2007/08, and following their defeat to Zenit St Petersburg in the Uefa Cup final, Rangers rounded off the league season with trips to Motherwell, St Mirren and Aberdeen. Just four points from a possible nine were accrued and Walter Smith's side conceded the title to Celtic by three points.
On this occasion Rangers have amassed a healthy lead over Celtic, and prior to last night's clash between the Parkhead side and Motherwell needed just two wins from their last six matches to secure the title. But it has not stopped both chief executive Martin Bain and manager Walter Smith raising the issue of "sporting integrity" once more.
Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell demanded Rangers should not be allowed to request fixture alterations to accommodate their preparations for the Uefa Cup final in Manchester. It left Rangers facing four games in eight days at the end of the season, a schedule which included the Scottish Cup final.
The spat has not been forgotten by either Rangers or Celtic and has been re-heated following the publication of the post-split fixtures at the weekend. Motherwell and St Mirren are also unhappy. The Fir Park club have been handed a lop-sided season in which they have played two more away fixtures than home ones. St Mirren are unsatisfied by the prospect of having to play relegation rivals Falkirk away from home for a third time this season.
But Rangers, who hold a double-figure points advantage at the top of the league, have stolen the spotlight by insisting they have been placed at a "competitive disadvantage" by being given trips to Hibernian, Dundee United and Celtic in succession. Bain has also criticised the decision to give Celtic a third home match against Motherwell, whose pitch suffered badly in the harsh winter. The chief executive called for an end to the split and a debate on the structure of the SPL and was backed by his manager.
"I think everybody has a grievance," said Smith. "On a personal basis, and on a club level, there are a few things that we would argue about. We were told three years ago that we would never again have three away games in a row, and now we've got them ... which I don't think is right for any club at any time, regardless of whatever excuses you make for the split. You may have to play three games away and two games at home, but surely not three games away in a row. I think it is ridiculous that we have been asked to do that."
Smith has already supported calls for the adoption of an 18-club league having become increasingly unimpressed by the division of fixtures after the split.
"You've got to say that in any league in the world where the team in seventh place can end up with more points than the team in sixth place, then you've got a problem," he stressed yesterday.
The end-of-season split was first brought in in 2000/01 after the SPL had been enlarged to include 12 clubs. Two years earlier referee Hugh Dallas was hit by a coin thrown by a Celtic fan following a title-deciding game with Rangers at Parkhead. League officials have sought to eliminate the chances of a repeat of such highly pressurised circumstances involving the final Old Firm fixture of the season.
The scheduling of this was another complaint aired by Bain, in a statement released to the club's official website. "The SPL have said that the police did not want the final Old Firm game of the season to be decisive and therefore did not want it scheduled for fixture 34 or 35," he said.
"The other aspect is that Celtic are not being asked to go and play on the difficult surface at Fir Park when they have only played there once this season. Does that equate to sporting integrity?"
Bain added: "I think the time has come for a more considered debate on a better structure that removes the split completely."
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