Why So Empty?
I don’t miss Rangers, but then I always reckoned I was in the minority when they were still around. I never enjoyed the derbies against them – either we lost and it was miserable for days and weeks afterwards, or we won and that was more of a relief than anything. The games themselves were only bearable when we were thumping them, and that rarely happened.
I always enjoyed the buzz of a European night a lot more. There was that same nervy feeling in the pit of your stomach but you knew if you lost you were probably losing to a good side with fans you wouldn’t be facing the next morning at work! And if you should win… well, then Celtic had beaten a fantastic team, not “that lot” from across the city. There was more prestige in beating a Barcelona or an AC Milan than there was in beating a Rangers.
But now Celtic Park attendances are dropping and the question that keeps cropping up is why? Why, when Celtic are romping the league and playing in the Champions League every season, is no one wanting to turn up to watch? What’s changed recently to cause that? Dare we ask… are we missing Rangers? Or are we just missing the competition that Rangers brought?
Before Rangers demise, I spent years complaining about the lack of competition in Scotland. I dreamt of the good old days of the 1980s (days that I don’t actually remember) where any one of four teams could win the league – none of which were Rangers incidentally – and the cups were open to all. Even in the early 1990s when Celtic were struggling we still had the likes of Aberdeen and Motherwell challenging Rangers for the title. I once wanted Aberdeen to win the title on the final day of the season at Ibrox to such a big extent that my parents thought I might be an Aberdeen fan!
But as Rangers spent more through the decade and they chased European ambitions, those other teams faded away as they just couldn’t compete. Celtic got their act together under Fergus McCann as the decade went on and started spending a bit more sensibly. They never quite went mental as Fergus was a shrewd businessman, but Celtic still capitalised on a poor season from Rangers as Walter Smith prepared to leave triumphantly having won ten in a row.
He failed. Aww.
That’s about the last time a properly run team outside of Celtic or Rangers actually competed as Hearts were a third force in the title race until the final month. It was a title everyone seemed destined to throw away at one point, but perhaps it meant more to Celtic than it did to anyone else and the record set by Jock Stein’s Celtic was saved at the death. Roddie Forsyth’s commentary on 5Live that day said it best.
“It may not have been a vintage championship, but believe me, it will taste as sweet to these Celtic supporters as any they have secured. Because they have stopped Rangers from taking away the history book record of ten-in-a-row”.
Something that matters so much you can hear the urge to do it ourselves at Celtic matches even today. “Here we go, ten in a row”.
Rangers responded to that loss in the only way David Murray knew how – by throwing more of someone else’s money at the problem. Once Fergus McCann was out of the way Celtic even responded by doing likewise. That combination of spending killed any chance any other team in Scotland ever had of competing. Where Hearts had run Celtic and Rangers close in 1997/98, Celtic and Rangers would start to pull away as the years progressed.
Celtic actually reigned in the spending midway through Martin O’Neill’s reign – it’s a well publicised fact that when Celtic went to Seville in 2003 they actually made a big loss. So while the fans wanted more money spent to push on from that European final appearance, Celtic just couldn’t afford it and the budget was cut. Strachan came in a couple of seasons later and did a terrific job of cutting the bill without much of a drop in quality on the park – at least as far as trophies and European qualification goes that is. It certainly wasn’t pretty to watch a lot of the time!
But Celtic with their spending reigned in is still a far cry from what any other team in Scotland can manage, especially when the coffers get boosted by Champions League money. Rangers eventually tried to reign in the spending as well but they’d blown so much of other people’s cash by that point that it was simply too late. Hearts had a brief go at matching the spending under Vladimir Romanov, but that decision meant they ended up almost going the same way as Rangers and they’ll be lucky to survive that policy and “only” drop down to the second tier having crawled out of administration. The other teams in Scotland have also suffered from debt as most of them have, at some point, spent well outside their means. Not in an effort to compete with Celtic and Rangers, most of them having realised that wasn’t realistic, but to compete with all the other clubs who were doing the same!
The net result of all of this is that Celtic are now untouchable in the league at the moment. With their resources they’re the only team that can put in a sustained run necessary to clinch a league title. Aberdeen, Dundee United and Hibernian should all be nicely placed to have a good go, but none of them can stick it out over 38 games. Their best chances are in the cups where a one-off knockout match can negate the gulf in resources just long enough to make a difference.
As much as I’d love a return to the free-for-all days of the 1980s, the money in football now makes that an almost impossible goal. Aberdeen under Derek McInnes have got their act together enough to be a genuinely good cup team – but they’re still 21 points behind in the league. As much as Celtic have been fantastically consistent in the league, Aberdeen have struggled too often and I can’t see that changing significantly next season either. I’d love to be wrong about that, but the best of the rest seems to be their best hope these days. Mind you, some – myself included – would argue they should have been in that position for a long time now.
I’m sure Hibernian will get better under Terry Butcher but they won’t be that good for a title challenge. And while Dundee United are in good shape with their finances and youth policy under Jackie McNamara they’re far too inconsistent to be a threat to Celtic’s dominance. Hearts will no doubt be back eventually too and, as much as many would like to think otherwise, it seems unlikely that any challenge to Celtic will come from Ibrox any time soon either.
It’s abundantly clear they haven’t learned anything about the folly of big spending as they’ve pissed away the IPO money in record time while facing part time teams whose whole budgets are lucky to pay even a handful of Murray Park employees. They’ll need serious investment to avoid another insolvency before they get to the top tier, never mind put up a challenge against Celtic and their Champions League money.
And you rather suspect that those in charge at Celtic know that, which is probably why they appear to be hoarding cash rather than attempting to give any meaningful push on to compete in Europe. Mind you, as much as there’s a gulf in Scotland between Celtic and the rest, there’s another gulf between Celtic and the big league European clubs. So as frustrating as it is to watch the club get stuck in the middle like this, I’m not entirely sure what the answer is. The £5m striker that we can afford isn’t going to make that much of a difference to a team who made the last sixteen last season – they might make the last eight with a good draw – but it would be nice if we didn’t sell half the team that did that without replacing them at all!
The trouble now though is that Celtic Park is half empty most weeks. There was a reported 45,239 at Sunday’s match against St Johnstone. Now, one, that’s almost quarter of the stadium that’s empty to begin with. But, two, anyone who saw Celtic Park on Sunday knows that number is nonsense – it was significantly less than that. We know that the official attendance includes tickets that are sold for the game whether they’re used or not, so any season ticket holders that didn’t go to the “hastily rearranged for television” match were included in those numbers. Understandable if you’d booked up to fly over when it was originally 3pm on a Saturday and only moved two and a half weeks ago, but I’m sure there were other reasons many chose to stay away from this match.
And I’m not sure everyone has had a baby in recent weeks like I have!
So why aren’t Celtic fans turning up any more? Is it the lack of a challenge? Well, no, or we’d have seen Celtic Park empty in the latter half of 2000/01, 2001/02, 2003/04, 2005/06 and 2006/07 as well. I’m sure there’s an element of that, but we’ve had a lack of a challenge quite a few times recently. Is it the cost of going to the football? Again, I’m sure there’s an element of that, but if it was just that then we’d have seen a bigger drop off five years ago when the credit crunch hit. That also doesn’t explain why the season ticket holders are missing – they’ve paid already. Is it the standard of football? Doubtful, or lots more would have been missing under Gordon Strachan and Tony Mowbray. I don’t think it’s even the ongoing arguments with stewards and police, or we’d never have seen fans back after the 1980 cup final in protest at the lack of alcohol.
As much as I think there’s element of all of these, I think the truth is an uncomfortable one for many. The simple fact of the matter is, lots of Celtic fans miss the RELEVANCE of Rangers.
Running away with the league was fine when it was Rangers that were a distant second, in fact it made it all the more fun. Remember when they were third in 2005/06? That was the best. Even when it was Celtic that were a distant second we saw fans turn out in tens of thousands in the hope it would get better. Always look on the bright side of life and all that. Garbage football was tolerable when it made sure you won the league ahead of Rangers, and even when it was garbage and we weren’t beating Rangers we were at least there moaning about it. Even paying £42 per ticket for a single match was bad – but you still paid it because it was Rangers you were playing in that single match.
The Rangers fan base are kept relevant by the Scottish media as it pays their wages, but there’s also a large element of Celtic supporters who keep them relevant by keeping an eye on share prices and mouthpieces involved at Ibrox. Why? Because we see them in the same city, we work with them, we hear them on the radio, and even after everything that they’ve been through in recent years they still turn up at Ibrox and ensure that one of the biggest football attendances across the weekend in Scotland in a game involving the team they support. They might suffer from missing us and a lack of competition as well, but unlike us they have a massive chip on their shoulder which gives them something to rally about. Those running things over at Ibrox know that and they play up to it at every opportunity, which is why Ibrox isn’t quite as empty as Celtic Park.
It doesn’t matter if we play their team or not. It doesn’t even matter if they have the same club or a new club. That fan base, those supporters, are still there in our lives.
We’ve been conditioned since birth to know that they’re our rivals. There isn’t a Celtic fan alive who can remember when Queen’s Park were our rivals – which they were until professionalism came into the game. It’s always been Rangers to us. Other teams can’t just manufacture a new rivalry with us, it doesn’t work like that. Aberdeen fans can try their best to pick a fight with us, and I’m sure if they sustained it over the course of a decade or two then it might develop into something. They’ve had a decent rivalry with Rangers since the Ian Durrant incident after all – but “decent” is the best they managed. Aberdeen lacking on the football pitch for much of that time hasn’t exactly helped give it credence.
We’re just not used to being on our own. We’re used to “us” and “them” and we’ve never known anything else. It takes a big mental adjustment to accept that it’s just us, and it’s one I don’t think is possible in the current football setup. “Just us” is boring, and just as other teams can’t manufacture a rivalry with us, neither can we manufacture one with other teams. “The Nou Firm” tag amused me when we drew Barcelona for a second successive season, but they look at us as we would look at another Scottish team. Yes they might give us a game every once in a while, but they’re no long-term threat and they can’t compete with us financially.
Besides, we already have a rivalry.
So while I personally would be quite happy if Celtic never played a team from Ibrox ever again, I think I can probably file that under the minority category. As I suggested at the start of this blog, I’m a bad example, I never liked that game to start with. I’m sure many other Celtic fans either openly admit they want to get “Sevco” in a cup and thump them or they secretly think like that but wouldn’t admit it publicly. Even I admitted as much in my last blog as I’d rather we could have thumped them in the Scottish Cup than have them anywhere near the final at Celtic Park. Not that I’d enjoy it – at least not until after they’d been thumped.
As I said at the end of my last blog, what Celtic need to do about these falling attendances is precisely why those in charge at the club are paid big bonuses. But the truth is, unless those in charge at Celtic have some secret plan up their sleeve that can replace the hundred year rivalry that exists throughout our lives and extends well away from the football match itself, I’m not sure what they can do to arrest the falling attendances at Celtic Park.
But fear not, because I fully expect Celtic Park attendances to pick themselves up… in about eighteen months time.