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Mar 28, 2012

Derby dissection, the SPL's Arab Spring

This week's North of the Border reflects on an eventful Old Firm derby and explains why an SPL meeting has been likened to the Arab Spring.

FUNNY FIRM

Rangers beat Celtic 3-2 in an Old Firm game that, in the end, stands alone as a peculiar keepsake from this season.

Rangers, in administration and about to relinquish their title, were unfairly treated by the two late goals that Celtic scored, yet their superiority had been reinforced by two red cards for Celtic players, before another for their own Carlos Bocanegra in the concession of a penalty during that final rally. Celtic manager Neil Lennon was also sent off, during the half-time break, for comments made to the referee. All of that makes it seem like one of those combustible derby games that have made this fixture's reputation. It was not.

The reds were all debatable, but comfortably within the 'judgment call' zone for any referee. Bocanegra and the first offender, Cha Du-Ri, walked for denying goalscoring opportunities; Victor Wanyama went for one of those tackles that show all the studs, the latest in a long line this season. Lennon insisted he had been critical, but not aggressively so, in conversation with official Calum Murray during the interval.

The match was most curious for its wider context. Celtic could have won the league at the home of their great rivals with a victory, yet their supporters still left knowing that their coronation is inevitable in the coming weeks and that Rangers' current financial distress is certain to cast a shadow over the club for several seasons to come. For Rangers, that nightmare scenario was avoided and a derby win gave their supporters a brief respite from the realities of the crisis in whose eye the club remains.

TICKETUS HORRIBILIS

On the subject of that crisis, there are now five bidders for Rangers. The big movers this week were Paul Murray's Blue Knights, who may sound like a piano bar act but are in fact the most visible of the suitors.

Murray had previously hitched his wagon to Ticketus, the shadowy organisation through which Craig Whyte obtained control of Rangers - and we all know how that worked out. The deal between Whyte and Ticketus saw the company front the cash for Whyte's takeover, in exchange for a proportion of future season ticket sales, £27 million over three years. The club's administrators, Duff and Phelps, are trying to squirm out of that stranglehold, which blocks off a major revenue source for any future owner of Rangers.

This week, Murray said he would cut Ticketus loose if a deal was not "in the best interests of the club". Those exact words were frequently used by the previous owners in the days before the club was sold to Whyte and so may now be understood to mean the exact opposite of what is intended.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION

Michael Johnston, the chairman of Kilmarnock, came out with one of the best lines of the week on Saturday as he compared a meeting of the ten SPL teams with the Old Firm to the Arab Spring.

Johnston's premise seemed to be that the clubs involved were engaged in a brave struggle for democratic reform. The ten clubs are seeking opportunity in Rangers' weakness. This will be greatest should the SPL champions go into liquidation and seek re-entry to the top division as a new entity. "Of course you can," the ten will say, "just as soon as we change the league's voting system."

The sticking point is this: major changes to the SPL require an 11-1 majority. If anything that is not in the interest of the duopoly of Rangers and Celtic is on the table, it doesn't stay there very long.

During any other SPL season, such a drive would see the Old Firm make Johnston's light quip a frightening reality, as green and blue tanks rolled out from Glasgow, sending the poorly organised rural militia scurrying for cover inside Rugby Park or Pittodrie.

What change can come? League reconstruction has been discussed, but Rangers and Celtic only oppose the models that threaten their territory, just as many clubs who would be threatened by an immediately widened relegation zone do not support those frameworks.

The real issue - and this should come as no surprise - is money. At the moment, the top two clubs get around a third of television revenue. The reason for this is simple: Rangers v Celtic is the biggest draw for any broadcaster bidding for SPL rights. The second biggest is Rangers or Celtic v anybody else.

However, the argument for change is more complex. At its root is the fact that if you give most of the money to the top two teams, they will always be the top two teams, and what kind of competition is that? Level the ground in the SPL, make it a democratic league, with a more even distribution of money, and there is a chance that the overall standard, and the level of competition, will improve.

That, surely, would be for the good of Scottish football, but it would involve fairly significant economic sacrifices by two international corporations, and those two phrases rarely go together.

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