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Nov 21, 2012

Knockout punch

This week, North of the Border examines the latest chapter in Celtic's Champions League adventure, the potential restructuring of the Scottish Football League, plus the ongoing tax problems at Hearts, Rangers and Dunfermline.

KNOCKOUT PUNCH

Celtic missed an opportunity to qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League with one game to spare on Tuesday, losing in Lisbon, the venue of their most famous victory, in the final of the European Cup of 1967.

Despite their dominance at home, Celtic's budget is significantly below that of Benfica. They may have claimed a memorable win over Barcelona and suffered only a narrow defeat by the Catalans at the Camp Nou, but the Hoops were still underdogs for this match. They lost 2-1 but such was the imbalance in the play, a heavier scoreline would not have flattered Benfica. However, that win over Barca still counts for something. It is precisely those three points that give Celtic the upper hand on the final matchday.

Celtic go through if they get more points at home to Spartak Moscow than Benfica get in Barcelona. These are dead rubbers for both Spartak and Barca. The Russian club is certain to finish at the bottom of the group, the Catalans will finish top whether they win, lose or draw. Both are more concerned with their domestic schedules around this fixture and are certain to field teams which reflect that.

However, Barcelona have stronger reserves upon which to call and an obligation to entertain their home crowd. A Benfica victory is plausible, given their greater motivation, but not the most likely outcome. Celtic will be odds-on to beat Spartak in Glasgow.

The consolation of a place in the Europa League is assured, but the prize of a place in the last 16 is huge. Celtic had a bigger stick to hit with in previous eras, yet advanced to the knockout phase only twice - in 2007 and 2008. Should Neil Lennon's team reach that target by coming out of a daunting group, it will be a significant achievement. It will also have serious implications for the short-term future of Scottish football.

Celtic will receive an extra £3 million in prize money if they reach the last 16 - that is before the gate revenue from a home decider against Spartak and then the home leg of a knockout tie is taken into consideration. On top of their income for successful participation in the group phase, this will make 2012-13 a bumper season for the club. In addition, the value of almost every member of their squad has risen with every fixture. Their success in selecting young players in the £2-3 million bracket and the depth of their squad gives them the option to sell at least one of their aces for a big profit without losing too much from their starting team.

If they make the last 16 and cash in on one of their starters, this one season could see Celtic 'level up' in the only company that matters to them – the European elite.

SPLIT DECISION

Closer to home, the competition could be about to change. The Scottish Football League's proposal for alterations to the structure of the game in the country drew a response from the Scottish Premier League this week. The model proposed by the SFL involved the merger of the three bodies governing the domestic and national teams and a three-league system of 16-10-16.

The SPL prefer the preservation of the SPL and the plan they will present to member clubs at a December 3 meeting, according to reports, is for two leagues of 12 for full-time clubs, with a split that makes the one currently used by the top division seem like child's play.

After two rounds of fixtures, the top eight in SPL1 will play each other home and away, with the title and European places at stake.

The bottom four of SPL1 and the top four of SPL2 would form a play-off league, with the top four of that competition winning a place in SPL1 and the bottom four heading to SPL2.

The bottom eight in SPL2 would play each other home and away to decide who finishes in the relegation and relegation play-off places in that division.

Before the start of a debate that will stretch across Scottish football and probably get really ugly, it is perhaps wise to wait until a model is officially presented by the SPL. However, this model, apparently leaked, raises some concerns. Primarily, the second tier of Scottish football would no longer be a championship, a season-long competition with a champion club, whose players can look back on the season when they won the title. Instead, that competition will exist purely as a means to access SPL1. That is a fundamental shift in the nature of league competition which deserves the utmost scrutiny, not just by clubs but the players' union and supporters.

Both models address some of what is wrong with the current system – most notably the lack of peril for teams at the bottom of the SPL, the safest league in Europe with one relegation spot for 12 clubs. However, the path to consensus may be a lengthy one and so it should be. The stakeholders here exist far beyond the boardrooms of the SPL, SFL, SFA or any of those bodies' member clubs and all should have a say.

THE TAXMAN COMETH

Whether you are perennial title chasers, European hopefuls or a yo-yo club, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) are the most feared opponents for Scottish clubs in late 2012. They ended the career of Rangers with one particularly nasty tackle, but this week we got to see a new angle on that one; at Hearts, a holding deal was done with the tax man but not the first suitor to make a cash bid for the club; finally, Dunfermline Athletic became the latest team to find that no amount of twisting and turning can shake off the wee man in the bowler hat.

Firstly, Rangers, as they used to be. The old company that was placed into liquidation has been involved in a First-Tier Tax Tribunal over what was known as The Big Tax Case (so called because there was also a Wee Tax Case) for absolutely ages. This related to the use of Employee Benefit Trusts (EBTs), a tax avoidance scheme run under the chairmanship of Sir David Murray as Rangers fielded teams of internationals on salaries never before paid to footballers in Scotland.

This week, the tribunal reported a majority ruling that these payments constituted loans to players and staff and not contractual pay and therefore were not illegal. HMRC are considering an appeal. Charles Green, the current chief executive of Rangers, reformed and playing in the Third Division, claimed this decision "undermines" an ongoing SPL investigation into possible rule breaches with regards to the use of EBTs. However, it remains possible that SPL rules were broken by the payments and the alleged use of dual contracts - one registered with the governing body, the other kept private between club and players - without contradicting the ruling of the tax tribunal.

And so to Hearts. The supporters of the Edinburgh club responded to the threat that last Saturday's game could have been the last at Tynecastle by buying over £500,000 of shares in 10 days. Toward the end of that period, the club's owner, Vladimir Romanov, also closed a deal with HMRC over the bill that had placed the club in immediate peril.

As with Rangers, a second tax issue exists and it is larger, scarier and the subject of an ongoing dispute between the tax man and the Lithuanian man.

This week, Angelo Massone made a bid of £4.5 million for the club that Romanov had initially put up for sale at £50 million. Massone is a former owner of Livingston, but when he left that club they were in administration and ended up being demoted from the First Division to the Third Division. The Italian is that rarity: a potential owner who makes Romanov look like the safe bet.

Hearts have their extension with HMRC until December, but by then the players who deferred their salaries during the crisis period will need to be paid and the supporters who rallied so impressively will have nothing more to give. Hearts will attempt to offload their remaining high-earners in January, but could still start 2013 in choppy waters.

Choppy waters is where Dunfermline are currently doing their sailing. The club relegated from last season's SPL have struggled to pay salaries this season and have a bill for unpaid tax hanging over East End Park. After a week in which it looked like they had leap-frogged Hearts on the critical list of Scottish football, it was reported that they had paid a first instalment on Monday, with another due 48 hours later and all tax debt to be settled by the end of December.

Dunfermline are contenders for the First Division title and promotion, but if they need to lose some weight from their wage bill in January, their promotion hopes could go overboard as well.

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