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Dec 17, 2008

Let the Old Firm head south

Following Celtic's exit from the UEFA Champions League last week, and Europe altogether after failing to finish high enough in the group stage to qualify for the UEFA Cup, manager Gordon Strachan was left to lament the fact that his club's peers were in the third tier of European football.

In a TV interview Strachan went on to identify the likes of Manchester United, Juventus and Barcelona as representing the top dogs who always win their Champions League group; followed by the second level of Porto, Lyon and such like and then there is "the rest", of which Celtic are one, who need "a bit of luck" to make it through to the knock-out stages of the competition.

Finance is obviously one of the reasons "the rest" find it difficult to compete but another major factor is that their domestic leagues are simply not tough enough to make teams competitive against Europe's top clubs. And this is the accusation that is so often levelled at Celtic and the Scottish Premier League.

In Scotland, Celtic and Rangers simply dominate. No other team has won the title since 1985, when Alex Ferguson won it with Aberdeen, and the four seasonal Old Firm fixtures between the two archrivals are the matches that really decide where the title ends up. The likes of Inverness Caldeonian Thistle and Hamilton Academical are simply swept aside by the Glasgow duo during the rest of the season.

This domination may mean that domestic trophies are readily available but in Europe that lack of quality opposition in their bread and butter competition is a major handicap.

It is too easy for Celtic and Rangers in Scotland. They have outgrown the SPL and the solution to that problem is obvious. It is a proposal that has been discussed many times already and one that both clubs secretly yearn for. Quite simply, it is time for Britain to embrace the Old Firm and let them join the Premier League.

In an era when the Premier League are happily banding around the unpopular idea of playing a 39th game on foreign shores - a concept the sagely Sir Alex derided on Tuesday - incorporating the Old Firm seems like a much simpler way to boost the profile of the league and it could even benefit Scottish football too.

The main theoretical sticking point with the Old Firm's integration into the English league system is obviuosly a question of how to do it. Slotting them straight into the Premier League would deny two other teams a place in the top flight. Do you relegate five teams in one season instead of the normal three? Or promote only one, instead of a trio, from the Championship?

Neither seems to be fair to the clubs that miss out so let's propose that the alternative is for only the winners of the SPL to gain entrance into the Premier League and then only if they win via the Championship play-offs ... let's shamelessly call this the R-model© after a certain writer.

At the moment four Championship teams win a place in the play-offs but the R-model© would limit that to three and the fourth place would be made up by the winners of the SPL. If the current season were to end today then Reading (3rd), Burnley (4th) and Cardiff (5th) would be joined in the play-offs by Celtic (1st in SPL) and they would battle it out using the normal play-off structure with Celtic, as winners of a league, ranked as the highest seed. So Celtic would play Cardiff and Reading would face Burnley before the two winners meet in the final - the winner of which wins a place in the Premier League.

If Celtic lose in the play-offs then they go back into the SPL having failed to prove themselves good enough to compete in the Premier League. If Celtic win, they go into the English top flight and the following campaign the winner of the SPL, most probably Rangers, goes through the same process. If the Old Firm are genuinely good enough to play in the Premier League they would both be there within two seasons.

But the system doesn't stop there. With Celtic and Rangers absent from the SPL, assuming neither of them are quickly relegated from the Premier League back into Scottish football, it would give the other Scottish teams a chance to win the league and enter into the same play-off system.

Let's hypothesize that Hibs win the SPL, win their way through the play-offs and spend one season in the Premier League before being relegated. The Edinburgh side would have gleaned about £30 million from that one campaign in England and would return to Scottish football with cash to spend.

In the year that Hibs were absent from the SPL Hearts might win the title and a chance to milk the Premier League cash cow. This yo-yo effect would allow Scottish teams to gain cash they would not ordinarily have access to, build better squads and in turn make the Scottish League more competitive. And if the smaller Scottish teams manage to stay in the Premier League then all power to them.

It may get a bit complicated as to how to absorb three relegated Premier League teams into the Championship if only two (plus Celtic) go up from the 24 team competition but a relegation play-off, as used in the Italian Serie A, down the league pyramid could ensure the number of competing teams remains the same. This could become standard annual procedure or only invoked on the rare occasion when a Scottish team makes into the Premier League.

The best teams from Wales - Cardiff City, Swansea City and Wrexham - already play in the English leagues. Cardiff and Swansea have both played in the English top flight at one time or another and Cardiff look well placed in the Championship this year to become the first non-English team to reach the Premier League since its creation in 1992.

Detractors of the R-model© might desperately point out that the increased distance of travel might cause logistical problems for fans and teams but London to Glasgow (343 miles) is no further than Paris travel to play Nice (427 miles) in Ligue 1 or Milan trek to face Palermo (550 miles) in Serie A.

The only stumbling block might come from the various politics and red-tape by which the various federations award European places to their teams. Last season Cardiff contested the FA Cup final with Portsmouth and the winner is awarded a place in the UEFA Cup. However, according to English FA rules at the start of the season, Cardiff would not be nominated for European entry because Welsh clubs can only qualify through competitions under the banner of their own nation's FA.

But while the FA and the Football Association of Wales were in discussions as to a solution the president of UEFA, European football's governing body, Michel Platini announced that his organisation would be willing to hand the Welsh club a wild card to compete in the UEFA Cup.

In the end it was irrelevent as the FA eventually decided they would allow Cardiff into Europe if they won the FA Cup (they didn't), but the same principle could be extended to Scottish teams in English competitions.

Failing that Celtic and Rangers are big enough clubs to use the tried and tested route of whinging long enough and loud enough until UEFA simply change the rules. It worked for Liverpool when as reigning European champions they failed to qualify for the Champions League but were allowed to compete anyway as UEFA altered their stance.

Obviously the R-model© is not perfect and needs some refinement by astute Soccernet readers but if the Premier League's 39th game is under serious consideration then surely the old chestnut of the Old Firm playing in England is worth some debate.

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