Scottish Premier League

Old Firm remains a football treasure

Rangers Celtic
Steven Whittaker (L) battles Celtic's Georgios Samaras (R) in Glasgow, Scotland.
FoxSoccer.com BOBBY MCMAHON
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Bobby McMahon is the lead analyst for FOX Soccer Report, airing nightly at 10:00 p.m. ET on FOX Soccer Channel.

It is difficult to believe but they say there was a time when the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers was considered simply a sporting one. That was a long time ago.

Scotland’s Old Firm derby (Sunday, 8:00 a.m. ET, Live on FOX Soccer) is one of the greatest, most magnetic games on the planet. Over the last 100 years, it has offered the chance to supporters on both sides of the great religious and political divide to act out their historical grievances, usually with violence or a constant threat of violence pungent in the air.

Relative success on the larger European stage has proved to be increasingly difficult for both Celtic and Rangers lately but one thing has not changed: the Old Firm derby match remains the most virulent and bitter contest in the world.

There is no such thing as an unimportant Old Firm match. In the past, league titles and cups have been won and lost but there has never been a game quite like the one in prospect on Sunday.

A Celtic win on Sunday at Ibrox, together with Motherwell slip up at Kilmarnock on Saturday, will give Celtic their first Scottish Premier League title since 2008.

But casting an even longer shadow for Rangers supporters is the future, in fact the existence, of their club. Rangers is bankrupt, and seeking a buyer. It lost ten points in the standings because of it. Most importantly, it may lose everything.

Celtic may savor Rangers current fiscal blight, but their fans can look back at their brush with financial destiny in the 90s and consider it a "there but for the grace of God" moment.

The Old Firm

The blood and guts match of Scotland, the Old Firm derby, is a cauldron like no other. Careers are forged and destroyed, legends are made and defeats are bitter.

History collapses to a singularity in this game: 45 years removed, Rangers fans still feel the sting of the 7-1 whipping they took in 1957’s League Cup final at the hands of their old enemies. Celtic fans cannot forget the back-to-back whippings they took from Rangers in 2000, for a combined score of 9-1.

This year’s game is even more magnetic: Celtic can potentially lock up the Premier League crown on the home field of their hated rivals. The Hoops need some help from Motherwell, but come into the game with a commanding 21 point lead and look to see off a Rangers side that is badly wounded.

Rangers are buffeted by bankruptcy but have a group of players playing mainly for pride: in a noble gesture, the club’s players voted to accept draconian wage cuts in order to avoid layoffs. The club currently has a number of potential suitors but it is unclear whether or not the team can find a solution that will solve all their fiscal woes.

All hope that this meeting will see the fireworks contained to the field, as the scenes in the stands last March were so toxic the Scottish Parliament intervened.

One thing is clear: this is an unforgettable derby, and one of the greatest events in the world (Sunday, 8:00 a.m. ET, Live on FOX Soccer).

Jamie Trecker
Senior Writer, FOX Soccer

Without the hard-headed (and clear-headed) intervention of North American business man Fergus McCann in 1994, Celtic would have gone into administration. McCann was roundly criticized for his prudence while in charge of Celtic but rarely can a man feel as vindicated as he.

Rangers failed to heed the financial lesson from Parkhead. Then owner David Murray famously (or infamously) stated in 2000 that "for every five pounds Celtic spent, we will spend ten." It was delivered with bravado, but it made for bad business.

Rangers not only spent beyond their means but created what they purported to be a tax avoidance (avoidance is legal) structure to pay some players. The scheme now haunts Rangers and it is highly likely that it will be ruled as evasion (evasion is illegal) and massive back taxes and penalties will come due.

Rangers financial problems have been compounded by the sale of the club by Sir David Murray to Craig Whyte. Whyte's business background is "murky,” to say the very least. And over the last few weeks, things have got even worse.

It is now clear that Whyte financed the takeover of Rangers by selling future season tickets to Ticketus, a London investment firm for around $35 million. He also faces a Scottish Football Association hearing on March 29 into two disciplinary charges.

This comes a week after he was found to have failed the "fit and proper" test of club ownership - partly on account of not divulging he was previously disqualified by authorities from acting as a company director for seven years.

All this is being played out with Rangers operating under control of administrators. A number of bids (although not finalized) have been received for the club but the complexities of the financial quagmire makes a happy ending far from certain.

Legal battles, selection of a winning bidder, structuring a satisfactory creditors' agreement all lie ahead. Liquidation is still a possibility.

Meanwhile, the Rangers players agreed to a 75% reduction in wages needed for the club to continue short-term operations.

A ten-point deduction was levied once the club entered administration and with three losses in their last four games, the gap between Rangers and Celtic is 21 points with 8 games left.

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You have to admit that the suggested move by the Old Firm to English football (this time it was restricted to Celtic given that Rangers' survival is a more pressing priority) does have staying power albeit of the low voltage variety.

The latest speculation had Celtic ready to make a jump into League One, the third tier of English football, with the intention of mounting an assault that would eventually lead to membership of the Premier League and a share in the pot of gold. The pot of gold would of course then fund player acquisitions and a fairly comfortable, perhaps even successful life, in the Premier League.

On Monday, Football League Chairman Greg Clarke became the latest man to step forward to slay the beast when he unequivocally stated that the Football League was not a party to any such discussions. Suggestions that League One was now the preferred beachhead for an invasion of English football was, in itself, an admission that it will never happen.

A few years back admitting Rangers and Celtic to a two-tier Premier League was part of a plan brought forward by Bolton Chairman Phil Gartside. The proposal would have led to two divisions with promotion and relegation each season. Rangers and Celtic were to be invited to enter the lower division along with a significant number of clubs from the Championship.

A key component of the scheme was a means to buttress teams from the financial threat caused by relegation from the single tier Premier League.

Since then, an increase in parachute payments to relegated clubs has gone some way to mitigating some of that financial risk; although, a fiscal apocalypse still threatens clubs that face the drop while weighted down with large debts.

Before the Gartside-plan the talk was of Rangers and Celtic parachuting straight into the Premier League. While FIFA and UEFA were solicited on the legalities of such a move and fans debated precedents in other parts of the world, the idea was squashed. So rather like Scottish performances in Europe the idea seems to have found a reverse gear.

But why the rejection? Haven't we heard about how the Old Firm's fan base would boost attendance and increase television revenues? Well, attendance in the Premier League is pretty solid as it is and when you get down it, what is a few more million on top of the record TV deals racked up by the Premier League?

Generally the Premier League has an expense control problem not a revenue generation problem. What's more any move by Celtic or Rangers means that someone loses out. Turkey's don't usually vote for Christmas.

Bobby McMahon is the lead analyst for FOX Soccer Report, which appears nightly at 10 p.m. ET on FOX Soccer. Bobby regularly writes and podcasts at Soccer Report Extra and can be followed on Twitter at @BobbySoccerRep.

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