It’s traditional to express the price of something that represents excellent value in terms of the price of a pint. And given the dry day that’s in it, there’s no excuse for not spending €1.50 on Tramore Hinterland. This week: Celtic fans are entitled to feel smug over the shambles that is Rangers. But not too smug . . .
I would not call myself a Celtic fan. Back in the 90’s when Rangers ruled the roost in Scottish soccer, I went through a phase where it seemed to matter. ThenLiverpoolarrived at Parkhead for a Uefa Cup match. After a beautiful pre-match rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone from the home support, I thought the bond was about to be made unbreakable. Two hours later I was prostrate in front of the television thanking all known deities, and quite a few that I made up on the spot, for Steve McManaman, an astonishing dribble from his own half and a delicate curling shot from the edge of the area salvaging a probably-undeserved draw for Liverpool and burying forever any notion that Celtic and Liverpool were equal in the contest for my affections. That too could all be a phase, although if it is, it’s a pretty long phase.
Still, you’d want to have left the Faith of our Fathers a long way behind not to have felt a savage glee at the mess Rangers currently find themselves in. Forget about Byzantine technicalities relating to the First Tier Tribunal or leveraged buyouts or Employee Benefits Trusts, although these matter in determining where the club eventually ends up. Rangers’ woes stem from spending money they didn’t have now in the hope of being able to repay it later with the revenues that would come from the success later that accrued from spending the money they didn’t have now. Simples. Such a plan only has to miss out the success part of the equation once to fall apart though, and that’s what happened to Rangers once they failed to qualify for the group stages of the Champions League.
We’ve been here before in the form of Leeds United. WhenLeedsdefeatedLiverpoolin their Premiership match at Anfield on Good Friday 2001, I genuinely feared that it was a result that would breakLiverpoolas a force in English soccer.Leedswon 2-1 to move six points clear ofLiverpoolin the race for third and a place on the Champions League gravy train. They had spent a fortune, far in excess of the short-run revenue potential of the club, to get to this point. But a few years more of this and the long-run revenue potential could blossom andLiverpoolwould forever be locked out. As it happened,Liverpoolwon six and drew one of their last seven games to just beatLeedsto the final seat on the train and leaveLeedsstranded on the platform with a very expensive ticket for a one-way trip to the third tier of English soccer.
It should have been a salutary lesson, that everyone can spend €100 million on players but someone still has to finish bottom of the table. Yet everyone involved in sport seems to display symptoms of theLakeWobegoneffect, Garrison Keillor’s fictional town where all the children are above average. It’ll be someone else who finishes bottom, and if there’s a danger it might be us then let’s throw another $100 million at the problem.
What makes this effect particularly sinister is that it doesn’t just happen at the end of the financial spectrum where figures like that are routinely bandied about. Shelbourne won the League of Ireland in 2006 yet started the 2007 season in the First Division having gone bankrupt. It should have been a source of outrage that a club could behave in this manner. It’s one thing to take the title by buying up all the best players. It’s quite another to take the title then bilk all those who allowed you to buy all the best players. Yet not only is Shelbourne’s name still on the list of League of Ireland champions, their successors as ‘champions’, Drogheda United, managed to go a whole year before doing the same to their creditors.
While the language against Shels and the Drogs in the previous paragraph is rather strong, the perverse incentives at the heart of soccer’s club model mean you can’t blame the owner of a club for playing roulette with the club’s future. The model, where soccer clubs are just a collection of people who get together and play the game, is broken. It may have worked in a time when technology tied people strongly to their local communities, both in terms of transport and communication – the earliest days of professional soccer were in an era before radio, let along Twitter. But now the market for any club is literally global, where people fromTramore,TaiwanorTimbuktucan support anyone they like with ease. And it’s always easier to support a successful team. When Waterford United lost 6-0 to Wexford Youths on the opening day of the First Division, the chairman John O’Sullivan must have wondered why he was bothering. A week later, a thrilling 3-1 overLimerickwould have made him realise why as he leapt around on the running track with as much enthusiasm as anyone in the stand behind him. Given the litany of financial disasters that have characterised the Blues in recent years, they have made it quite clear that they are determined to live within their means, and you have doff your cap to them for that. Yet any chairman would have to be very strong indeed to resist the intoxicating drug ingested that night against Limerick, especially when set against the downer the previous week in Ferrycarrig or Monday week last against UCD in the League Cup, another six-goal hiding.
What is to be done? The most obvious solution would be to introduce shared revenue along the lines of the NFL inAmerica, where a team like the Green Bay Packers can prosper despite hailing from a place that isn’t much bigger than the capacity of their stadium. A bit like Dungarvan. But even if that idea could survive EU competition laws, it would eliminate promotion and relegation and no amount of waffle is necessary to expand on how badly that would go down with soccer fans. Which leaves Uefa’s financial fair play regulations as the best hope. The expenditure of a club could be no more than a certain percentage of their income. You’ll have clubs likeManchesterCitygetting their billionaire sugar daddies to sponsor the ground for several times more than what would be a fair price, but such chicanery should be obvious and a strong stance by Uefa regarding to European competition would put manners on many a chairman with delusions of grandeur.
This isn’t just about what takes place at the highest level of the game in any given country. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the greed of Rangers has laid waste to the game inScotland. Dundee United reached the 1987 Uefa Cup final. When – if – Rangers make it back into European competition after their current problems, they’ll enter with the Scottish League’s collective rating which is lower than that of the League of Ireland. Their international team, once a regular feature at major finals, were so bereft of hope in a match against theCzech Republictwo years ago that they played a6-4-0formation. The infrastructure that led to so many prominent Scottish players featuring in the more prestigious English leagues is in ruins, all because Rangers wanted it all and they wanted it now. And there’s nothing to prevent another Rangers rising again in another country apart from the restraint of those at the top. It would be ironic if we learned nothing and a team in green-and-white hoops ended up doing the same inIreland.
How long do you have to play sport in the public eye before everyone knows your name? Looking at the match programme last Sunday in Dungarvan, it seems 20 years is not long enough.