Exactly what is going on in Scotland?
As those who follow the Scottish game know, after 33 rounds the SPL breaks into top and bottom halves. Six teams in each half, who meet the other teams in their half once more, thus completing a 38 round season. The logic behind this rather bizarre system is to generate interest in matches at the tail end of the season…. after all what better than to have the two teams fighting to win the league play each other in a crunch match. Similarly those clubs fighting to avoid relegation, or indeed to qualify for Europe also meet each other – winner take all encounters.
Of course the fixture list cannot be drawn up until the top 6 and bottom 6 are known and this is where the problems arise. This week the fixture list was announced and of course all eyes turned to the championship decider and when it was. April 27 is the big day. Rangers v Celtic @ Ibrox. The winner almost certainly the champions. So what?
Well, April 27 is just 3 days after Celtic meet Boavista in Portugal in the semifinal of the UEFA cup, so the Parkhead club have their two biggest matches of the season inside 72 hours. A crunch weekend if ever there was one. But isn’t playing big games in a short period of time the price of success? Well, usually, yes but no not in this case. The decision to play this match on that day gives an overwhelming advantage to one side. Celtic will either have to lift themselves after a depressing low, or more likely, have to lift again after coming down from a huge high. Further there is also the prospect of extra time, penalties and injuries to take into account. Meanwhile Rangers will have had a nice wee 8 days rest since their previous fixture, to get over those niggly aches & strains and prepare to win at all costs.
In England, Manchester United have had a similar horror run. In the space of 18 days they will have played Real Madrid twice, Arsenal (1st), Liverpool (6th), Newcastle (3rd) and Blackburn (7th). But the difference here is that those EPL fixtures were randomly set at the start of the season. In Scotland, this fixture is neither set at the start of the season, nor is its date random. It was set in the full knowledge that one side had a huge match three days earlier.
Already Celtic manager Martin O’Neill and chief executive Ian McLeod have come out and publicly accused the SFA of bias. And why wouldn’t they? The SPL have 5 possible dates for this crunch match. Four of those dates would satisfy both clubs, one of them is clearly advantageous to one of the two teams. And what date is allocated this match? The one date preferred by Rangers. Rangers manager Alex McLeish has come out and said that he wishes his club were in Celtics position. Short memory Alex? It was only 3 years ago that the SFA postponed a Rangers v Hearts fixture to assist Rangers who had two midweek champions league matches in a short space of time…and that was in October long before any match could be deemed crucial!
Celtics accusations of SFA bias towards Rangers are longstanding. And sadly not without foundation. Believe it or not but in the past they have had to
***play a league match the same day as returning from Russia after playing in the European Cup,
***play TWO league matches on the same day (they won both)
*** looked on whilst the SFA did nothing about a rival club who for over 70 years operated a sectarian signing policy
One also recalls the disgraceful scenes at Celtic Park in 1999 when Rangers clinched the championship amidst controversy. Referee Hugh Dallas awarded Rangers a series of odd decisions most notably an obscure penalty and a bizarre sending off. Three weeks later the two sides met in the SFA cup final. Who did the SFA appoint to control the match? 3 guesses. And who subsequently won the cup? Space doesn’t allow me to go through the huge number of similar decisions of the SFA which always seem to go in one direction.
The last time a Scottish club reached the UEFA cup final was 1987 when Dundee Utd lost to Gothenburg. Given the time span between successes (16 years!!!!) you would think that the SFA would be doing whatever it can to assist its clubs in Europe. Clearly not. Clearly the SFA are more interested in ensuring Rangers regain the SPL title.
Sadly, that is what is going on in Scotland.