Monday, 3 January 2011

Lost its spark?

After yet another scrappy, tedious Old Firm derby the question has to be raised whether this match can still fulfil its billing as one of the greatest derbies in the world. The massive derbies in England, Spain, Italy, even Brazil must surely be taking centre stage ahead of Scotland’s ‘finest’ due to the lack of sparkle, creativity or excitement produced by both sides.

Rightly the Old Firm contest has been put on a pedestal due to the history and passion of the two sides and I’m not for a minute saying it should be forgotten about, which it could never be. The standard of football being served up in recent times though is frankly shocking as both teams shell passes forward and try to feed off the scraps. In the latest derby, Kenny Miller, prolific this season with 22 goals before the New Year, barely touched the ball as Celtic sat in, as has become customary to do as the away side in the game. The Walter Smith approach in big games of setting out his team to see the opposing half as a minefield they don’t want to venture into, seems to have rubbed off on his counterpart across the dugout. Celtic beat Rangers at their own game, drawing them forward then countering quickly to force mistakes in the backline. While this is the benchmark for the two best teams in the country, Scotland will continue to struggle on the international stage and also to attract a sufficient audience for the domestic product to progress.
If you go back a decade ago to 2000, over the space of 5 Old Firm games there were 22 goals and 3 red cards with countless bookings, including results of 6-2 and 5-1. Contrasted with recent times there’s only been 19 goals in the previous 10. This illustrates the difference in attitude that both teams have adopted, with the fans facing a drought of thrills and the most contentious moments coming from referees. It is plain to see in the approach of both teams that they wait for the other team to make an error rather than trying to create their own piece of magic, which was in evidence at the most recent game. With a defensive Celtic frustrating Rangers, it needed a touch of class to change things which is all too rare nowadays. Gone are players like Laudrup, Kanchelskis, Moravcik, and Berkovic who could unlock the opposition with a bit of skill and the spectacle is beginning to suffer due to the lack of quality that the modern Big 2 don’t have.
The Pinnacle
The other famous derbies of the world are making to further heighten the expectations of Scottish fans and mean disillusionment won’t be far away. Watching the football produced by Spain, Holland, Germany among others at the 2010 World Cup is giving the average football fan a thirst for possession, which Scottish teams are struggling to fulfil. El Classico, in which Barcelona made the Galactico’s of Real Madrid look like a Sunday league team, was a football lover’s dream. The skills Messi, Iniesta and the like put on display was a joy to watch as the Catalan club kept the ball as if it were member of the family. This derby was one of footballing perfection, and while it might not match up in the passion stakes, in footballing terms they are in a different world to the defensive and almost scared teams that Glasgow has produced in recent times.
Passion of the Milan derby

The Milan, Manchester, Liverpool alongside Brazilian and Argentinean derbies are all at a standard which competes with the Old Firm, which could be hugely detrimental to Scottish football. We are already struggling with qualification for Europe and will be having no automatic qualifiers from next season. If the pattern of game quality continues then its unlikely Mr Murdoch will be clamouring to renegotiate Sky’s television deal, so the coffers won’t exactly be bursting for Scottish clubs to invest and get us back to a level which will allow us to compete on an even keel in Europe. Therefore it is essential the excitement is injected back into the game rather than the stilted product we have at the minute. If this doesn't happen then we could be thrown into the doldrums of European football, struggling to qualify for the groups of the Champions League rather than the last 16 which every fan craves.
Every now and then both clubs are showing flashes of good football, be it from a Paddy McCourt wonder-run or a Vladimir Weiss solo effort, but reproducing this in the biggest game of the domestic season has been a rarity as both teams cancel each other out. Overall the burning passion and desire of every Old Firm fan has to see their team succeed will mean that the significance of the occasion will never be lost, however unless the quality matches the quantity Scottish football could be in for a tough future.

The Old Firm are the lifeblood of the Scottish game and their future affects deeper than just the two clubs themselves. For all the remaining SPL clubs, the gate money they receive from clashes with the big two keeps them in business for a considerable amount of time. This is a key aspect of their finances and if the revenue from television begins to dry up, prices and costs will have to be raised meaning the purse strings will have to be tightened even more than they are already. This adds credence to the argument that the Old Firm have to address this issue immediately before the  lives of other clubs move further into danger.

A distant memory

Solutions are few and far between in the current financial climate Scottish football is facing, with the times of a £12 million player walking up the steps at Ibrox far gone from the memory and won’t be happening any time in the near future. One answer may be developing academies, be it at Murray Park or Lennoxtown, or creating new facilities which will benefit not only the domestic clubs but the international scene aswell. Barcelona is a prime example of how to create a football club using those from within. With the likes of Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol among many others all graduating through the youth ranks, it shows that money is not always the answer and having fashioned a team widely-regarded as one of the best ever seen, Scotland can learn a great deal from the benchmark placed at such a high level.
Therefore change is needed throughout the league system in Scotland, not just at the top, but throughout all the way down to junior level. Often the lower divisions are disregarded and not given a second thought but the expansion of the set-up will lead to a better standard of player being developed and the quality level increasing at every level. The idea of the reserve sides of the SPL playing in a lower division has often been discussed and this could be the perfect solution to giving players the chance to improve and gain real, match experience. Therefore those in the SFA will need to sit down and assess where our game is headed, with the likelihood of no Scottish teams in the top level of Europe becoming a distinct possibility.
Change is needed, and needed fast.

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