Football: Nine on the mind of the Old Firm

David McKinney asks: Is there life beyond Rangers and Celtic?
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Only in Glasgow would hundreds of people stand for hours staring at bricks. The Scottish League season, which kicks off today, started several weeks ago for some supporters of Celtic and Rangers: those fanatics who daily stand and stare at Celtic Park and Ibrox waiting for a glimpse of the heroes in whom they will invest their emotional well-being over the next 10 months.

This season, the equation is dominated by the number nine as Rangers attempt to equal Celtic's record nine-in-a-row run of the 1960s and 70s. Celtic, equally, are determined to preserve their achievement.

The fans have jammed newspaper phone lines praising their favourites or sneering at the enemy, their reaction giving an indication that this will be, for the big two, an intense season.

The best way, some would say the only way, to assess the kind of campaign that awaits is to look to the turf accountants. Their figures have Rangers as favourites at 2-5 for the title, with Celtic a close second at 2-1.

The annual report on the finances of Scottish football, published this week by Price Waterhouse, shows Celtic and Rangers moving further away from the rest of Scottish football, fuelling fears among the rest that the big two might never be caught again. Between them the Glasgow clubs boast almost as many seats as the other eight combined and, given their commercial bases, they can only continue to prosper.

Despite evidence to the contrary, which includes league records last season of Rangers and Celtic losing just seven games between them, Walter Smith, the Rangers manager, believes his side faces a tough time, however.

"It may be a case this year that there will be extra nerves and we have to handle a bit more pressure than would normally be there. The indications were that Celtic and ourselves were well ahead of the others, but no two seasons are the same. Hearts and Aberdeen had excellent European results in the week, indicating they could be up for the challenge. Rangers and Celtic have to maintain the standards they set last year, but that could be difficult.

"I hope the nine-in-a-row doesn't prey on the minds of my players, yet it's something we want to use as a form of motivation, although we have to watch we don't get too carried away."

On the other side of the city, Tommy Burns, the Celtic manager, who has brought in Paolo Di Canio and Alan Stubbs for the challenges ahead, has told the Celtic fans exactly what they wanted to hear. Before his club's friendly with Arsenal last week, Burns, addressing 47,000 supporters, told them: "We will give until it hurts."

Burns, imbued with a sense of the club's history, is well aware of the importance of this season, as is Peter Grant, the midfield veteran, who assured supporters that the players will do everything in their power to win the Championship. We know exactly what this means, and we are as determined as the supporters to make sure our record stays intact."

Beyond the Old Firm spotlight, the prospects for the other eight clubs would appear to involve little more than the chance of a good cup run, although Hearts have made reasonable strides towards becoming more competitive by the signing of three players, including Jeremy Goss from Norwich. Aberdeen, who can be expected to contest third place with Hearts, know they will have to improve on last season, when they finished 28 points behind Celtic. Ilian Kiriakov, the Bulgarian international, will be their key man for the season.

The future will inevitably demand that Rangers and Celtic seek out new frontiers, such as a British League, and, given the increased fiscal pressures on all clubs, such a move could come sooner rather than later.

In the meantime if you feel particularly brave or foolish, a bet on Dunfermline, Kilmarnock or Raith Rovers to win the title would give a 500-1 return - the same price as confirmation of the existence of the Loch Ness Monster...