Football: Scotland needs a broader canvas

Phil Gordon argues the week in Europe has helped the rebel clubs' cause
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The Independent Online
Celtic enjoyed a throwback to the past on Tuesday night when they defied Liverpool, and the prophets of gloom, to serve up one of the most engrossing European encounters for many years.

When Michael Owen scored with sublime ease after just six minutes of the clubs' Uefa Cup first round first leg, one of the visiting Fleet Street pack settled back in his seat and declared sniffily: "It's just about damage limitation now, isn't it? " An adventurous second-half display proved otherwise, and even that amazing last-minute goal by Steve McManaman could not take the gloss off Celtic's night.

For a brief moment, we were transported back in time to the Sixties when Scots clubs more than held their own in the face of huge odds. If the Premier League clubs want to enjoy a few more nights like that - even visiting hacks were bowled over by the atmosphere - then it has to go back to the future.

Scotland are likely to lose one of their two Uefa Cup places in two years because of poor results. The 10-club Premier League has contributed greatly to the slump, the pressure eating away at the standard.

Yet it was not always like that. The former Rangers and Brighton striker Gordon Smith grew up in the Sixties watching his local club, Kilmarnock, defeat such notables as Eintracht Frankfurt. That was a far cry from this week when Smith, who now works as a radio and television analyst for the BBC, watched Kilmarnock, his first professional club, beaten 3-1 in the Cup Winners' Cup by Nice, now in the French second division.

"I remember Kilmarnock getting to the semi-finals of the old Fairs Cup in 1967," Smith said. "They were not the only ones. Hibs, Dundee and Dunfermline all made the last four in Europe then, and Celtic and Rangers got to finals and won trophies. That is unthinkable now.

"Scottish clubs performed much better then and the size of the league is a contributory factor. We need to change the style of football and you can't do that in a 10-club league where survival is the main objective for 8 of the 10 clubs."

Smith would love to see the Premier League expanded to 16 clubs, something that has been promised, in principle at least, by the rebel clubs who are trying to break free of the Scottish League to set up their own Premiership.

Whether this would alter the superiority of Rangers and Celtic remains doubtful, but it would provide a breath of fresh air into a suffocating environment. And it might help the quest to regain Euro respectability.

Being involved in a championship where the threat comes only from one or two clubs has not stopped Ajax or FC Porto from enjoying European success, and it allows other teams in Holland and Portugal to nurture players the rest of Europe envy. A move towards expansion within Scotland could halt the narrowing horizon on the continent.

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