The Battle of Britain? More like a massacre

Rangers' visit to Old Trafford will show that Scottish game has taken the low road as players drift south and TV revenue drops off.
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The Independent Football

As Stephen McManus's header embraced the net at Hampden Park the reaction was emphatic: "A Scottish national hero forever" gasped BBC Scotland's commentator. McManus's manager, Craig Levein, lost his glasses in the celebrations. They had beaten Liechtenstein, a tax haven with the population of Airdrie. They had needed until the 97th minute to find the winner, they were at home and they had had to come from behind. In terms of passion, Scotland is still a big football nation but the results and the heroes have got very small.

Walter Smith was in the crowd at Hampden and the emotions of Rangers' finest manager would have been ones of embarrassment. It was surely no way to mark the 25th anniversary of the death of Jock Stein on the touchline at Cardiff's Ninian Park just as he secured a place in the play-offs for the 1986 World Cup, a tournament that has been beyond their reach for a dozen years now.

In Glasgow, Edinburgh and beyond, the game is at its nadir. Scotland's participation in the Europa League was wiped out in a single night. Dundee United, Motherwell and, most astonishingly of all, Celtic were eliminated from Europe's second competition before it had properly begun.

Celtic's demise was jaw-dropping. Leading Utrecht, who had finished seventh in the Dutch Eredivisie, 2-0 from the first leg at Parkhead, they travelled to the attractive, modest surrounds of the Galgenwaard Stadium and conceded four times. There were no heroes.

Rangers survived because as Scottish title-holders they did not have to pre-qualify for the Champions' League. Given the four-goal humiliations handed out at Ibrox by Seville and Unirea Urziceni in last year's group stages, it is debatable whether they would have done so, had they been asked.

On Tuesday, Smith takes Rangers to Manchester United for the first group game of this season's competition. It will be a grand occasion. The away end at Old Trafford, crammed with songs and Union flags, will resemble something between the Last Night of the Proms and the Conservative Party Conference as Margaret Thatcher delivered her 'Spirit of the South Atlantic' speech. Nobody believes it will be much of a contest. The fear is that it will not be a Battle of Britain, so much as a massacre.

And yet when in the autumn of 1992 Smith took Rangers to face the champions of England, it was a contest of equals. Rangers not only beat Leeds at Ibrox and Elland Road, they came heart-stoppingly close to reaching the European Cup final itself.

They were helped by the fact that the Leeds of Howard Wilkinson were starting their slow disintegration. The rift with Eric Cantona was now nakedly obvious and the Frenchman, a month away from his move across the Pennines, was the only Leeds footballer to come to the players' lounge at Elland Road in the aftermath of defeat. But Rangers were a formidable team with a formidable spirit. "We benefited from two things," said Stuart McCall, then the pounding heart of Rangers' midfield. "English clubs were affected by the rule allowing them to play only three foreigners, which would have absolutely hamstrung them now, and we were a side that had been together for six, seven, eight years. We had good English players like Gary Stevens and Mark Hateley and with Ally McCoist we were never short of goals.

"It was an incredible season. We won the domestic Treble, we went 44 games unbeaten and we did not lose a single game in Europe. And, though we said we would do it again next year, we all knew it was unrepeatable.

"We played hard and, at the right time, we partied hard, and Walter nurtured that spirit," McCall added. "Even now when we go back to Glasgow for reunions, the first people we call are Walter and Archie Knox [his assistant]. Come on, what other group of players would want their old manager around for a party?"

Beating Leeds may have been a surprise to those in Yorkshire but it was not a shock. Scotland had always punched hard in the European game. Between 1960 and 1974, Rangers and Celtic won two European trophies, reached two more finals and participated in six semi-finals.

Then, before television and corporate hospitality, almost a club's only source of revenue was ticket sales and Rangers and Celtic sold enormous quantities. Bobby Lennox recalled the 136,505 who crammed Hampden for Celtic's 1970 European Cup semi-final against Leeds as "the biggest sea of faces I have ever seen". Recalling the 1972 semi-final with Internazionale, Lou Macari said: "They rammed Celtic Park full. The official attendance was 92,000 but there were 120,000 watching."

Yet because so little of that ticket money ended up in the players' pockets, the 1970s saw a drift of talent southwards. "Against Inter we missed out on a place in the European Cup final on penalties and we expected a bonus of £1,000," said Macari. "We got nothing. We had won the Scottish championship and I went to see Jock Stein about my contract. He increased my wages from £50 a week to £55."

It was reasonable money in Glasgow; Macari reckoned his dad, who worked in the catering industry, would have earned £20 a week then. But in England there were footballers earning 10 times that. At Liverpool, Macari was offered £180 a week by Bill Shankly plus five per cent of the transfer; he eventually signed for Manchester United for £200 a week and a £10,000 signing-on fee.

"It was the same in management," said Macari. "When I was managing Celtic there was never any money. I remember wanting to sign Simon Donnelly on a new contract. He was on £120 a week and I went to his parents' house to persuade him to stay at Celtic, which was some feat on my part because they were Rangers fans.

"I got them to agree to £200 or £220, something like that, and the chairman, Fergus McCann, simply ripped the document up in my face. This was 1994 and we couldn't sign a player for £200 a week." Or put another way, the same money Macari was offered at Manchester United in 1973.

Then there was television, which created a chasm out of the Anglo-Scottish divide. The season in which Rangers almost reached the 1993 European Cup final was the first season of the Premier League. Then, Manchester United had a turnover of £25m, a figure that has increased tenfold. In 1998 the Premier League received £167m from television; now it is almost £600m.

The Scottish Premier League has also seen its television revenue increase in a dozen years – from £12m to £13m. Rangers' total turnover for 2008-09 was £39.7m, which is less money than Manchester United were taking in 17 seasons ago, less than the Premier League's bottom club can now expect from television alone. Even in Holland, a league that Scotland likes to think it has certain similarities to, PSV Eindhoven's income is more than double that of the champions of Scotland.

"Can I see the glory coming back?" Macari reflected. "No, I can't. There are 30, 40, 60 reasons for the decline but, if you go to Glasgow, you will see the first on the list: kids don't play football in the streets or parks, where you learn ball control by instinct.

"Once there was a clear, slow progression. I began by understudying the Lisbon Lions men, who to my mind had engineered the greatest achievement in British football, perhaps British sport. These days the youngsters at Celtic are thrown in because there is nobody standing in their way."

Manchester United v Rangers is on Tuesday on Sky Sports Two, 7.45pm

Three of the best battles

Celtic v Liverpool

Cup-Winners Cup semi-final 1966

Given the interest both Jock Stein and Bill Shankly had in boxing, this was a true heavyweight contest. Liverpool survived an onslaught at Parkhead in the first leg and were fortunate only to lose 1-0. A Tommy Smith free-kick and a header from Geoff Strong swung the tie at Anfield. The final was at Hampden Park and, on a sodden pitch, Liverpool lost to Borussia Dortmund.

Celtic v Leeds

European Cup semi-final 1970

Don Revie's Leeds regularly disposed of Scottish opposition but Stein's Celtic were a team too far, especially in front of 136,000 at Hampden Park. Leeds had lost the first leg 1-0 at Elland Road but when Billy Bremner pulled the aggregate scores level, he found Hampden's silence intimidating. Leeds were swept aside in the second half in a display inspired by Jimmy Johnstone.

Aberdeen v Liverpool

European Cup second round 1980

The only meeting between Alex Ferguson and Bob Paisley finished in a crushing 5-0 aggregate defeat for the former and is supposed to have been the wellspring for Ferguson's intense dislike of Liverpool. Naturally, he learnt from the experience: "Liverpool had a bit of grit and nastiness about them. They were also well-armed in the psychological warfare stakes," Ferguson said. "We were later able to put such psychology to good use in the Cup-Winners Cup final against Real Madrid."