Scottish clubs feel pinch after years of excess

Even the big-spending Old Firm giants are balancing the books as a new season kicks off
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The Independent Football

Splashing out on a piece of German efficiency was once regarded as flaunting your success. These days it is a symbol that the days of excess are over, at least as far as the Scottish Premier League is concerned.

The £1.8 million that Rangers spent on Christian Nerlinger of Borussia Dortmund may still pay for a fleet of BMWs, but it is the going-rate for parsimony at Ibrox. The arrival of the German international – their costliest signing – is in sharp contrast to the £70m spent beforehand in Dick Advocaat's three years at Ibrox.

After spending over £30m last season alone, including a record £12m on Tore Andre Flo from Chelsea, Rangers have spent the summer trying to balance the books. The sale of Giovanni van Bronckhorst to Arsenal, Jorg Albertz (SV Hamburg) and Tugay (Blackburn) raised over £13m, but it stripped Advocaat of almost his entire midfield – a void Nerlinger, capped 10 times by Germany, must fill, starting at Aberdeen today when the SPL embarks on a pivotal new season.

The bigger debt to be paid off in the eyes of the Rangers fans is atoning for the humiliation of trailing in 15 points behind Celtic last May. Yet even the treble-winners have displayed caution in the transfer market as they reflect on their best season in 32 years.

Rangers will be without both their captain, Barry Ferguson, through suspension, and defender Lorenzo Amoruso (thigh injury) for the trip to Aberdeen, while Ronald de Boer will also miss the League opener with an Achilles injury.

When Celtic launch their defence in front of 60,000 fans against St Johnstone, the French defender Dianbobo Balde will be the only new face added to Martin O'Neill's squad. Even then the shrewd Celtic manager waited until the price dropped to £1m instead of the £3m originally demanded.

In previous summers, Celtic's hunger to catch up with Rangers had seen them twice break the Scottish transfer record. First, by recruiting Eyal Berkovic for £5.75m from West Ham in July 1999 and then Chris Sutton from Chelsea a year later for £6m. Sutton proved value for money, but the Israeli did not and was off-loaded to Manchester City this week for just £1.5m after an unproductive stay at Parkhead.

The Old Firm are merely mirroring what has already taken place elsewhere in the SPL. Hearts, Aberdeen and Motherwell drastically cut their squads last term after each posted a loss of £4m as wages (Motherwell's accounted for 97 per cent of turnover) spiralled out of control in a bid to stay on the coat-tails of the Glasgow giants.

It is not quite a boom-and-bust scenario for the SPL, which hopes to conclude a new £100m, four-year television deal with BSkyB when the current contract expires next May, merely a realisation that many of the imports who came from abroad and the English Premiership simply did not offer better value for money than the less-heralded, home-bred footballers.

It was not just Berkovic over whom Celtic had their fingers burned. The Brazilian international Rafael Scheidt, bought by the previous manager John Barnes for £6m, was sent home on loan to Corinthians after just four games, illustrating his unsuitability. Rangers could equally point to Andrei Kanchelskis, left at home in Scotland this week as his team-mates coped in the Champions' League qualifier in Slovenia against Maribor without him. Kanchelskis is paid a reported £30,000 a week to add to his £5.5m purchase price from Fiorentina in 1998.

The new fiscal prudence would no doubt impress Gordon Brown, but the Raith Rovers-supporting Chancellor of the Exchequer would be the first to admit that running the country's budget is easier than any Scottish Premier League treasurer.

If Rangers and Celtic (among the world's top 20 wealthiest clubs, with turnovers in excess of £50m) are taking stock amid the uncertainty of the transfer system, how must their 10 rivals feel? ''They can't really compete with the revenue we get,'' admits the Rangers director Campbell Ogilvie.

''These imbalances in the League are not good but they are now being mirrored more and more in domestic leagues throughout Europe. Take England. How many teams are going to win the Premiership at the start of the season?"

Rangers and Celtic are looking for a bigger slice of the new television deal, much to the chagrin of the other 10. Ogilvie can defend his club's corner, but the football fan in him realises that true competition is dying throughout Europe as in Scotland, where Celtic (twice) are the only team to have broken the Ibrox title-stranglehold in the last 13 years.

To find a champion outside of Glasgow, you have to go back to Alex Ferguson's Aberdeen in 1985.

''While Rangers complain in a European context of not being able to compete with the bigger clubs and the money they get from television, every club outside the Old Firm in the SPL suffers from the same problem,'' Ogilvie concedes. ''They cannot compete with the money Rangers and Celtic get.''

Hibernian will try to assemble the main challenge yet again. Alex McLeish has improved the side which finished third and lost to Celtic in the Scottish Cup Final by acquiring Ulises De La Cruz for a club record £700,000. The defender with the headline-writers' dream name came to McLeish's attention when he scored for Ecuador in their 3-2 World Cup defeat over Brazil.

Kilmarnock, Hearts and Dundee all proved capable of beating the Old Firm on a given day last season, but consistency is unobtainable without a comparable depth of squad.

And yet, there is little staleness. The SPL, which contains Europe's top scorer in Henrik Larsson, saw more goals per game last season than the Premiership (2.7 to 2.6) and had fewer fouls than England, Spain or Italy, according to statistics released by Opta last week.

''For entertainment value, the SPL is more exciting than games in Europe's so-called top leagues,'' said the Scotland coach and television pundit, Craig Brown. "I've sat in studios and been bored out my brain watching games elsewhere."