Not that long ago, the Scottish Premier League had all the hallmarks of a project built on quicksand. Now, it is the sort that inspires envy. Rather like those lucky home owners who managed to get locked into a fixed-rate deal before the implosion of the mortgage market, the SPL opens its doors today and can show off its good financial housekeeping.
Don't talk to Scottish football about a credit-squeeze. It has been there, done that. A business that had collective debts of over £200m in 2003 has now been trimmed to a lean version that lost just £9m according to the last set of accounts. More importantly, seven of the top-flight clubs are now making a profit and the ink is just dry on a new £125m television deal with Setanta that should allow the SPL to plan for the future.
When Setanta came on board in 2004, sceptics doubted if the Irish company had enough resources to even make the payments on the first season of a cut-price £35m four-year deal. However, the League and the broadcaster have grown in partnership. Setanta hiked the deal up to £55m in 2006 but the recent decision to more than double the money for the SPL has sent a feelgood factor back to every boardroom.
The new terms will kick-in at the start of the 2010-11 campaign, allowing the 12 clubs to share in annual television revenue of £31.25m. Chickenfeed compared to big brother across the border in the English Premier League, but a deal that would be envied by other European leagues.
The SPL – which is celebrating its 10th anniversary – desperately tried to imitate England's top flight when it was set up and squandered millions of pounds of its original television deal with Sky by paying fortunes to over-rated Premier League cast-offs (£12m Tore Andre Flo cost Rangers the same in wages) or fading global idols (World Cup star Claudio Caniggia's salary was responsible for Dundee's £20m black hole). In 2002, most clubs operated with wage bills that were dangerously near the 90 per cent of wages-to-turnover ratio, the red zone that reveals financial overheating. The most recent accounts show nine of the clubs are now showing a wage to turnover ratio of less than 60 per cent and of them, six are less than 50 per cent. Only Hearts, in the hands of the unpredictable maverick, Vladimir Romanov, buck the trend with 97 per cent.
Club chairmen decided several years ago that wages had to become realistic. You cannot spend what you do not earn. Even Rangers, whose debt was once £84m, have adopted this model and although the club made £11.8m from their run to the Uefa Cup final last season, that profit will go to the bank. Walter Smith has spent £9m by bringing in Kyle Lafferty, Kenny Miller, Madjid Bougherra and Andrius Velicka to improve the side that came close to European glory, but that was offset by the sale of Alan Hutton to Tottenham Hotspur last January.
Spurs, of course, have been among Europe's biggest spenders this summer and when Celtic lost 2-0 to the London club last Friday in the Rotterdam Tournament, Gordon Strachan pointed out that the two goalscorers, Darren Bent and David Bentley, had cost a cool £32m. More than his entire side. "We don't have that money and we have to do our best with what we've got and make the players better," said the Celtic manager. "What are our limits? Do you get half a Bentley, a quarter of Bentley? Do we get a Bentley right leg?"
The two clubs, however, have radically different financial philosophies. Spurs are six places above Celtic (at 11th) in the current list of the world's richest 20 clubs, but announced a £26,000 loss on a turnover of £103m. Celtic's £83m, in contrast, allowed them to make a record profit of almost £16m. Strachan has made no new signings to augment his champions, though is expected to unveil Gabriel Tamas, part of Romania's Euro 2008 defence, and Marc Crosas, a young Barcelona midfielder, this week at a combined cost of just £6m. Strachan's Bentley joke, though, cannot disguise that he is determined that Celtic should still be part of Europe's football elite. He has taken Celtic to the last 16 of the Champions League for the last two seasons and securing a third successive SPL title in May, after a dramatic comeback to overhaul Rangers, has given the opportunity for another series of intense European nights at Parkhead.
Even the Old Firm have tightened their belts in terms of salaries recently, but the irony is that their European reputation – and that of the SPL – has soared, though Rangers will have put a dent in that by losing to Kaunus on Tuesday. In the last five years, both have played in a Uefa Cup final and the last 16 of the Champions League. Below that, the SPL has a competitive league that houses Aberdeen – who reached the last 32 of the Uefa Cup and drew with Bayern Munich – and Hibernian, who beat both Celtic and Rangers last season, despite selling off £12m worth of talent, principally to the Glasgow duopoly.
The SPL's top prize will not leave Glasgow this season – it has stayed there for 23 years since Sir Alex Ferguson gave his parting gift to Aberdeen – but it would be foolish to dismiss it as a predictable bore. Two-horse race? That will be England. Winning unopposed? Spain. Down to the wire? Scotland, where the helicopter holding the league trophy had to wait until the 70th minute of the last set of matches, before heading to Tannadice instead of Pittodrie, once Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink scored Celtic's winner against Dundee United, while Rangers lost to Aberdeen. "We had our highest attendances ever in the last two seasons," pointed out Lex Gold, the SPL chairman. "Dundee United manager Craig Levein told me he thinks we have a highly competitive league in comparison with others across Europe and I think fans will feel the same. A lot of the other nations – some of them quite big – have been looking at our experience to see how they might develop and grow like us."
Even the new arrivals, Hamilton Academical, seem to symbolise this fiscal sanity. The first division champions replace Gretna, whose relegation last May was followed by liquidation. The Lanarkshire club invested heavily in a youth development system several years ago and manager Billy Reid will allow the crop of talented young players who won promotion to take the next step.
"This club is all about producing our own," said chairman Ronnie McDonald. "We won't sign experienced replacements, we'll just take someone from our Under-17 team and throw them in. I will not be signing older players. I've had enough of that."
SPL opening fixtures
Aberdeen v Inverness CT
Falkirk v Rangers
Hearts v Motherwell
Kilmarnock v Hibernian
Celtic v St Mirren
Hamilton v Dundee United
SATURDAY 16 AUGUST
Hibernian v Falkirk
Inverness CT v Hamilton
Motherwell v Aberdeen
Rangers v Hearts
St Mirren v Kilmarnock
SUNDAY 17 AUGUST
Dundee United v Celtic
North of the border terriers Five to watch in the SPL this season
AIDEN McGEADY (Celtic)
Outstanding performer in the eyes of his peers. Named SPL Player of the Year for 2008 by the footballers' union, this 22-year-old Glaswegian, who plays for the Republic of Ireland, was given a new five-year contract by Celtic in the summer. Has a repertoire of tricks and is the champions' true creative force.
DAVID CLARKSON (Motherwell)
The 22-year-old striker will wear the Motherwell No 10 shirt this season, the one worn by his uncle, Phil O'Donnell, whose tragic death on the pitch from a heart attack last December brought a unique bond to the Fir Park dressing room. Clarkson, Motherwell's player of the year, scored on his Scotland debut against the Czech Republic in June and can now fulfil his teenage potential.
PRINCE BUABEN (Dundee United)
The young Ghanaian midfielder underlined his promise when he scored against Barcelona two weeks ago. Discovered by Craig Levein in the summer of 2007, Buaben is a product of the famous Ajax youth academy but could not take up the offer of a contract from the Dutch club because he did not fulfil residency criteria, despite his mother moving to Amsterdam when Prince was nine to help his career.
STEVEN FLETCHER (Hibernian)
Catch him while you can. Real Madrid have been monitoring Fletcher for two years, since he played for Scotland against Spain in the final of the European Under-19 championships. Remarkable grace, balance and power. Fletcher's constant movement is a source of anxiety to defenders, but the biggest move of all will be his next club once he leaves Easter Road, his home since the age of 12.
JAMES McCARTHY (Hamilton)
Another youngster whose reputation has spread well beyond the borders of Scotland. This goalscoring midfielder became Hamilton's youngest-ever player at the age of 16 and was then wooed by Rafa Benitez. Hamilton turned down an offer from Liverpool and Barcelona have put McCarthy, now 17, on their list. Like McGeady, he is a Glaswegian who has opted to wear the colours of Ireland, scoring on his Under-19 debut against Germany last term.Reuse content