Does Scottish Football Need Rangers?
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Does Scottish Football Need Rangers?

Rangers will play outside the top flight for a fourth successive season. Is their absence from the Premiership harming Scottish football?

Ian Baraclough might have been manipulating a siege mentality, but his comments hit on Scottish football's most ever-present of ever-present discussions. His delivery was somewhat contrived in tone, lacking the sort of conviction of someone who truly believed what they were saying, but with his side preparing for the Premiership's two-legged relegation play-off the Motherwell boss claimed the Scottish media — nay, Scottish football as a whole —wanted Rangers back in the top-flight.


"I get the feeling there is a big contingent of people behind Rangers," Baraclough asserted, almost accusingly, at the assembled press in front of him. "Everyone's saying they want the biggest and best teams in the Premiership and I can understand that." As it turned out, Motherwell went on to deny Rangers promotion back to the top-flight, thumping the alleged people's favourite 6-1 on aggregate.

But whether Scottish football wants Rangers back in the Premiership is somewhat tangential to a more abstract debate: does Scottish football need Rangers back at the top? With one of its two biggest clubs slumped over the ropes, is the sport north of the border under threat of catastrophic collapse?

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Indeed, that prediction was widely made back when Rangers were liquidated in 2012. Senior figures warned that Scottish football would face financial armageddon in the years to come, with some even claiming the Scottish Premier League and the Scottish FA should have taken unprecedented measures to ensure they remained in place at the top of the pyramid — for the good of the Scottish game.

Of course, that didn't happen. Rangers' application to remain in the SPL was rejected and so they were banished to the very bottom tier of Scottish football (at that time, Division Three). Rather than looking forward to at least four Old Firm derbies a season, the Gers now had games against the likes of Annan Athletic and East Stirlingshire to savour.


Rangers in Scottish Division 3 action away to Annan Athletic

Back-to-back promotions through the fourth and third tiers reinforced the widely agreed notion that Rangers would rise through the divisions with relative ease, taking their place in the top-flight again within three years. Their charge was halted however, first by Hearts — who strolled to the second-tier Championship title last season — then by play-off conquerors Motherwell. Rangers now face an unprecedented fourth year in the lower leagues.

So how will that impact upon Scottish football as a whole? Now under new ownership, Rangers are rebuilding the entire club from the ground up once more, but what will the knock-on effect be for those outside the Old Firm bubble?

Top-flight clubs can surely expect another drop in attendance figures, at least going on the precedent of the past three years. In fact, there has been a year-on-year decline in the top-flight's average gate ever since Rangers' demise. That could be down to a number of factors — including the loss of some sizeable clubs through relegation, and the promotion of more modest ones in their place — but even accounting for that, Scottish crowds are on the wane.

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In nearly every individual instance, Scottish top-flight clubs' gate numbers have fallen since the ruin of Rangers. Take Motherwell for example, whose average home crowd has fallen from 5,946 in 2011/12 to just 4,286 last season. Kilmarnock too have suffered a similar dip, dropping from an average of 5,537 three years ago to just 4,076 now.


But perhaps the starkest illustration of Scottish football's turnstile tumble over the past three years can be found at Celtic, where attendance has dropped from 50,904 to 44,585. It would seem that, despite what many of green and white colouring may insist, Celtic are worse off without their great rivals — something club chairman Peter Lawwell has backed up with claims that Rangers' troubles have cost the Parkhead side around £10 million a season.

Tensions were as high as ever when the Old Firm was revived during last season's League Cup | Photo by EPA / Robert Perry

From a financial standpoint, there is a fairly unanimous consensus that Rangers' demise has cost the Scottish game dearly. But whether Scottish football is more or less compelling as a contest without Rangers in the top-flight is a matter of personal interpretation. Celtic might have the league title effectively in the bag by the end of August every year, but the lack of a dominant Old Firm one-two has consequently opened up the rest of the league, with teams like Inverness Caledonian Thistle and St Johnstone thriving.

Aberdeen too have felt the benefit of Rangers' top-flight absence, becoming something of a second force and scooping up the best Scottish Premiership talent Celtic have passed over. But for all that the national game has arguably developed, it has had to make do without its defining contest.

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The Old Firm derby is the only football fixture Scotland has that transcends its own borders. The recent emergence of Aberdeen as faux title challengers has given an extra edge to their clashes against Celtic, but that fixture pales in comparison with the match that still, even after all these years, has a bearing on an entire country and its culture like no other.


The loss of this fixture was surely a factor in the collapse of a five-year £80 million TV deal that had been agreed with BSkyB and ESPN before Rangers' own collapse. Now, the Scottish Professional Football League is contractually bound to actually pay BT Sport up to £250,000 per season in return for the live broadcast of Rangers' lower league fixtures. Somewhat ominously, the true value of the replacement TV deal hastily agreed in light of the Ibrox club's demise has never been disclosed; the precise damage is left to conjecture.

So, has the disintegration of Scottish football come to pass, as was predicted when Rangers entered liquidation little over three years ago? After all, there was no ambiguity to some of the warning messages issued by the upper echelons.

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The Scottish FA chief executive Stewart Regan even went as far to claim that the impact of Rangers' banishment from the top-flight would stretch beyond sporting context. "Fans are probably not au fait with the implications of Rangers in Division Three," he explained. "We have a duty to share the facts because without Rangers, there is social unrest, there is a big problem for Scottish society. There has to be an understanding of how serious this is."

Neil Lennon — manager of Celtic for four years — also expressed his view that Scottish football needs Rangers back at the top for its own good. "It's essential for the game in Scotland that Rangers get back to the Premiership as quickly as possible," the Northern Irishman admitted from the safe haven of Bolton, where he is now manager. "They need to get back to the Premiership for the state of the game up there — in terms of revenue, crowds, competition."

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Even after all that the past three years have brought, Scottish football is frequently a divided discourse. They may not have a league game against each other to look forward to until at least 2016, but the Old Firm very much still drives the programme. That tribalism is carried over into the debate regarding Rangers' downfall and the impact it has had on the sport in Scotland.

But the answer might not be so black and white — or green and blue. Scottish football doesn't need Rangers back in the top-flight as such — clubs have adjusted accordingly, with some even prospering as a result — but it may well be better off with them there. That much seems clear.

Follow Scottish football for any length of time and you'll become familiar with (and tediously exhausted by) certain buzzwords and phrases. 'Sporting integrity' for one, the aforementioned 'financial armageddon' for another. 'League reconstruction' was phone-in and fans' forum fodder for years, despite it actually happening in the summer of 2013. But while terms and expressions come and go, the discussion over the true impact of Rangers' demise on Scottish football is as pertinent as ever.