In football, the month of January is an exciting time. The transfer window opens; cue thirty-one days of hype, rumours and expectation as clamour rises over which player will move where, and for how much cash. The mood is one of anticipation, the theme: new beginnings. Well, that’s how it is elsewhere, anyway. In Scotland – or to be more specific – outwith Parkhead, it’s a brutally contrasting scenario.
Loan deals and freebies are now the bread and butter for SPFL Premiership sides, with many living in fear of their more competent players being lured south by bigger pay packets. It’s quite sad that England’s League One now firmly constitutes “bigger pay packets” in relation to even the more wealthy of Scotland’s clubs.
At Celtic Park, supporters are growing apathetic, and beginning to vote with their feet. The glamour of European nights has gone for the season, and dreary 1-0 wins over Partick Thistle hardly offer gourmet fare to a fan base accustomed to dining out on the visits of AC Milan and Barcelona. Neil Lennon is expected to spend big this month, and in such a way that he improves his team’s entertainment value.
If one needs further proof of Scottish football’s financial fall from grace, compare the respective Hibernian and Celtic teams of the 2001 Scottish Cup Final to last year’s equivalents. The names on the team sheets that day included Sauzée, Larsson, Moravcik and Libbra. Were the Hoops side that triumphed 3-0 thirteen years ago in the current Premiership, they’d be out of sight by November at the very latest, with a goal difference ratio higher than their city rivals’ wage bill.
And those city rivals are once more walking the financial tightrope, with Rangers players unsurprisingly refusing a 15% pay cut on Thursday. It’s certainly worth noting that while the men on the pitch have been asked to lower their income, there hasn’t been a peep from the Ibrox head honchos regarding their own ample salaries.
Frankly, Ally McCoist approached the lower leagues in entirely the wrong manner, bringing in a raft of then SPL stars and foreign imports that bore little understanding of what life would be like in Division Three. But, he had a sizeable budget at his disposal, and a fan base that expected weekly cricket-score victories over the SPFL minnows. Now, McCoist has a squad of over fifty, and a wage bill greater than £7m.
It speaks volumes that while Neil Lennon looks to shore up his squad for Champions League action next year; Rangers are shelling out big-style ahead of facing the likes of Dumbarton and Alloa. It’s completely laughable, but at the moment, nothing beggars belief where Scottish football’s finances are concerned.
Sixty miles east, Hearts’ removal of assistant manager Billy Brown looks to have a good deal more substance than the cost-cutting measure it was dressed up as; Brown’s recent media appearances and penchant for letting his passion spill over may paint a truer picture of that rationale.
At long last, Chief Executive David Southern and Director of Football John Murray have (temporarily) reduced their earnings. How Southern has managed to cling on to employment at Tynecastle in the post-Romanov era baffles some, and quite why Hearts continue to fork out for a continental-style Director of Football is equally vexing. No other club in Scotland sees fit to make use of one, far less a club in the throes of administration, prevented from signing players. It seems rather lowly of Hearts to discard a front-line, experienced campaigner like Brown – who worked for free during the early part of the season, and would likely do so again if given the opportunity – than one whose role is decidedly less crucial to rookie manager Gary Locke and the on-field events in Gorgie.
Though Hearts’ signing ban should not be waived, there was a degree of truth in Brown’s latest tirade regarding the “credibility of Scottish football”. Our game has seldom been such a laughing stock. One of its twin titans has been reduced to a cash cow milked barren by businessmen after a quick buck, and repeating the errors that brought about its liquidation so recently. Another large chunk of its core is destined for the lower leagues, or worse.
There are green shoots of recovery stemming from the likes of Aberdeen and Dundee United, winning matches with entertaining football, and how they are needed. Derek McInnes has shown how a measure of nous and smart recruitment can draw back disillusioned supporters, while Jackie McNamara boasts a flock of hugely promising youngsters. The smart money says Terry Butcher will in time return Hibs to Scotland’s upper echelons too.
But we are a ways off yet from what should be our long-term target; for now, the January premise of new beginnings carries a very different meaning for those north of the Border.