Mayday for Scottish Football in Europe?

By Brian P. Dunleavy

It’s been said that, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Actually, it’s an expression that has—to the delight of at least a segment of the Celtic support—been attributed to former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, perhaps in error.

However, no matter who said it first, the cliché has not always proved the rule. And the latest example of that may be the curious case of Scottish football in European competition.

Forgetting the struggles of the national team (both men and women) for a minute, one might think that the Hoops’ success over the past 15 or so months under manager Brendan Rodgers would “trickle down” (oops, that’s another former U.S. president…) to other clubs, force other squads to up their games, if you will.

If nothing else, an improved Celtic would, in theory, draw more supporters to stadia across the country and attract more viewers to televised matches—both of which would amount to increased revenues for all clubs in Scotland, not just those in Glasgow.

In theory, too, the return of Rangers to the top-flight—and thus the renewal of regular Old Firm fixtures to the Premiership schedule—would also reinvigorate the entire league.

Except it hasn’t. Well, not really anyway. For despite Celtic’s enjoyable (oh, for so many reasons) win over Linfield on Wednesday—a 4-0 victory that enabled the Hoops to advance to the third round of Champions’ League qualification (6-0 on aggregate) and a match-up against Rosenborg of Norway—the other Scottish clubs have continued their struggles in continental competition.

No, we won’t belabor Rangers’ failings against the likes of Luxembourg’s Progres Niederkorn in Europa League qualification here, for that would be beating a well-fallen horse. However, suffice it to say, that is not a good loss for the club, or for the country.

Meanwhile, Scotland’s second-best team—at least based on last season’s Premiership table—Aberdeen struggled mightily against Bosnian side NK Siroki Brijeg. Say that three times fast. No really. Say it. It hardly speaks well for the Scottish game.

Finally, St. Johnstone, Tommy Wright’s perennial over-achievers, similarly lost out to Lithuanian giants—ahem—FK Trakai in Europa League qualifying. The Saints were the only other Scottish side to qualify for European competition.

Now, we could trot out the tired argument that these qualifying ties come at an awkward time for Scottish clubs—many of Europe’s smaller leagues have summer schedules and are thus in mid-season form, while Premiership sides are in their respective preseasons—but it rings hollow. Even though Scotland’s top-flight teams have far smaller budgets than, say, English Premier League sides, they still employ full-time players, and they still appear on television regularly and play in much nicer stadia than, well, Luxembourgian clubs. Some of them even have perfectly lovely training complexes, and managers (not to mention players) making seven-figure salaries (or at least six-figure; okay, maybe five).

And while we know some Scottish clubs—outside of Glasgow—operate on a relative shoestring, it’s hard to understand why a team like Aberdeen needs to sell a player (Jonny Hayes) for £1.5 million and replace him with another (Gary Mackay-Steven) they paid just £150,000 for.

Numbers like that simply don’t add up—or at least what they added up to is an unsurprising fall in the UEFA rankings for Scottish clubs. Rangers sit 306th in Europe, according to UEFA. Hearts 290th (just above Inverness). Hibs 263rd.  Motherwell 243rd. St. Johnstone 211th. Aberdeen 191st. Even Celtic, in spite of its relative success, dropped 16 places over the past year to 64th.

All of which means more potentially problematic qualifying rounds for Scottish clubs hoping for a seat at the table in European competition.

And we already know how those have worked out of late.

Celtic’s Moussa Dembele (left) avoids a challenge from Linfield’s Mark Haughey