It’s a two-horse race plagued by financial woes, sectarianism and creeping irrelevance, dwarfed as it is by one of the world’s biggest sporting competitions. But heck, it’s exciting.
For the fifth time in a decade, the Scottish Premier League will be decided on the last day of play this Sunday night. Celtic’s 3-0 midweek thumping of Hearts of Midlothian again has ensured the Scottish Football Association will have a helicopter standing by on the ultimate afternoon of the season. It’ll be warmed up and waiting to airlift the premiership trophy to Kilmarnock or Glasgow, where one of Rangers or Celtic will be crowned 2010-11 SPL champions.
The words “Scottish football” and “beleaguered” have gone together like haddock and batter in recent times. The national team’s failed to qualify for the past three World Cups, and has slumped to 66 in the FIFA world rankings (Australia’s at 20). Clubs lumber from one financial crisis to the next, while the SPL has struggled with dwindling crowds and diminishing broadcasting returns, withering in the shadow cast by its giant neighbour, the English Premier League. The woefully imbalanced nature of the Scottish game doesn’t help — the last club outside the old firm of Rangers and Celtic to claim Scottish football’s top crown was Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen in 1984-85, making the SPL less of a league and more of grand final played over 38 legs.
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Adding to the malaise has been a resurgence of crowd problems this season. Rangers fans last month were banned by UEFA from attending the club’s next two European fixtures, punishment for sectarian chanting during a March Europa Cup fixture in Holland. Meanwhile, Celtic’s coach, Neil Lennon, an abrasive Catholic Northern Irishman with a reputation harder than your average Glaswegian’s arterial plaque, was the target of a bomb threat last month — authorities intercepted parcel bombs addressed to Lennon and two other prominent club figures. The very win over Hearts that kept Celtic’s season alive was marred by a Heart’s fan’s assault on Lennon during the second half, triggering brawling in the stands.
Still, for all the difficulties, the SPL has a happy knack of throwing up tight finishes, and “Helicopter Sunday” is becoming something of a tartan sporting tradition. Each of seasons 2002-03, 2004-05, 2007-08 and 2008-09 concluded with a silverware sortie. The fate of the ’04-’05 season was only decided in the final four minutes of play, Celtic conceding goals against Motherwell at the death to hand the title to Rangers — so late the chopper was said to have had to hook-turn in an 11th-hour change of course.
As for this weekend’s decision day, with a one-point lead at the top of the table, Rangers are favourite to hoist the trophy for the 54th time. For Celtic to hear the thrum of the rotor blades, they’ll need to toss Motherwell at the Hoops’ Parkhead home, and hope Rangers slip up against Kilmarnock at Rugby Park.
The details: The final round will be broadcast on Setanta Australia (through the usual pay-TV carriers) starting 9.45pm AEST this Sunday.