SEASON 2007/08 was a campaign where Scottish Football showed signs of progress.
Both the Old Firm were in the Champions League, Aberdeen went into the Group Stages of the UEFA Cup (since renamed the Europa League), Celtic defeated defending Champions AC Milan en route to the last 16 of the Champions League, Rangers dropped into the UEFA Cup but went onto reach the Final whilst the Dons advanced from the Group Stage before going out to Bayern Munich in the knockout stages.
That season also saw Scotland almost qualify for Euro 2008 from a group involving World Cup Finalists Italy and France and included that famous James McFadden winner in Paris. Scotland were 14th in the World Rankings and the Scottish Football coefficient was ranked 10th by UEFA. Things were looking up.
A decade later and things could not be more different. A series of indifferent performances by our clubs have seen that coefficient fall to 23rd in the UEFA behind nations like Belarus, Sweden, Romania and Israel. That coupled with the National team looking increasingly unlikely to end a tournament famine stretching back almost two decades and Scottish Football’s reputation doesn’t look good.
This season, it’s the turn of Celtic, Aberdeen, Rangers and St Johnstone to fly the flag for Scotland in Europe – and they all found out who they will be playing in the early rounds of European Competition.
Celtic’s quest to get into the Champions League begins in the Second Qualifying Round when they face either Linfield from Northern Ireland or San Marino outfield La Fiorita. In the likelihood of the men from Belfast getting through, it could set up a volatile occasion given Linfield’s connections with Celtic’s great rivals Rangers though you’d expect Brendan Rodgers men to comfortably go through.
Aberdeen enter the Europa League at the same stage, giving themselves their longest pre-season in four years, and they were drawn against the winners of Ordabasy of Kazakhstan or Siroki Brijeg from Bosnia. For the Dons, they are familiar with the long trek to the Far East of Europe having played Kairat Almaty two years ago and will be hoping for a better outcome this time should the side from “Borat Country” advance, though a trip to Bosnia also doesn’t sound appetising this early into the new campaign.
Rangers return to European competition for the first time since season 2011/12, the year they entered Administration and Liquidation, and go in at the first qualifying round, which begins next Thursday. They will face Luxembourg outfit Progres Niederkorn in the two legged tie with AEL Limassol of Cyprus or St Josephs from Gibraltar awaiting them in the next round. Given the amount of new signings that have arrived at Ibrox, and the prospect of more to come, Pedro Caixanha will be happy with the first round opponents and be grateful that the next task is not as daunting as it could’ve been, for example Galatasaray were potential opponents.
St Johnstone are appearing in the Europa League for the fifth time in six seasons, a remarkable record for a club their size despite having the third lowest budget in the top flight. They were paired with Lithuanian side Trakai in the first qualifying round with Swedish outfit Norrkopping or Prishtina of Kosovo lying in waiting in the second qualifying round. On paper, it looks tough for the Saints, who still keep hold of the vastly underrated Tommy Wright, with the prospect of coming up against a side midway through their domestic season should they advance past the Lithuanian’s.
The fact two of our clubs are starting their season just four weeks after the domestic season finished, and it could’ve been three had Manchester United not won the Europa League, shows how important it is for all our clubs to do well in European competition and boost our coefficient, so it means our clubs can enter European football later on in their respective competitions.
Getting into the group stages of the Europa League is a massive challenge. Aberdeen have reached the Third Qualifying round the last three seasons, and would still have had one more round to play if they were to get into the group stages. That’s eight games, the same amount the Dons played en route to the Cup Winners Cup Final in 1983, and shows the scale of the task ahead for all three clubs whilst building up their fitness following pre-season.
The task for Celtic getting into the Champions League isn’t any easier. Whilst they will be seeded, the Bhoys came up against some tough opposition in Astana and Hapoel Beer Sheeva in order to end a two year wait to dine at European footballs top table. They’ll be hoping for a kinder route this time around although their squad should be more confident with the experience of last season and on the back of an invincible domestic campaign.
I’ll probably be in a minority but I personally hope all four sides do well on the continent this season. The way I see it, Scottish Football needs our sides doing well in European Football to boost our reputation abroad but also bring an air of positivity into our game, which takes too many knocks from cynics up here as well as outside Scottish Football.
Whilst there are people who do talk positively about our game, including the SFF Podcast team, the only way to really prove that we’re not as bad as people make out is to show that in European competition. The effect of that not only boosts the individual club respectively but will attract more lucrative investment from sponsors taking an interest in a nation showing progress.
I totally get why people will still not want to see rival clubs doing well for all sorts of reasons, including the fact that their rival clubs gets more money out of it, and I wouldn’t dare to criticise them for it, after all it’s an individual choice which ought to be respected. However, I would challenge them to consider the greater picture before they make their choice in how to view a rival club in Europe. Also, having two rival clubs doing well in Europe at the same time is a GOOD thing as it increases interest from both sets of fans urging their team to do better than the other, like in 2007/08 when both the Old Firm were in the Champions League group stages.
Scottish Football has taken some beating on the continent over the last decade or so since the last time three teams were involved behind Christmas. Right now, having at least three teams being involved past mid-July would be a sign of progress! Whether fans are willing to agree or not, the importance of all four sides making progress in European competition this season is huge for Scottish Football, especially in extending our clubs pre-seasons by at least a fortnight every year!