WHAT IF the OLD FIRM joined the English Leagues?
It is a question that often gets discussed with regards to the Scottish Premiership, and has come up again with discussions regarding the “European Premier League” reshuffle.
With the exception of a brief emergence from Aberdeen and Dundee United in the 1980’s, the Scottish top flight has always been a two horse race between Rangers and Celtic.
At times, both teams have nearly turned it into a one-horse race with each dominating the league for nearly an entire decade. Celtic have won 9 league titles in a row on two separate occasions; between 1965 and 1974 under legendary European Cup winner Jock Stein and the ongoing dominance from 2011 until now, which is largely in due part to Rangers’ administration and triple relegation in 2012.
Rangers have won more titles overall, having won 54 to Celtic’s 51, including a 9-in-a-row of their own between 1988 and 1997 under Graeme Souness and Walter Smith.
The Gers reached the final 8 of the first Champions League (under that name) and boasted greats such as Ally McCoist, Brian Laudrup, and England legend Paul Gascoigne within their ranks.
For many years, Rangers and Celtic’s dominance has often led to many asking how they would fair in the English leagues. The move has been discussed several times in the past, as it is clear that the two clubs are significantly bigger than the rest of the Scottish leagues.
Both teams have reached UEFA Cup Finals within the last 20 years (Celtic in 2003 and Rangers in 2008) and are still today regulars in European Competition. Both teams have also proven that they can hold their own against bigger teams in Europe. However, when comparing them to English teams, you often get conflicting answers.
So, where do we begin? Let me start off by clearing the air: I am a Rangers fan. I held a season ticket at Ibrox between 2004 and 2007, attended 2 Old Firms, and have seen Rangers play in both the Champions League and UEFA Cup group stages.
I maintained my support for the Gers during their years in the lower divisions too in hopes that we will once again become the dominant force we once were.
However, I no longer live in Scotland- I live in Norfolk and have adopted Norwich City as my second team. I have held a membership with Norwich since 2012, so I have seen the team achieve promotion and subsequent relegation from the Premier League 3 times.
In addition to several unsuccessful seasons in the Championship. However, I have also been able to go and see a few Rangers games at Ibrox whenever I have gone back to Scotland to visit family.
Now, back to the question at hand. From what I have seen and heard from both sides of the border, some Rangers and Celtic fans believe they would be able to compete in the Premier League, while English fans often deride this sentiment on the basis that the Scottish Premiership is a “farmer’s league” with very little quality, with some saying that the quality is comparable to League 1 and below.
In my honest opinion, Rangers and Celtic are much larger clubs than most of those in the Premier League in terms of fanbases, domestic and continental success, and history. Had they joined the Premier League when it was first created in the 1990’s, both teams would have won silverware by now, whether that be the Premier League, FA Cup, or League Cup.
However, in terms of current player quality, they are currently around upper-Championship-level, similar to the likes of Norwich and Bournemouth. Despite this, should they move to the English leagues, they would both become regular Premier League clubs within the first few seasons. Here are my reasons why I believe this:
Quality and European Success
Firstly, I would argue that both teams were Premier League quality around 10-15 years ago. Up until 2010, Rangers and Celtic would regularly make it to the Champions League Group Stages and were able to hold their own against some of Europe’s best.
For instance, the 2007/08 Rangers team were able to hold a Barcelona side that included Ronaldinho, Thierry Henry, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, and a young Lionel Messi to a 0-0 draw. They also defeated then-French champions Lyon 3-0 at the Stade de Gerland.
While they didn’t qualify from this group, they did go on a famous UEFA Cup Final run, beating out Panathinaikos, Werder Bremen, Sporting Lisbon, and Fiorentina before ultimately falling to an Andrey Arshavin-inspired Zenit St. Petersburg in the final.
In that same season, Celtic were able to defeat then-European Champions AC Milan 2-1 at Parkhead and ended up finishing 2nd in their group over Benfica and Shakhtar Donetsk.
They were then knocked out in the next round by the same Barcelona team Rangers had faced earlier in the season. It is worth noting that the 2007/08 season was not an outlier in these two team’s European success in the mid-2000’s.
However, since then, the overall quality in both teams has dropped. Rangers’ liquidation and triple relegation in 2012 saw them having to start from scratch in the Scottish Third Division, with many star players leaving to find new clubs.
While players such as Lee McCulloch, Lee Wallace, and Neil Alexander opted to stay, they struggled to attract the same players they usually would, as the lure of playing against East Stirlingshire and Elgin City 4 times a season was not nearly as attractive as the Champions League football they were previously playing.
Since then, Rangers clawed back into the Premiership after 4 seasons away
Meanwhile, this obviously left Celtic an opportunity to dominate the Scottish Premiership, which they took full advantage of. However, the lack of competition to win the league has led to their playing quality dropping significantly.
The once great team that were able to surprise European giants were now suffering European defeats to Lincoln Red Imps, CFR Cluj, and as seen earlier this season, Ferencvaros.
With Rangers back in the Premiership for a few years now, they are now able to compete with Celtic for the title once again, as discussed in my recent review of the first Old Firm match of the season. I feel that Rangers winning the Premiership will help increase the quality of both teams. Rangers will finally have the lure of Champions League football to attract players, while Celtic will be desperate to invest to try and win the Premiership back.
Championship Now… But Success on the Horizon?
On the other side of the coin, the Premier League has become a wealthier league. The current Premier League TV rights deal is five times more valuable than it was 10 years ago, with some sources quoting the value of the deal to be around £5 Billion over 3 seasons from 2019 to 2022. This figure has increased by around £4 Billion over the last 10 years.
In comparison, the current SPFL TV rights deal is only £125 million, which covers this season to the 2024-2025 season. This figure is 40 times smaller than the current Premier League deal, so of course it puts Rangers, Celtic and the other Scottish clubs at an incredibly significant disadvantage in terms of transfer warchests.
Now, say if the Old Firm were able to be placed in the EFL. The current TV rights for the rest of the EFL is valued at £595 million – still around 1/10th that of the Premier League, but over 4 times more lucrative than the SPFL.
If moved to the Championship, Rangers and Celtic would therefore earn more money through TV rights and would then be able to build stronger squads to compete in England. However, it would take a few years of rebuilding and restructuring to build a squad that can become Premier League mainstays.
The existing financial gulf between the English and Scottish leagues has grown over the last two decades due to significant foreign investment in the English leagues, the Scottish Premiership becoming a one-horse league for much of the last decade, and arguable mishandlings of TV and sponsorship deals under the current SPFL board.
With this in mind, if Rangers and Celtic were to be placed in the Championship right now, it would take a few seasons of acclimitising and rebuilding in order to become a solid Premier League side. However, their past successes, demand for silverware, and large fanbases will allow them to have the capacity to successfully grow in the English Leagues.