x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Celtic toasting Glasgow's glory days but storm clouds linger over Scottish football

Uncertainty swirls around the Scottish football leagues, which face possible restructuring this summer, writes Iain M Hepburn.

Georgios Samaras, second to right, has his Celtic side primed for a second straight Scottish Premier League title. Danny Lawson / PA
Georgios Samaras, second to right, has his Celtic side primed for a second straight Scottish Premier League title. Danny Lawson / PA

A rare treble is brewing in Scottish football. All three of Glasgow's professional football clubs could walk away as champions of their respective divisions at the end of the season.

Celtic sit just two points away from clinching their second successive Scottish Premier League title under Neil Lennon, and could wrap up the top-flight title race before the competition splits in two.

At the other end of the league set-up, Rangers won the Third Division with five games to spare over the amateur side Queens Park, their new Glasgow derby rivals.

And in Division One, Partick Thistle, who contest the Challenge Cup this weekend against the newly crowned Second Division champions Queen of the South, have edged ahead in their bid to win the title and a place in the SPL for the first time in nine years.

But the silverware grab by clubs from Scotland's largest city comes amid the gathering of yet more storm clouds over the state of Scottish football.

Dire warnings of the game collapsing were made at the time of Rangers' move to the Third Division. A year later, those warnings appear to have been overstated, at first glance. The recent annual report into the state of the game by the insolvency experts Begbies Traynor found that four clubs in the Scottish game were in severe financial distress, down from six the previous years.

Attendances across the leagues are up five per cent on the previous season, although SPL clubs have seen their average gate drop significantly in the absence of one half of the Old Firm.

The first season without the Ibrox side in the top flight has just about passed off without the feared catastrophe, but the report warned that the financial difficulties facing the league had not yet gone away.

"There are still four clubs facing serious if not necessarily terminal financial problems, and we expect to see more difficulties in the coming year," Begbies Traynor's said.

The report offers a potentially ominous response to the pundits who dismissed any threat to the financial stability of Scottish clubs as scare mongering.

Already there are worrying signs. The First Division side Dunfermline went into administration last week, with players losing their jobs as the stricken Fife club looks to survive until the end of the season. If they do not, the impact of declaring their results null and void could shift the balance of the promotion race.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Romanov, the majority shareholder of Hearts, this week revealed he lost all his assets after the Lithuania bank he also controlled collapsed, leaving the Edinburgh SPL club £25 million (Dh139.8m) in debt and facing months of uncertainty.

Against this backdrop, the structure of the game in Scotland remains up in the air, with the SPL sides due to vote on the proposed new league set-up later this month.

The proposed 12-12-18 structure, with leagues merging and splitting at various points in the season, requires the backing of 11 of the 12 SPL sides, and 75 per cent of lower-league clubs, to go ahead. A recent survey by the Scottish FA suggests fans are unhappy with the new structure.

Neil Doncaster, the chief executive of the SPL, has warned ahead of the April 15 vote that league reconstruction has to happen this summer if it is to happen at all.

"It's not acceptable to start saying, 'Well, let's just push it back a year because we can'," Doncaster said.

"The deal agreed back in January was about a package of measures and one of those measures was implementation this summer. I think we should focus on delivery of the deal for this summer."

The battle for second place in the SPL has been an exciting one, with the newly promoted Ross County and their Highland rivals Inverness Caledonian Thistle providing an unexpected challenge to the established central-belt order for European places with Motherwell - a club that overcame their own financial issues to become a model for youth development and fan involvement.

With continued financial warnings being sounded, and many clubs left unsettled by a league structure still up in the air, ahead of the August 3 start of the next season, it is too early for Scottish football to relax just yet.

Fixtures

Saturday

Hearts v Ross County 3pm

Celtic v Hibernian 6pm

Dundee Utd v Aberdeen 6pm

Kilmarnock v Dundee 6pm

Motherwell v St Mirren 6pm

ihepburn@thenational.ae

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