Last week Celtic won the Scottish Premier Football League (SPFL). That’s right, in April. Now this in itself is not remarkable, indeed the vast majority of people couldn’t care less about a one-team league whose quality and entertainment value matches that of the Saints Sunday League. Yet this does raise a question that has haunted the two Glasgow clubs since the dawn of time, and no, not whether they could beat the Sports Friends over two legs. Celtic’s win was inevitable, but the manner in which they did it was impressive. They haven’t lost in Scotland all season and look set to win the domestic treble, assuming they beat Rangers and then either Aberdeen or Hibernian in the Scottish Cup. The fact they won the league with eight games to spare is also one of the fastest in European history, and if they do finish unbeaten it will be the first time a team has done so in Scotland since the 19th century.
They have achieved this through a mix of excellent management under Brendan Rodgers (the Brodge to his friends) and an incredibly talented squad. In Kieran Tierney, they have a player who could play for any team in the English Premier League (EPL), while Moussa Dembele has been in white hot form. These two, along with Stuart Armstrong, a resurgent Scott Sinclair and a dependable (if hated) Scott Brown have put Celtic in a position where they may dominate for years. With Rangers and Aberdeen nowhere near them, and with the quality of the league below that of Belarus, Israel and Romania in terms of UEFA coefficient, there is little challenge for them. Hence, the age-old question arises, how would Celtic do in the English Premier League (EPL)? They certainly could join: Cardiff, Swansea, Newport, and Wrexham are all teams that play in the English system. The real problem is judging how they would fair both with their current squad and in the long-term, along with what consequences their departure would bring to Scottish football.
Let’s talk money. The EPL is the richest league in the world: the players’ wage bill is greater than both the German Bundesliga and Spain’s La Liga combined. This is largely down to a huge broadcasting deal between Sky and BT worth over £5 billion, where 50 per cent of that is split equally among the 20 teams. It is why the Championship play-off is dubbed “the £100 million game” and the why the three promoted clubs spent nearly £120 million over two transfer windows, while Celtic only spent £8 million including money they got from qualifying for the Champions League group phase. It is why Celtic had the 16th largest revenue stream in the world in the 2004/2005 season, but now Sunderland’s revenue is now more than double that of Celtic at £122 million. It is why the top 12 transfers fees paid by Scottish clubs are all concentrated between 1998 and 2002. Part of our conclusion then depends on whether or not Celtic could be included in that broadcasting deal. If they are not then they can forget about the top four as Rodgers claimed in a recent interview, instead focussing on avoiding the bottom three. Their squad is good, but ultimately they did fail in Europe. Their main striker Dembele may win plaudits across Europe, but as yet the opposition in his career has been the likes of Blackburn and Partick Thistle: he is untested against regular high quality defences. Even if they do get included in the broadcasting deal, they would probably still struggle. Despite the money that Middlesbrough and Hull have spent, they are still in a relegation dogfight.
However, if Celtic survived that first season, the potential is unlimited. Leicester have shown what is truly possible, but more reasonably the benefit would come from the windfall from survival. Sky Sports estimated with Deloitte that the winner of the Playoff final would gain an extra £190 million if they survived one season. With Celtic’s fans, stadium, and brand, they have the potential to join the established EPL clubs and from there who knows what they can achieve?
But what would this all mean for Scotland’s national team and league? In terms of the former, one would hope that with their new wealth, Celtic would reinvest into their youth setup to produce the next Kenny Dalglish or Denis Law. However, the wealth of the EPL has hardly helped the English national team, with clubs spending fortunes on the next best talent from abroad. Meanwhile for the SPFL, would it really lead to a more competitive league? If Scotland’s league coefficient was bad, then Wales’ league is even worse, with only the Faroe Islands; Gibraltar; Andorra and San Marino being ranked lower. It is also not even that competitive. The New Saints have won it for the last six seasons and they aren’t even based fully in Wales. Celtic joining the EPL also sets a dangerous precedent. If Rangers or Aberdeen dominate, at what point would they get allowed in? Football would also lose arguably the greatest derby on Earth in the Old Firm.
So, what can we take from this? If Celtic were to be put into the EPL right now they would struggle. Their squad is talented but not to the extent that Celtic fans imagine. However, if they are able to utilise the extraordinary wealth in that league, then they have potential. What this would mean for Scotland is uncertain: it could bolster the national side and league or condemn them to ruin.
This debate has been going on for generations and will continue to do so. You sometimes wonder about the motivations of those at Celtic who want to join the EPL.
Is it truly about more competition? Are they realistic when they come out and make these claims? Or are they salivating at the prospect of indulging in the gluttony of modern day football?