THE Old Firm’s vulnerability has been an open secret for several seasons. Outwith Glasgow, the feeling is Rangers and Celtic are there for the taking.
No longer do they possess the brute strength and ruthless threat of previous eras, when players like Brian Laudrup, Paulo di Canio and Richard Gough prowled the SPL like indomitable lions.
Prising the SPL championship trophy from Glasgow might be a tad ambitious for now, but the opportunity for another club to fracture the western duopoly and claim second place is undeniable. Hearts, assuming consistency of performance, appear best equipped for the challenge. It was they who last achieved this feat in 2006.
Rangers prepare to visit Tynecastle this weekend looking to extend their advantage atop the league table. Their dominance so far this season, despite boardroom upheaval and well publicised financial difficulties, can only be commended.
Below them, Hearts’ chances of usurping Celtic, who escaped with a 3-3 draw at Kilmarnock on Saturday having been three goals down, appear the most realistic of all the potential challengers. It is pertinent that their last home fixture saw them defeat Celtic 2-0 with a degree of comfort.
Given the genuine quality and versatility within the Tynecastle squad, anyone keen for Rangers and Celtic to be split will instinctively look to Gorgie. Motherwell’s start to the campaign has been admirable, not to mention refreshing, but their notably smaller squad may prove a hindrance later. Hearts, 2-0 victors over Dunfermline at the weekend, have a 27-man first-team pool containing a well-balanced concoction of SPL mainstays, youthful protégés and foreign flair.
Vladimir Romanov, Hearts’ majority shareholder, is certainly encouraged by their prospects. He told his squad they should be striving to win the SPL this season. But second place, surely, would be a more than acceptable consolation.
“It would breathe real fresh air into the SPL and the whole of Scottish football,” said Dave McPherson, the former Rangers and Hearts defender. “Rangers and Celtic have dominated for years but wasn’t it great in the 80s when Aberdeen and Dundee United provided a real challenge? It would be brilliant to see that now. The game needs it and it’s there for teams to do it.
“You just need to look at how Celtic have done, losing the title late last season and then look how they’ve started this season. Rangers have been the most consistent in recent years but it’s definitely open for a team to challenge up there.
“Having spoken to people at Rangers and Celtic, they know that too. If they slacken at all, the chance is there for other teams to step up and challenge them.
“Hearts proved against Celtic that they can beat the big two on their day. United should have competed better last year. This year they’ve lost players and that will affect them over the season. I can’t see them challenging. For me, Hearts are the third best team in Scotland. If they can just iron out their problems off the field and get some consistency, then they are more than capable of challenging the top two. They have the squad of players to do it.
“Andy Driver, for instance, is a talented player who missed out on a £2million move a couple of years ago. He can come in and play but he has to get fit. There are other players like him in the Hearts squad who could play in any other SPL team. The club just needs consistency on and off the park.
“I think Hearts fans would be satisfied with second. To challenge for the title is difficult and if they managed to get second place it would be a major achievement.
“I played for Hearts for ten years and I want to see the team compete and win the league, same as Hearts supporters. But you need to be realistic. They don’t have the same budget as they did a few years ago but they are still able to compete with the Old Firm. To see them provide a challenge would be a step in the right direction. Then you try to progress year on year.”
The strength in squad depth at Hearts is indeed the envy of many an SPL manager. Against Celtic, they had the luxury of naming four full internationalists amongst their seven substitutes. But McPherson believes their policy of introducing young players to senior football will prove most fruitful in future.
“Hearts have been slightly better than others at bringing players through into the first team,” he continued. “All the teams can certainly do better. You look at Celtic winning the under-19 league for the last two years, but then they released nine of their players. Hibs won the double a few years back, but how many players from that side got into the first team?
“Not having a reserve league doesn’t help. There is a gap between academies and first teams which we haven’t bridged yet.
“There could be a reserve league, although it would cost money. Or you could have SPL under-19 teams playing in lower divisions. There should be a lot more players going out on loan, or you could have a Rangers or Celtic taking over a Third Division side to nurture their youth at that level. There are a few options to give young players a chance to play with experienced players. Like any job, you learn from people round about you. You need somebody there to guide you and previously that happened in the reserves.”
As a teenager at Rangers in the 1980s, McPherson was one of the beneficiaries of that pathway, gleaning tips and knowledge from senior professionals like John McClelland, Colin McAdam and Craig Paterson, all of whom played in his favoured centre-back role. The learning period was to prove invaluable at a time when neither Rangers nor Celtic were the big cheese in Scottish football.
“I was a young player and Rangers were going through a transitional phase,” he recalled. “They had lost a lot of experienced players who had basically won everything going. They were changing the team around but we still knew that going to Tynecastle, Easter Road, Tannadice or Pittodrie was tough. They were the places where, if you got a draw, it was considered a good result. Now Rangers and Celtic expect to beat these teams home and away.
“Money has a bit to play in things now but it clouds a lot of issues. Fans say give the manager money to spend but it doesn’t mean he’s going to spend wisely. If we can sort a clear path from the academy to the first team, then we’ll see teams progressing as Aberdeen did in the 80s. We need to get back to that.
“It’s not about money and bringing players in. You need to be able to do that to a degree but concentrate a bit more on youth development rearing your own players.”