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Something Money Can’t Buy

  23 Apr '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn

Michael McEwan on the failed European Super League

At the entrance to Celtic Park, the home of Glasgow Celtic FC, there is a bronze statue of the club’s totemic former manager, Jock Stein.

Appropriately, he has been cast holding the European Cup, a nod to Celtic’s 1967 triumph over Internazionale of Italy. Under Stein’s stewardship, the Glasgow giants became the first British club to win Europe’s premier competition.

Engraved into the plinth upon which Stein stands is a quote attributed to him.

“Football without the fans is nothing.”

A man of the people, Stein, a former coal-miner, was also a man for the people. He built his all-conquering side of the mid-sixties in the image of the terraces. All but two of his 15-man squad being born within ten miles of Celtic Park. The most expensive signing the club made during his 13-year tenure cost a mere £90,000, roughly three-quarters of a million in today’s money.

Stein died in 1985 and so we can only speculate as to what he would have made of this week’s European Super League (ESL) proposals. The smart money – and isn’t that what this is all about – would be on him being vehemently opposed to the idea.

Devised in the shadows by a conspiratorial cabal of 12 of the continent’s richest clubs, the ESL was announced on Sunday evening. It was intended to be a new midweek competition, running parallel to the existing domestic leagues but in direct competition with the UEFA Champions League.

The 12 founder clubs – including six from England and three each from Spain and Italy – claimed “the formation of the Super League comes at a time when the global pandemic has accelerated the instability in the existing European football economic model.”

The reality of it could be distilled into one simple truth: the rich and powerful decided they wanted to become more rich and more powerful.

For example, the winner of the UEFA Champions League stands to earn anywhere between £40m and £80m in total revenues. The ESL, by comparison, would see them earn up to three times as much money, which is to say nothing of the reported £250m windfall just for joining the competition, not to mention the lucrative potential of the international television rights that they, the founder clubs, would be able to sell themselves.

As a business proposition, the idea is not without merit. But football is more than a business, more than a sport, more than a pastime. It’s a intangible interest built on the zeal and passion of the masses as much as the bank balances of Russian oligarchs, American conglomerates and faceless multi-national consortiums.

It is owned by everybody and nobody all at once. What other explanation can there be for the Solomon Grundy-esque lifespan of the ESL? Leaked on Sunday, confirmed on Monday, opposed on Tuesday, died on Wednesday. In the face of widespread, fan-led condemnation, the six English clubs involved in the project withdrew. The voice of the fans – collectively disgusted by the intentions of their clubs – was heard. That, happily, remains something money can’t buy.

Events of the past few week have compelled me to reflect upon the demise of Third Lanark, a Glasgow football club that tumbled into oblivion just weeks after Jock Stein led Celtic to the aforementioned European Cup glory. 

One of the country’s oldest and most successful football teams, a founder member of the Scottish Football Association, and to date one of only four teams to defeat both Rangers and Celtic in the Scottish Cup Final, Third Lanark suffered a long, slow, painful death at the hands of owners who were at best incompetent and at worst criminally and deliberately negligent.

The club’s demise had little to do with matters on the pitch. Based out of Cathkin Park, the “Hi-Hi’, as they were known, had been third Scotland’s top division in 1961. Even in their final campaign, they had finished mid-table in the second tier. Rather, the club was bludgeoned from within, questionable shenanigans stemming from the boardroom bringing it to its knees and beyond

It’s hard to imagine such a fate befalling a major football club these days. At the height of Third Lanark’s troubles, there was no social media through which to mobilise a fanbase and quickly share information. The morally questionable – although highly effective and now widespread – tactic of placing the club into administration was also not an option. That practice didn’t coming into effect in the UK until the Insolvency Act was passed into legislation in 1986.

Ultimately, Third Lanark disappeared from the Scottish footballing landscape because of the behaviour of its custodians. Not because of its playing staff and certainly not because of its supporters. It’s a complex, tragic and often-absurd tale that I have been privilege to write about in my upcoming book The Ghosts of Cathkin Park, set to be published on September 2, 2021, by Arena Sport Books.

It’s a true story of greed, corruption and malpractice which, by ludicrous, grim coincidence, occurred in the midst of one of Scottish football’s brightest summers.

More than that, however, it’s a cautionary tale for all football fans, a reminder to constantly question and hold to account those entrusted with the privilege of running your club. The alternative? The alternative is Cathkin Park, which, to this day, still sits in Glasgow’s south-side, a haunting, abandoned reminder of what was but is no more.

Stand there, on the decaying, overgrown terraces or in the centre circle of the pitch, and you can hear them. The crunching tackles. The barked orders from the touchlines. The shrill blasts of the referees whistle. The guttural roars of the fans.

They echo in perpetuity; not forgotten but gone nonetheless.

Aye. Big Jock was right.

Michael McEwan is a journalist from Glasgow. He is the Assistant Editor of PSP Media Group’s portfolio of sports titles, which include Bunkered, Scotland’s highest circulating golf magazine. He is a former winner of both the RBS Young Sportswriter of the Year and Evening Times Young Football Journalist of the Year awards and the author of Running the Smoke: 26 First-Hand Accounts of Running the London Marathon. His new book, The Ghosts of Cathkin Park, will be published in September 2021.

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