Splitting the Old Firm. It rarely happens, but it gets people talking – especially at this stage in the season, when one ‘non-Old Firm’ team has made a particularly bright start.
Twelve games into this campaign and Motherwell found themselves wedged between Rangers and Celtic at the top of the table. The Lanarkshire side have been playing some of the best football in the country and picked up some impressive results, but history dictates that it won’t last.
Last year it was Hearts who pushed the Glasgow sides all the way until Christmas. At the turn of the year they were just three points from the summit of the table and riding on the crest of a nine game unbeaten run. Vladimir Romanov’s prophecy of Hearts playing in the Champions League didn’t seem so ridiculous at that stage, especially when they beat Rangers at the end of January.
Almost inevitably, however, the wheels came off. Just four wins in the second half of the season drew them much closer to the rest of the top six than the top two. This was an embarrassing collapse in both form and results which saw them barely clinch third place and ultimately cost manager Jim Jefferies his job.
The season before last was even more interesting, as two sides showed the audacity to give Rangers and Celtic a run for their money in the early stages. Hibernian and Dundee United both impressed in the first round of games and just four points separated fourth from first in early December. Pundits were almost falling over one another trying to champion the cause of both these underdogs. In a season that saw Celtic sack Tony Mowbray after some humiliating defeats it seemed the perfect chance to topple the big two. Alas, it was not to be as Rangers surged away to clinch the title, neither United nor Hibs maintaining their promising start, and a poor Celtic finished 18 points clear of third place.
Previous seasons have shown similar gulfs between the Old Firm and the rest. Only 2005-6 differs, when Hearts enjoyed a massive cash injection that saw them finish just a point clear of an abysmal Rangers side. Every year we hear claims of “this is the worst Rangers/Celtic team in decades” but each time the table in May still has Rangers and Celtic at the top. The harsh reality is that the non-Old Firm teams can’t afford the luxury of strength in depth. When form dips, or injuries set in, the big sides have quality replacements; Hearts bemoaned the injury of Kevin Kyle as their goals dried up last season. One player’s absence brought the whole side down.
Another sadly true cliché is that the Old Firm “know how to win a title." A capitulation like that of Hearts’ last season just would not happen in Glasgow, or so we are led to believe.
So while it is nice to dream of pushing for the title, to imagine the Champions League anthem blaring out at Fir Park and to hope for something better than 'best of the rest', it helps to be realistic. Two heavy defeats at the hands of the Old Firm have no doubt kept the Steelmen’s feet on the ground.
With two inexperienced managers in charge in Glasgow, and Celtic already having lost more games than they did in the whole of last season, it’s hard not to get carried away. Everyone loves an underdog story but history has that nasty habit of repeating itself, especially in the goldfish bowl that is Scottish football.