SPL teams in Europe: Not your so-called ‘Mickey Mouse’ performances

Kieran Caw analyses the performances of SPL teams in Europe, and disputes the notion that Scottish domestic football is just a glorified Mickey Mouse league.

Scottish football seems to come under no end of criticism from outsiders glancing in. The SPL is often branded a ‘pub league’ and a league full of ‘amateurs’. Granted, it isn’t the best league in Europe but nor is it worst. In fact, it is far from the worst and the record in European competitions over the past ten years proves that.

As ever, the Scottish leagues have been dominated by two clubs for years – a ‘two team league’ (or a one team league at present) is the most frequently used phrase to describe the SPL, forgetting that La Liga is dominated by Barcelona and Real Madrid, the Belgian league by Anderlecht, the Portuguese league by Benfica and Porto, the Bundesliga by Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund and so on.

Scottish clubs have a history of successful journeys in Europe throughout the years, winning and losing their fair share. From Celtic becoming the first British side to win the European cup, to Celtic competing in another European cup final, to Rangers and Aberdeen winning the European cup winners up, to Dundee United being the only side to knock Barcelona out in a European competition over two legs (until this season), to UEFA Cup finals including both Celtic and Rangers along with countless other special triumphs.

This trend continues into the present day (mostly of glorious failure) and although no trophies have been won recently, the achievements of simply reaching latter rounds of European competitions are great feats considering the size of Scotland and the budget of Scottish teams compared to others around the continent.

In 2003, Celtic embarked on an extraordinary journey in the UEFA Cup – so much so that they reached the final in Seville only to lose out in an unlucky 3-2 defeat to Jose Mourinho’s Porto. Celtic triumphed against very good sides at the time including Celta Vigo, Blackburn, Liverpool and Boavista.

Firmly dubbed as underdogs, teams and pundits underestimated Celtic on several occasions with Greame Souness, Blackburn’s manager at the time, saying the first leg was like “men against boys” and that they would take care of Martin O’Neill’s side in the return leg. Unsurprisingly, Celtic won that leg 2-0 and progressed through to the later rounds. After this, pundits claimed Henrik Larsson was not a ‘prolific goalscorer’ before lining up against Liverpool – a game in which he opened the scoring with two minutes gone.

The miraculous venture ended in defeat after Larsson’s two goals weren’t enough to seal the victory.

Within a year, Celtic found themselves edging closer to another European final once again. They knocked out Barcelona due to an excellent Alan Thompson goal at Celtic Park. Progression halted after Villarreal won 3-1 on aggregate, who would then go on to lose 1-0 to eventual champions, Valencia.

A final and quarter-final in two seasons for a team from Scotland is far from ‘mickey mouse’ material and neither is what was achieved in the years ahead until the present day.

Rangers found themselves competing in the UEFA Cup group stages in 2004/2005 but to no avail as the failed to progress any further. Likewise, Celtic finished bottom of their Champions League group including Barcelona, AC Milan and Shakhtar Donetsk. However, Rangers stormed into Europe’s elite competition in the 2005/2006 season – fiercely competing among the best sides in world football. Alex McLeish’s side finished second in a group containing Inter Milan (who finished first), Porto and Artmedia Bratislava. Unfortunately, Rangers found themselves narrowly defeated by Villarreal in the last sixteen.

By now, Scottish clubs progressing beyond the group stages was becoming a habit as Celtic managed to do so in the following two seasons, along with Rangers equaling Celtic’s near miss in the UEFA Cup Final in 2008.

Gordon Strachan guided Celtic into the last sixteen of the Champions League for the first time since the competitions reformation and repeated the success for a second consecutive year. Firstly, Celtic found themselves very, very unlucky – the recurring theme – not to go one step further in the competition as they managed to take AC Milan into extra time, only to be knocked out by a wonderful solo goal from Kaka. To put Celtic’s great effort into context, AC Milan went onto win the Champions League that very season. The following season, Barcelona stood in Celtic’s way. Again, Strachan’s side put up a great fight, twice taking the lead at Celtic Park in a 3-2 defeat. Not only have Scottish clubs been over performing in European competition, they did so with grit and determination – traits no amount of money can buy.

Without rambling on, Aberdeen also put up a great fight in the UEFA Cup drawing 2-2 with Bayern Munich at home. Thereafter, Celtic and Rangers have both reached the group stages twice and Celtic have also reached the Europa League group stages twice since 2008, not forgetting their wonderful campaign taking them to a third last 16 tie (only to be put out by the Italian champions). However, they results must not mar the outstanding achievement of beating Barcelona once and Spartak Moscow twice. Not bad for a team playing in a pub league.

The SPL will come under fierce criticism from English football fans (usually ignorant ones) without having watched a match or taking a great deal of interest in the league at all. By no means am I suggesting the SPL is anywhere near on par with the English top flight but instead making the point that, considering the differences in revenue in leagues and population in countries, the SPL isn’t as bad as most make if out to be. Sure, if the SPL was funded with billions year-upon-year I’m sure the league would also attract some of the world’s biggest names. I mean, a few of the Scottish clubs are much bigger (not better) than a large amount of EPL sides – the only current difference being lack of finance.

So before slating the SPL, I suggest some should look at the facts and figures (such as Celtic receiving under £2.5m for winning the SPL and the fact that teams like Norwich will pick up £60m in TV revenue alone) and then go on to acknowledge the achievements by Scottish clubs in Europe over time, especially since 2003.

Sport Is Everything. Kieran Caw.

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