The relationship between Celtic and Leicester City has become an unexpected symbol for the respective fortunes of English and Scottish football.
On 1 June 2000, despite last-minute attempts by Leicester to tie manager Martin O’Neill to a new contract, he ultimately succumbed to the temptation of managing Celtic, where he went on to become equally as popular and successful.
Celtic were not only able to tempt away one of the Premier League’s most well-regarded managers, but they were able to secure some of its most prolific players, including Chris Sutton and John Hartson. This lavish spending was actually outdone by their neighbours Rangers, who shelled out £16 million for Chelsea hero Tore André Flo at the end of that year.
19 years later and Celtic’s manager Brendan Rodgers has jumped ship to Leicester, leading Celtic fans to accuse him of trading “Immortality for Mediocrity.” A case of green-tinted spectacles perhaps, but it is an understandably hard pill to swallow for the Celtic faithful that Rodgers regards a mid-table Premier League outfit as a bigger job than the number one role at one of world football’s most storied and well-supported clubs.
However, it was Rangers’ administration and demotion in 2012 which encapsulated the extent to which money in the Scottish game had dried up, with stagnation the result.
Celtic have cruised to seven consecutive league titles and look well on course for an eighth. The Bhoys’ own malaise under Ronny Deila led to the brief entertainment of clubs such as St Mirren, Ross County, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and St Johnstone winning cup silverware. However, Rodgers’ arrival reinvigorated Celtic, at the expense of none-Old Firm sides enduring a distinct sense of being put back into their box.
Meanwhile, there is no need to chronicle the meteoric rise of the Premier League. The development of the top six has led to (worthy) accusations of the Premier League becoming an increasingly uninteresting closed shop, with all too many title-races becoming processions (this season’s battle aside).
In another ironic twist, it is Leicester’s own miraculous title win which has allowed the Premier League’s marketers to cling onto a semblance of competitiveness and openness beyond the cycle of the same old teams.
Rodgers’ return to England’s top flight is unlikely to alter the course of the Premier League’s history – his chance to make such an impact likely slipped away along with Steven Gerard’s right leg at Anfield in 2014.
But what of Scotland?
The SPFL has undoubtedly lost a huge name, although Gerrard’s own transition into management will ensure that casual observers continue to take at least a passing interest. However, while Neil Lennon’s return to the Parkhead dugout may delight the Hoops faithful, a re-run of Lennon leading the Scottish champions is unlikely to captivate the neutral.
In spite of the above, there are reasons for followers of Scottish football to be cheerful, not least because this season has undoubtedly been the most enjoyable since at least the start of the decade. Storylines abound, from Hearts’ incredible run out of the gates and subsequent collapse, to the sterling work of Steve Clarke at Kilmarnock and of course Gerrard’s improvement of Rangers. Just a few years ago, Mark Warburton seemed to regard his switch to second-tier Nottingham Forest as an upgrade, but the presence of Gerrard has helped Rangers move some way closer to becoming the force they once were.
For now, it seems as though Scottish football has taken a step backwards. Perhaps its most important figure has departed, to be replaced by a man who captures the imagination of Celtic loyalists but few others. That being said, there is no reason to discount the possibility that this backwards step may have been necessary in order to pave the way for a greater leap forward towards a rediscovered competitiveness.
Image: Brian Hargadon via Flickr