Saturday, February 22, 2014

Scotland at its forth 'reformed' season. Hardly the game improved. May be their were some benefits in terms of financial stability, but one sure result was rapidly becoming clear fragmentation of the clubs – a small core of 'big' clubs, located in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, and Aberdeen, followed by small fry just happy to reach or stay in Premier League, and the rest - rabble, relegated to the lower half of First Division and the Second Division. Scottish football was always dominated by two giants, yet, in the past various others were able to hold their ground, to win a trophy here and there – the days of relative parity were obviously gone. The constant massive exodus of talent reduced the local championship to almost nothing, reforms or no reforms. Perhaps the only excitement came from shuffling – some 'better' clubs went down in the initial reduction of the premier division and so far unable to return to their 'rightful' place. To a point, that was the intrigue in the second tier: three clubs competed for two promotional spots. The rest of the league played no role... even at the bottom the outsiders accepted early their fate. Dumbarton finished 4th with 49 points. 7 points ahead of the 5th... and 8 points behind the 3rd. This result speaks enough for the whole league. Dundee finished 3rd – they fought, but luck was not on their side, missing promotion for a second consecutive year. Dundee scored astonishing 91 goals in their 39 championship games, but they ended a point short. Heart of Midlothian and Morton clinched 58 points – Dundee finished with 57. The Hearts were 'mistakenly' down there – relegated the previous year, they immediately earned promotion back to Premier League. Not overwhelmingly, but expedient enough. Another club bested them on better goal difference – Morton.
Happy champions, no doubt, but not much otherwise. Their glory days were in the misty past and the 'new history' already put a stamp on the club: happy to win the second division and earn promotion. Time played its other joke on the club too – 'Morton' means almost nothing today: in 1994 the club officially became Greenock Morton. Retroactively, this name appears in statistics publsihed today – but it was just Morton in the real 1977-78. Going up, hoping to stay up.
Morton and Hearts were going to take the places of outsiders: just like in the second league, the bottom of the Premier League was uncontested...

Clydebank 'reserved' the last 10th place early kept any possible challengers away – they earned measly 19 points in 36 games. Lovely slogan on their shield, but... neither 'labore', nor 'scientia' helped.
Ayr United was better only when compared to Clydebank – they soared 5 points above the last team. In the same time they ended 6 points behind the 8th placed St. Mirren. The new league format quickly sifted out the 'unfit'... Ayr United was steadily going down the table the previous two seasons and Clydebank, promoted in 1977, did not survive at all. Not even faintly competitive.
The other 'newcomer' from 1976-77 was a 'success story'...
St. Mirren finished 8th, that is, just above the relegation zone. They left Clydebank and Ayr United in the dust. Yet, in the same time they were 3 points behind the 7th placed Partick Thistle. The club was joyous and considered the season very strong.
Here are the heroes of survival, minus one. A prime example of the new reality... only three years ago St. Mirren was steady member of First Division. True, not a strong team, most often found in the lower half of the table, but regulars. Now they were boasting just for playing top flight football – and escaping relegation was 'success'. Many a club was to discover new 'pride', but as the things were, St. Mirren played well. They really improved. They were building hope. And it was because of a man not on the picture above – a young coach, called Alex Ferguson. He lifted the club from second league and everybody was happy. This Ferguson was 'mysteriously' sacked in May 1978... as it turned out, the club discovered that the promising coach sneakily negotiated with Aberdeen. Hearing that, St. Mirren fired him at once for breach of contract. Ferguson considered he was wronged and brought St. Mirren to tribunal. He lost his case. The whole story did not attract any attention – some mischief done by roguish young unknown.
Much more interesting was what happened to venerated Jock Stein. Celtic had abominable season. The decline was going on for some time already, but still Celtic ended with a double the 1976-77 season. And the next year they really sunk... not a single trophy, but the worst was the championship – they finished 5th in the 10-club league! And they had almost 20 points less than their arch-enemy Rangers. It was their worst ending since 1964-65, when they were 8th in the old 18-team league. Jock Stein was asked to resign... he did, on the understanding that he was going to take honorable administrative position in the club for which he contributed so much for so many years. It was not what the club had in mind and Stein resigned entirely. He was thinking retirement – but was persuaded to change his mind and work for a few more years. But not for Celtic – a glorious era ended with him.
Familiar names finished above Celtic – Hibernian was 4th, more or less, normal place for them. Strong enough to be counted among the best, but still not really strong to challenge the best. Hibernian bested Celtic by a point, but were still 3 points behind the bronze medalists.

The team was nothing special – may be descent, but no more than that. Something else is more interesting – perhaps Hibernian were the first club in Scotland and England to use shirt adds. Early birds surely and it will be interesting to find out on what legal grounds they did that: British football resisted sponsor's names, but there were subtle differences between English and Scottish approaches – and the Scottish were more adventurous and 'progressive'.
Shirt adds did not help Hibernian – Dundee United outpaced them with their 'classic' plain shirts and grabbed 3rd place.

Those were strong years for Dundee United – after surviving, at the expense of their city rivals, the tribulations of the new reduced league, they quickly went up. 4th in 1976-77, now 3rd. Unfortunately, this was not a squad with a potential for greater things – rather, it was clear that they will stay in secondary position: whatever good players emerged will quickly move to English clubs, or the Scottish grands. Third place was the most this squad would do – they were entirely out of the race for the title.
A two-team race for first place – Glasgow Rangers vs Aberdeen. The leaders were clearly above the rest of the league – Dundee United was left 13 points behind and the combined losses of the top two were still less than those accumulated by the third placed: 10 vs 12. Two points were the whole difference between champions and silver medalists. The contenders lost 5 matches each and the difference. Aberdeen had the best defensive record, Rangers – the best attack. And attack was the decisive factor: Aberdeen tied more games than Rangers, hence, winning two less. They finished second.

Aberdeen was rising - 3rd place the previous year, now second, barely missing the first. The squad was not exactly full of stars, even potential ones, but it was solid enough and working well. Perhaps the new league format suited Aberdeen best, for the small league made the club attractive destination for players omitted by the English clubs and the two Scottish grands, but otherwise good or at least promising – players, who would have stayed in smaller clubs in the big old league, but now had to chose between first and second division football. Aberdeen was going up, that was the whole point, though. Of the squad, perhaps the most interesting name was Jim Leighton – the young goalkeeper was rising along with the team and soon was to be much more than just promising new name. He was to be familiar name for a long, long time. As for the club, this was their best year since 1971-72, when they finished second for the last time. Not just matching their old success, but besting it, for back then they finished 10 points behind the champions. Now they almost won.