Saturday, June 22, 2024

Finances and fitness show Rangers can’t neglect Europe in pursuit of Celtic

Must read

Some believe Steven Gerrard, plotting his third and likely definitive season in charge at Rangers, should forget about European football this year in pursuit of the Scottish Premiership title.

Reduce the number of midweek matches and limit the air miles clocked up, increase the rest period and enhance the time spent coaching on the training pitch. The conclusion? Fewer distractions focuses minds.

The correlation between exiting Europe early and enjoying more domestic success would appear to be tenuous, however. Even if it did hold true, discarding the most lucrative competition in which you compete is a luxury Rangers cannot afford.

Conflict and hypocrisy are at the heart of Rangers’ relationship with the Europa League. They have thrived on the bigger stage but those performances have also made their failure to replicate that form against lesser opposition in Scotland more troublesome to explain.

Going toe to toe with teams such as Porto and Feyenoord with a tactically astute team has also showcased Gerrard’s managerial abilities — even if it has masked his failure to win a trophy.

Europe is viewed by many as a bonus that is expendable, a byproduct of the thirst to see Rangers claim their first league title since 2011. As they prepare to face Willem II in the third round of Europa League qualifying, the myth that this is a free hit needs to be addressed.

It is a short-sighted logic. In a sporting sense, it overestimates the demands of the schedule this season. In a commercial sense, it underestimates how crucial it is to the club’s finances. The world is getting used to “new normals” and if Rangers are to build a sustainable club, the Europa League group stage has to be the minimum expectation now.

One of the main arguments against a deep run in the competition is that the schedule becomes so packed it is detrimental to their league form.

And in the previous two seasons, the four rounds of qualifying made for a gruelling schedule at the start of the season.

Gerrard’s first game against Shkupi in July 2018 was the first of 13 games in 53 days. After the second leg against Osijek, they alternated between league and European duty for over a month.

Gerrard was establishing his style with a new group of players, so they did remarkably well to come through that period as strong as they did. But late goals conceded in draws away to Aberdeen and Motherwell, along with a lethargic 1-0 defeat to Celtic, suggested the international break in September came at the right time. They looked tired.

They have played 33 European games since the start of that season. It is a huge number that has given way to a whole range of assumptions and deductions relating to fitness, mental fatigue, lack of rotation and squad depth but apart from that early spell during qualification, it has never seemed to be an issue.

Furthermore, it is unfair to compare it to the different circumstances this season. Qualifying kicked off on August 18. Rather than having to return to training in mid-June with little recuperation time (as was planned before COVID-19 hit), they have had a three-month lay-off followed by more than 13 weeks of training.

Qualifying rounds have been reduced to single-leg ties this season, reducing their match-count, and Rangers entered at the second round rather than the first this year, with an extremely comfortable 5-0 win over Lincoln Red Imps.

In many ways, the competition is only now starting, with Rangers just 180 minutes away from sealing a place in the group stage for a third consecutive year. That does not seem like such a strenuous undertaking that it should make the following games against Motherwell and Ross County insurmountable.

Has it been causing a hangover in domestic football anyway? The statistics suggest not.

Rangers’ domestic record after Europe

Wins Draws Losses


Qualifying games




Group stage games





Qualifying games




Group stage games




Knockout games




When they got to the group stage in 2018-19, they won five out of the six games straight after a European tie. The only game they lost was the League Cup semi-final to Aberdeen, a game in which Umar Sadiq was the only option to replace the suspended Alfredo Morelos.

It is incomprehensible to claim it harmed last season. Of the 11 games they played following a Europa League game before the winter break, they won 10. Their only loss came against Celtic when they opted for a tactical tweak that lacked any incision. If anything, you would have imagined the euphoria of a late winner against Legia Warsaw to make the group stage would have lifted them more as it seemed to have on most occasions.

In plain, fitness has never been an issue under Gerrard, who made it a priority when he arrived.

How important is it to finances?

The financial boost it gives the club cannot be underestimated. The latest accounts published in November 2019, despite not accounting for the entire competition, stated that European football had brought in £14.3 million between prize money, broadcast rights and match receipts over the past year.

Turnover increased to £53.2 million, an increase of 63 per cent on the previous year. It still leaves Rangers trailing Celtic whose latest figures showed revenue of £83.4 million in 2019, a decrease of 17.9 per cent from £101.6 million in 2018.

The last time Celtic didn’t experience group stage football in either European competition was in 2010-11. That consistency has built a solid business plan that allows for flexibility depending on whether they are in the riches of the Champions League or not.

If it is the second-tier competition, then Celtic have been able to sell a prized asset — as happened with Fraser Forster in 2014-15, Virgil van Dijk in 2015-16, Moussa Dembele and Stuart Armstrong in 2018-19 and Kieran Tierney in 2019-20 — although there have been other big sales, such as Victor Wanyama, in years they have made it. It is part of the “Mr Micawber” approach to economics employed by Dermot Desmond and Peter Lawwell.

Rangers are still rebuilding but Celtic have pushed ahead in the time since 2012. In the year until June 2011, Celtic’s revenue was £52.56 million, which was £9.16 million less than the year before (a 14.8 per cent reduction). In 2010, the last accounts published before the club imploded, Rangers announced revenues of £53.6 million (up £16.6 million from the previous season), so they were in similar ballparks at one point.

COVID-19 has interrupted the planning and forecasts of all business across all industries. It may have set back the self-sustainability of the club, as former chairman Dave King said at November’s AGM, but turning a profit still has to be a goal that is achieved after years of loss-making. The latest shortfall was £10 million, albeit a large part of that was comprised of one-off investment in upgrading the facilities and legal fees spent battling Sports Direct.

King said: “The obvious consequence of our on-field ambition is that your board would need to approve spending significantly above what we earn for an indeterminate period, while simultaneously ensuring funding was put in place to allow for this over expenditure.

“Put simply, if we couldn’t secure funding, we couldn’t incur losses. Without losses, we would be consigned to failure on the pitch.”

The finances in Scotland are not lucrative. The Scottish Professional Football League has a pot of £25 million to distribute throughout the four divisions. Winning the league brings in £3.35 million and finishing runners-up wins £2.3 million.

Participation in the Europa League won’t be as lucrative this season with fans still not allowed in, as it stands, but the prize money alone earned Rangers more than £7 million last season. Qualification to the group stage and two victories after that would surpass the total received for winning the league over 38 games.

Rangers prize money

Prize money

Scottish Premiership





Europa League

Group stage qualification


Per win


Per draw


Group winners


Group runners-up


Knockout qualification

Last 32


Last 16


Eventually, Rangers need to access the riches of the Champions League but to do that requires consistent performance in Europe.

Scotland earned the seventh most co-efficient points of any nation last year and is now in 14th position overall. That was enough to secure two Champions League spots from 2021-22 but it is vitally important that the country puts in another strong showing this season.

As the overall co-efficient is calculated by combining the total of the past five seasons, another campaign where they achieve between six and 10 points would go some way to stabilising their numbers as it would replace the 2015-16 total of just three.

In an ideal world, Rangers would have seven days between every game and only use the same 11 players but any notions of idealism vanished six months ago. European Club Association (ECA) president and Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli estimates the COVID-19 pandemic has already taken £3.7 billion out of football.

Rangers need to be in Europe year in, year out. It may not seem the most important competition on the face of it but in terms of stature, finances and long-term accessibility to the Champions League, there can be no years off to concentrate on being top dog in your own back yard.

(Photo: Fran Santiago/Getty Images)

Latest article