By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Nov 28, 2011) US Soccer Players — Rugby Park seats 18,121 and far less were in attendance when Kilmarnock beat Rangers 1-0 on Sunday in the Scottish Premier League. Though you might not have thought so if you watched the Rangers TV team’s postgame coverage, Rangers remain top of the table by four points over old friends Celtic level on games played with 16. If dropping an away game is a crisis, it’s one that happens at least a couple times a season for Rangers.
What was far more telling was the absence of fans at Rugby Park. I’m not going to pretend to have any insight into the local happenings in Kilmarnock, but it’s worth pointing out that the town itself has a population of just under 45,000. With that in mind, if there’s a disconnect between the club and the fan base, it’s likely going to be obvious. With Kilmarnock skirting relegation in 2010, one would think last season’s 6th-place finish would be enough to get people back on board. Yet Rugby Park didn’t reflect that on what turned out to be a big day for the home team.
For a working example of what the Old Firm is facing trying to raise their game against the limits of the Scottish Premier League, Kilmarnock – Rangers isn’t a bad one. After all, it’s been 17 years since that happened, and it was a shutout that leaves Rangers trying to figure out if they have bigger problems than they expected without Kilmarnock product Steven Naismith.
Kilmarnock isn’t a strong draw, and they’re used to SPL crowds of under 10,000. But they put more into their stadium to see Hearts last month than the league leaders. The Rangers – Kilmarnock fixture at Ibrox drew 43,761.
Rangers in transition is nothing new, but it’s in a season where they’ve already gotten enough unnecessary reminders that they’re short on players. The American infusion helped, without a doubt. Though he was out with a pulled hamstring, Carlos Bocanegra has been a regular since signing with the club, and Alejandro Bedoya has seen his minutes grow. Maurice Edu was already an established member of Rangers’ first choice XI.
American fans tend to take notice of teams with American players, as if Rangers needed the help in North America. The Old Firm remains a pay-per-view draw here in a way that other teams simply aren’t. That limits the ability of those not willing to pay for their Saturday and Sunday morning soccer to actually see televised live games, but it creates a unique situation for fans of both clubs. There’s arguably more connection with Rangers and Celtic than any two teams simply because their North American fans have to gather in bars and pubs to see the games.
It’s telling that these two clubs are also ones that look at the league around them and what it takes to really compete in Europe, and point to a troubling recent past, present, and future. The Old Firm problem is nothing new. Without more money, they can’t buy the kind of players they need. Without those players, Europe is always a reach. With the SPL not high on the list of the world’s glory leagues, they need the likes of Kilmarnock, the Edinburgh clubs, Motherwell, and Aberdeen to raise their profiles so the Scottish Premier League product as a whole improves.
Yet this has quickly turned into a Rangers and Celtic problem. The rest of the league needs them in theory, but the reality might be closer to what Rangers and Celtic have long argued. That regional circuit sometimes referred to as the Atlantic League or moving to the Premier League. What we’re seeing is a holding pattern that has shown itself capable of burning through season after season without much in the way of change. Rangers can skirt bankruptcy and still win trophies. Celtic sits in second, waiting for their next run of silverware.
Though the Premier League’s management talked about an increase of 28% in television numbers domestically when announcing their new TV deal last week, you have to wonder how long this show will last.
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