NOTE: This article has been updated on the 18th of May 2020 to include the results of the 2019/20 season.
Yet again, the fight for the title in Scotland is non-existent, as Celtic coast to another championship without any real challenge in the absence of Rangers. Even when Rangers were in contention, there hasn’t been any serious third-party contender since Aberdeen in the 80s.
However, beneath the Old Firm duo in the table, there is always a much more exciting battle being fought for 3rd place, or now for 2nd. Over the last fifteen years, 5 different teams have been second only to the Glasgow giants (or better than one in the case of Hearts in 2005/06). The top division of Scottish football would be more exciting without the domination of these two clubs.
I decided to go through all league championships and compile a list of who would be Scotland’s most successful clubs if you were to remove the Old Firm from the equation (including points earned against them) to show how much more dynamic the league title battle could have been.
My methodology was to go back through the league tables and remove results against both Celtic and Rangers from the teams at the top to see who was the best “other” team that season. In 40 seasons removing results against Old Firm teams changed the order of the top teams, so the actual runner-up or winner of the league might not be the winner without the Old Firm clubs. The results also take into account that before 1921/22, teams level on points shared the position, resulting in shared titles. Between then and 1971/72 goal average was used to separate teams, and from then on goal difference is used. 3 points for a win was introduced for the 1994/95 season. The 2019/20 season was also decided on a points-per-game basis due to the coronavirus pandemic which curtailed the season.
At the moment, there have only been 11 champions of Scotland in 123 seasons. This is because the Old Firm have won 105 between them (Rangers 54, Celtic 50). Without the Old Firm, there would be a total of 19 champions. For comparison, England has had 24 champions in its’ footballing history.
In only 5 seasons have both the Old Firm clubs finished outside the top two sides, and in only 1 have neither finished in the top three (in 1964-65 when Rangers finished 5th and Celtic 8th). So removing them from contention changes the history of the game in Scotland significantly.
Here is the current table of teams that have won or been runners-up in the top division in Scotland:
|Heart of Midlothian||4||14|
Note: includes shared title between Dumbarton & Rangers
Without the Old Firm, and the actual order of the all-time winners table changes only slightly at the top. Hearts would still be the most successful non-OF side in the country (a seldom highlighted fact), with Aberdeen and Hibs swapping places. Motherwell would win a total of 13 titles, which is 12 more than they’ve actually won. Kilmarnock would have won 6 more titles; Dundee United would go up to 6 titles from 1, but would also come 2nd in the league 13 further times, which they have never achieved with the Old Firm in the mix. Morton would have won the league 5 times, Airdrie 4 times and Partick Thistle 3 times, something which they have not once managed. Falkirk, St. Mirren, Clyde, Dunfermline, St. Bernard’s, Livingston and Raith Rovers would all have titles to their name that they don’t at the moment. Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that 8 teams would have won 5 or more titles, what could be considered a reasonable benchmark of historical success, whereas only Celtic and Rangers have managed this feat for now.
Here’s the table of winners and runners-up as it would be without the Old-Firm:
|Heart of Midlothian||26||24|
|Queen of the South||0||1|
Note: includes shared titles between Hearts/St. Bernard’s, Hearts/St. Mirren, Clyde/Partick Thistle, Kilmarnock/Morton & Dundee/Hearts and shared runners-up positions between Dundee/Hearts, Hibs/Partick Thistle, Hearts/Hibs
Other interesting feats that would be accomplished include:
- An 8-in-a-row for Motherwell between 1926 and 1934
- A 5-in-a-row for Aberdeen between 2014 and 2019
- Hibs winning a 4-in-a-row twice (1949-53 & 1972-76)
- Airdrie (1922-25), Hearts (1956-59), Kilmarnock (1966-69), Aberdeen (1979-82), Motherwell (2011-14) all achieving 3-in-a-rows.
With the Old Firm teams in contention, only three other teams – Dumbarton (1890-92), Hibs (1950-52) and Aberdeen (1983-85) have won two titles in a row.
Also of interest, Livingston would have won the league in their first-ever season in the Premier League in 2001-02 and Hearts would have pipped Dundee United to the title in 2010-11 by one goal on goal difference (as they scored one more goal).
Here is a full summary of league titles in Scotland, including the non-Old Firm winner and runner-up and the actual winner and runner-up:
|Season||Non-OF Winner||Non-OF Runner-Up||Actual Winner||Actual Runner-Up|
|1892-93||St. Mirren||Third Lanark||Celtic||Rangers|
|1903-04||Third Lanark||Hearts||Third Lanark||Hearts|
|1904-05||Third Lanark||Hibs/Partick Thistle||Celtic||Rangers|
|1938-39||Hearts||Queen of the South||Rangers||Celtic|
|1978-79||Dundee United||St. Mirren||Celtic||Rangers|
|1982-83||Dundee United||Aberdeen||Dundee United||Celtic|
Note: No Championship held between 1939 & 1946 owing to World War II, 2019-20 decided on points-per-game basis due to coronavirus pandemic
With the much-discussed topic of Celtic and Rangers moving into other competitions, like competing in the English league system, dead in the water for several different reasons – it is only a hypothetical question as to how exciting Scotland’s top football league would be without the two. But I think looking at the history books would show that for neutral and non-Old Firm fans that a top division without Celtic and Rangers would be far more exciting than with them.