Charles Dickens was telling a tale of two towns when he penned one of literature's most famous opening lines. But the Dickensian dichotomy of simultaneously being the best and worst of times can be applied within a single city's worth of Scottish soccer supporters this season. In a strange and often surreal situation, the two halves of Glasgow's famous Old Firm now find themselves at opposite ends of the league ladder.
Still riding high are Celtic, who booked a berth in the Champions League group stage this week with a comfortable home win over Swedish side Helsingborgs. Unbeaten in their first three domestic matches, they sit atop the Scottish Premier standings. Best of times? Well, it's early, but it sure ain't bad. And you'd need a high powered telescope to peer down the standings to see where the local lads from Rangers have landed.
If you haven't been following the wretched saga that saw Scotland's most successful team slide into insolvency and relegation, here's how it went down. A pileup of debts under two ownership groups, and some questionable accounting that led to a legal battle over as much as $100 million in unpaid taxes, combined to plunge the venerable team into financial administration and, eventually, liquidation. Creditors came out short, but for less than $9 million, English businessman Charles Green was able to buy up the brand, history and assets of the old team, including its sizeable Glasgow stadium, Ibrox, and state of the art training facility.
What Green couldn't buy, at least not right away, was a berth in the top flight of Scottish soccer. As a condition of the new team's acceptance from Scotland's league and governing body, the reborn Rangers were demoted all the way down to the fourth tier. As The New York Times noted, it's the equivalent of the mighty Yankees playing a Single-A schedule in the low minor leagues.
That harsh but fair penalty, free from favourable treatment for a longtime titan of the Scottish game, wasn't exactly music to the ears of TV executives, suddenly deprived of the ratings bonanza that every meeting between Rangers and Celtic represents, a fixture so valuable that many feel it keeps the entire league afloat.
With nothing to do but accept their fate, so it was that Rangers found themselves opening a new season on the road at tiny Peterhead FC. The unheralded Blue Toon are the pride of a small fishing town on the Northeast coast whose current stadium holds just 4,000 fans (and whose previous home field was sold off so it could be turned into a Safeway grocery store).
Their squad depleted (although not yet decimated) by the defections of several players who'd decided life would be better elsewhere, Rangers still seemed superior to their opponents. But only on paper. Rangers goalie Neil Alexander, Scotland's national team keeper, was beaten by two opposition shooters who spend more time working at their day jobs as a plumber and marine engineer, respectively, and Rangers required a late equalizer to slink home to Glasgow with a disappointing 2-2 tie.
Things went more smoothly the following week in the home curtain raiser against East Stirlingshire, a team featured in a book about Britain's worst soccer team. After a rousing chorus of Bob Marley's 'Three Little Birdies,' with particular emphasis on the line 'Everything's gonna be all right,' the packed house of 50,000 fans roared their approval as Rangers routed the visitors 5-1. Only one crowd across the soccer-crazed UK was bigger that day: the 60,000 who watched Premier League stalwarts Arsenal play to a 0-0 draw in London.
Out on the road again the following weekend, Ranger swung south to face Berwick, the only English entrant in the Scottish league and a team whose home field is ringed by a dirt track used for motorcycle racing when there's no soccer going on. To Rangers, who long harboured dreams of leaving Scotland behind to test themselves against the best of the English leagues, this was a cruel debut across the border. And unable to find full throttle again, Rangers were held to a 1-1 tie by their lowly hosts.
With more talent heading out the door (former TFC midfielder Maurice Edu made the move to England's Stoke City this week), and a long winter of sloppy pitches and scrappy opponents staring them in the face, these are far from the best of times for the famous blue shirts of Rangers, whose record 54 league titles are more than any other team in the world.
There's been talk that a three-year fight to get back to the top tier won't be necessary, that provisions will be made to expand the Premier League next season and find a place for Rangers rather closer to the top. Until then, they'll have to look to the other side of Glasgow in envy as Celtic contest the Champions League and push for a repeat title in Scotland's Premier League. For proud, partisan Rangers supporters, those will likely be the worst times of all.