Date: 29th May 2008 at 12:30pm
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The question of ‘who is the third force?’ has been much-debated subject in Scottish football for many years, and one which, if most of us are honest, we end up feeling more than a little bit embarrassed about in the end.

Why? Well it’s simple really – surely those clubs trying to stake a claim for this title really should be aiming for higher than third? I’ve personally never understood any supporter of Hearts, Hibs or Aberdeen (who are the only three candidates here) attempting to boast about having this title, as to me it says much about their club’s distinct lack of ambition.

Sadly though, despite Rangers and Celtic being as poor lately as they have probably since the early-mid 1980s (which was the last time that we could truly say that there was consistently strong competition for the title from other sides in the league), it appears very unlikely that anyone outwith Glasgow is going to emerge as a genuine contender for the SPL championship, certainly in the foreseeable future.

So once again the three clubs I’ve mentioned, along with others who have challenged for European places in the SPL lately e.g. Motherwell and Dundee United, look likely to be aiming to finish the ‘best of the rest’ in the coming season. But just who are this country’s biggest club if you discount Rangers and Celtic?

To answer this question, you first of all have to determine what you mean by a ‘big’ club. Some of you might remember that we composed an article last year debating which club is the biggest in the world and part of that involved working out this definition. Although it’s obviously still open to interpretation, most of us agreed then that a football club’s size is defined by a combination of three things: fanbase, wealth and achievement on the field of play. All extremely variable I have to admit, so it would be fair to say that ascertaining our answer here will be far from an ‘exact science’!

But assuming that these are our criteria, which Scottish club do we think can tick these boxes most prominently? In my opinion, as stated above, there are only three clubs in Scotland outwith the Old Firm who can stake a serious claim here: Hearts, Hibs and Aberdeen. Dundee United used to get mentioned during debates like these in years gone by, especially in the days of the ‘New Firm’, but although it’s true that they did have a period of success in the ’80s, I don’t think even the most ardent supporter of that club could claim that they are bigger than the other three. Their fanbase is very small for a start, perhaps even smaller than their city rivals Dundee actually, and despite their fine achievements under Jim McLean during that golden era for the North-East, their overall trophy haul doesn’t stand up very well either. The only thing that they may have over the others currently is that their financial footing is possibly as stable, if not more so than the rest, but because they fall so obviously short in the other two categories, they cannot be considered here.

So let’s first of all compare these three clubs when it comes to fanbase. There are many factors that affect the number of people attending football matches on a regular basis, so I think that it’s important to look at a mixture of average attendances over a sensible period of time (say 10 years?), as well as how many turn out for ‘event’ matches e.g. cup finals, semi-finals and European ties.

Now some would say that the latter should be discounted, as you tend to get your percentage of neutrals coming along and those people who are justifiably referred to as ‘glory-hunters’. I take this point, but in my opinion a club’s fanbase is highly variable, and the biggest factor affecting which way it goes is on-field success. Therefore in order to ascertain how many fans a club has, you HAVE to take the so-called ‘hangers-on’ into account, as they represent the club’s potential in this area. For example, if they go along to a cup semi-final and the team plays well and wins, then they’re very likely to go back to the final. And then equally, if the team subsequently wins the cup in style and starts the following season on fire, then they are also likely to go along to a few league games, hence helping to swell the average attendance.

On average attendances alone over the past ten or so years, there’s probably not an awful lot to choose between the teams. Hearts definitely have the biggest overall average for that timeframe, greatly enhanced of course by the record season-ticket sales of 2005, which the club have been able to kick the proverbial backside out of for nearly three years! However Hearts have also been more successful than the other two clubs during this period, winning two Scottish Cups and generally finishing higher up the league, so you would expect this to be the case.

Generally average attendance figures between these clubs are comparable though, with Hearts and Aberdeen hovering around the 14,000-15,000 mark over the ten-year period, with Hibs very slightly behind I would say. During the ’90s when Aberdeen were still to an extent living off their great achievements of the decade before, average gates at Pittodrie were often a little higher than their Edinburgh counterparts, but in recent times that has changed, and they now tend to get the lowest crowds of the three. But overall I would say that there generally hasn’t been all that much to choose between the clubs, even if many Jambos would strongly argue with that.

But what about the potential to bring in many more fans should any of these clubs start winning league titles again? Well, I think this is where the Edinburgh clubs stand quite well clear of the Dons. Both have an enormous number of those in the ‘glory-hunting’ category, and you only have to look at any cup final that either have been in to see just how many we’re talking about. Going all the way back to 1986 when Hearts contested the Scottish Cup final against Aberdeen, the Hearts fans outnumbered their rivals by two to one, and although it could be argued that because this was Hearts’ first final in a long time and merely ‘just another final’ for that excellent Aberdeen team that it meant more to those of a maroon persuasion, this isn’t the only time we’ve witnessed this. Remember the Scottish Cup semi-final of 1996 at Hampden? Once again we had the same scenario – it was an albeit smaller overall attendance, but once again there were twice as many Hearts fans there as Aberdeen.

Aberdeen fans may claim that there are specific reasons for their fans not turning up for particular matches (it happens), but I’m struggling to think of any occasion when they’ve had as many as 30,000 in attendance, let alone the 40,000+ that Hearts had at Hampden in ’86 or ’06 against Gretna. But I could well be wrong here.

If we also look at the number of Hibs fans turning out for ‘event’ games like these, we can also clearly see that they tend to attract thousands more than Aberdeen. They had well in excess of 30,000 at Hampden for their League Cup win over Dunfermline in 1991, and once again for their defeat in the same competition against Livingston four years ago. However it is true to say that their turnout for the semi-final against Hearts in 2006 was surprisingly disappointing.

Overall (and of course I’m going to be called biased here!) I think Hearts have the best case for saying they have the biggest fanbase. Generally their average attendances have been on at least a par with the other two for a long time now (significantly higher recently), and generally for the really big games they have attracted quite a few more as well. In my opinion if all things were equal (for example if each club achieved exactly the same things over say five years), Hearts would have the biggest crowds out of the three.

Achievement on the field of play? Once again there’s not really an awful lot to choose between the clubs. Over the piece Aberdeen’s domestic record ever so slightly edges it from Hearts – both clubs have the same number of Scottish Cups and League Championships (Hibs also tie on the latter with four titles), but Aberdeen have one more League Cup win to their name. However what sets the Dons apart is that they also have the distinction of being winners of a European trophy – that famous 1983 Cup Winners’ Cup triumph, and they also managed to win the resultant Super Cup trophy that year. It could be argued that Aberdeen’s success all largely came at one time during their history, but regardless of that they get the nod here due to those European exploits.

The final category is the most difficult one of the lot to make a decision on: wealth. I honestly cannot say I know enough about the running of each club and their finances to truly know which one is the richest…….in fact, given that the Hearts owner is the mysterious Vladimir Romanov, can anyone truly say that they do?!

As an outsider looking in, both Hibs and Aberdeen would appear to be pretty well-run clubs these days. Both apparently have their debt under control, but as a result of this they tend to end up selling any player who becomes anything resembling a reasonable asset in order to maintain that. Hearts on the other hand? Who really knows what their real financial position is? We keep hearing about this enormous debt that hangs over them, one that continues to get larger and larger by all accounts, but then the club’s owners tell us that the debt is no longer Hearts’ to worry about and that it will be written off in the fullness of time. It all sounds more than a little dodgy, but if there was no truth in this at all then would the club continue to go out and spend money on players’ wages that would make either of the Old Firm clubs squeamish? Again, who knows? Because the runnings of the club are so secretive I really don’t think there are many people in this country who could answer that question with any real degree of certainty.

So I’m afraid I’m finding it very difficult to pick which club is on the best financial footing. You often get the impression that Aberdeen could potentially be filthy rich if their owner ever decided to really loosen the purse strings, but then isn’t this an Aberdonian we’re talking about?! You could perhaps also say the same about Sir Tom Farmer at Hibs, but both men are probably quite wise in simply keeping their clubs ticking over with the minimum investment required to do that – after all, there are many more areas you can put your money into without all of the uncertainty that comes with the world of football. Hearts would appear to have greater spending power at the moment, but at what eventual cost? We simply don’t know.

So have we actually been able to establish who the genuine ‘third force’ in Scotland is after this nonsensical rambling? I suspect probably not and that the argument is as far from being settled as ever, but it would be good to hear people’s views on the subject – as ever feel free to leave your comments below…….


15 Replies to “Who Really Is Scotland’s Third Biggest Club?”

  • Hearts league championships – 1894-95, 1896-97, 1957-58, 1959-60. Aberdeen’s league championships – 1954?55, 1979?80, 1983?84, 1984?85. Hearts Scottish cups – 1891, 1896, 1901, 1906, 1956, 1998, 2006. Aberdeen’s Scottish cups – 1946?47, 1969?70, 1981?82, 1982?83, 1983?84, 1985?86, 1989?90. Hearts League cups – 1954-55, 1958-59, 1959-60, 1962-63. Aberdeen’s League cups – 1955?56, 1976?77, 1985?86, 1989?90, 1995?96. Aberdeen’s European trophies – 1982-83, 1983-84. To me at least it’s pretty obvious Aberdeen’s successes are much more recent. Five of Hearts trophies were won before Aberdeen existed

  • Yes but it most also be judged on fan base and wealth as said. Rangers have the most trophies in the world but they aren’t even the biggest club in Scotland, never mind Europe or the world. For me it?s Celtic, Hearts, Aberdeen, Rangers in that order.

  • Nah there’s no way you can say Hearts and Aberdeen are bigger than Rangers. They have more fans, more success and more wealth that both of these clubs by far…unfortunately. Agreed that Aberdeen’s trophy haul has been more recent Stood Free but does that actually matter? After all, history also counts towards being traditionally a “big” club.

  • Sorry i meant to put Rangers second there lol. Hibs and United would also be up there though, in terms of big clubs outside the Glasgow two i mean.

  • Can’t agree with that Hoopymo – Utd have always been a provincially small club. Up until comparatively recently (McLean era & a bit before) they were a 2nd division outfit. Their average fanbase still reflects this. Much as it pains me to say it, Hibs are historically a much bigger club than Dundee Utd.

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