Craig Levein needed binoculars rather than his glasses to see runners-up Celtic after Hearts finished best of the rest 17 years ago.
The former Jambos boss assembled an impressive side on a limited budget in his first spell in charge at Tynecastle.
He led his club to third place that season and fifth the following term to earn his move to manage Leicester City.
But in the first of those campaigns, in 2002/03, the gap between the Old Firm and the others was as big as it’s ever been – a staggering 34 points separating them.
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It took goal difference to split Rangers and Celtic on a thrilling final day of the season with the Glasgow giants both finishing on 97 points with the Jambos the next nearest.
But one member of that Hearts squad reckons the gulf could be even bigger next season due to the devastating financial impact of the coronavirus crisis.
Roddy McKenzie spent the first half of that season between the sticks for Hearts before injury struck. He picked the ball out of the net four times in both of his games against the Old Firm sides.
Two years later McKenzie was at Livingston and conceded 19 of the 21 goals the Glasgow giants put past the West Lothian outfit in another season when the title was settled on the final day.
McKenzie fears a gulf next season that could make a mockery of the Premiership as non-Old Firm clubs become hardest hit by the lockdown and forced into savage squad cuts.
Hibs could lose key players after asking them to take wage cuts.
Others teams are set to go with youngsters next term after losing prized assets such as St Johnstone, who have lost Drey Wright and Kilmarnock, who will be without Scotland full-back Stephen O’Donnell.
While the Old Firm are still feeling the impact of Covid-19, Rangers have recruited Ianis Hagi on a £3million deal and highly-rated youngster Calvin Bassey from Leicester City and the Hoops will inevitably do business.
It’s looking ominous just a season after Brian Rice claimed the gap between the Old Firm and the rest was the biggest he’d seen in 40 years in football.
McKenzie reckons the Big Two could even snap up for a cut price the best players released by other clubs to ensure the strong get strong while the weak get weaker.
The 44-year-old former shot-stopper, now personal trainer for a David Lloyd leisure centre, believes they could even smash through the 100-point mark.
In 2002/03 Celtic thumped Aberdeen 7-0 at home while Rangers hammered Dunfermline 6-0 at East End Park.
McKenzie fears youngsters’ confidence could be shattered on the back of regular drubbings next season.
He told MailSport : “The gap between the Old Firm and the rest is going to be massive next season and without doubt bigger than the 34 points in 2003.
“In a 38-game season they could easily get at least 30 wins each.
“Both sides could even finish with more than 100 points while the rest fight it out with each other.
“Someone said to me recently that in times of crisis, the cream rises to the top.
“The big businesses will always be there while the smaller ones will struggle and the same applies to football.
“I would say about eight or nine teams in the Premiership next season will say ‘as long as we’re not bottom then we’re happy’.
“My old team-mate Jose Quitongo used to say when a lion is chasing you then make sure you’re not at the back – and it’s the same scenario.
“When I was at Livingston in 2004/05 we took some heavy defeats from the Old Firm despite having an experienced squad.
“If teams are going in with a bunch of kids next season then chances are they’re going to get battered even more than we did.
“Celtic could rock up at Parkhead and wallop eight past teams no bother and as a former goalkeeper I can assure you it’s not a great feeling! But I can’t see how it’s going to be any different. It’s a shame because kids are going to be getting exposed to the top flight through necessity but getting battered at Ibrox and Parkhead isn’t great for their confidence.
“I’m all for young boys getting an opportunity and I believe the league should be bigger to allow teams to do
that – but not in these circumstances.
“The other factor is that the Old Firm will snap up the best of the players who the other Scottish clubs can’t afford to pay.
“They’ll probably be able to do it by offering relative buttons in the current climate. Look at Florian Kamberi, for example, at Hibs.
“Rangers fans were probably split on whether they should sign him permanently after his loan spell but with Hibs offloading players Gers can get him for a reported £150,000.
“At that price Rangers fans probably think it’s such a low risk that they’ll just take him – and that scenario could happen throughout the league.
“In fact, if Hibs become desperate then Rangers might even get him for £50,000.”
McKenzie’s former club Hearts won’t have a chance of mounting any sort of challenge to the Old Firm as things stand.
The Jambos are due to start life next season in the Championship after finishing bottom of the top flight when the season was halted due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
They still hope to change that through the court system after the controversial season-ending
vote and last week’s latest failed attempt to win backing for league reconstruction.
McKenzie can’t believe the lack of strong SPFL leadership in a time of crisis with Partick Thistle, joining the Jambos in taking
legal action, and Stranraer also relegated with games left to play.
He said: “The season-ending vote has been handled shambolically by the SPFL.
“They will ultimately suffer because the league could end up an absolute laughing stock.
“There is such a lack of leadership. Everything about the vote and the decision-making stinks.
“It’s funny that I played for Hearts, Partick and Stranraer –the teams worst affected.
“I only played a pre-season friendly for Thistle and Stranraer but it’s so unfair on them all.
“Scottish football had a chance to make a decision that didn’t affect teams but they’ve done the opposite and they must be held accountable for that.”