As the Rangers saga rumbles on with more daily twists than an American daytime soap, fatigue has well and truly set in. Rangers fans have had enough, neutrals stopped caring weeks ago, and even a fair number of Celtic fans have retired from the gloating fields to watch Euro 2012 on the telly instead. We’ve heard all we want to hear about alleged tax evasion and Employee Benefit Trusts. The demonisation of former chairman Craig Whyte has been replaced in the press by the demonisation of chairman-elect Charles Green, to a chorus of indifference. The questions about CVA versus liquidation have been answered with the dissolution of the old club and Green launching his Rangers ‘newco.’ While many details about the shape and form of Rangers remain unresolved, these minutiae have largely lost the interest of the public. Only one question retains the power to fascinate those interested in Scottish football – in what division will newco Rangers ply their trade next season?
Green’s consortium has applied for newco Rangers to take up the old club’s place in the Scottish Premier League and the league members will vote on July 4th, with an 8-4 majority required to approve their entry. Club chairmen, while providing plenty of rhetoric about ‘sporting integrity,’ are being predictably cagy about how they will actually vote. Meantime, many fans are adamant that New Rangers must not be given a get out of jail free card and should do their time in the lower divisions. The counter-argument is, of course, the perceived financial logic. The argument goes something like this – an SPL without Rangers is simply not financially viable. TV revenue will disappear. Smaller clubs will be hamstrung by the drop in income stream from not playing Rangers four times a season. Rangers’ banishment from the top table will kill Scottish football.
The way Rangers won the title in 1987 would change the landscape of Scottish football, and ultimately drive a healthy league into its current shambolic mess.
The doom-mongers are, however, somewhat late to the party. How can demoting Rangers kill Scottish football when Rangers already did that more than two decades ago? That’s right – Rangers killed Scottish football, and they did it years ago. Not convinced? Then cast your mind back to the 1980s.
Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen have conquered Real Madrid to win the 1983 Cup Winners’ Cup. Dundee United make the final of the 1987 UEFA Cup, knocking out Terry Venables’ Barcelona along the way. Celtic are regularly achieving quarter-final respectability in European competition. By the middle of the decade, three different teams have won the Scottish title and solid attendances around the country illustrate mass engagement with a healthy, competitive league. Big Scots names from England’s dominant clubs Liverpool and Everton are struggling to hold down a place in the national side because they’re being kept out by players from the Scottish league. The national team is in the middle of a run which will see them become the first nation ever to qualify for five consecutive World Cups (although granted, they inevitably get cuffed upon arrival). A small country punches above its weight.
When Lloyds TSB finally called time on Murray’s debt, Rangers’ demise was inevitable. The very practices Rangers used to stick the knife into the competition brought about their own downfall.
Then something changed – in 1987, Rangers won their first title for nine years. The way they did it would change the landscape of Scottish football, and ultimately drive a healthy league into its current shambolic mess. Graeme Souness arrived as player-manager and, with a series of blank cheques, followed his own arrival with a string of high profile signings, the like of which the Scottish game had never seen before. It started with Terry Butcher and Chris Woods and before long half the England team and a string of European imports were helping Rangers steamroller their way to title after title. The subsequent arrival of David Murray as Rangers’ owner took this a new level entirely, with the likes of Gascoigne, Laudrup and Amoruso thrilling Ibrox fans, while megabucks flops like Van Vossen, Salenko and the £12m disaster Tore Andre Flo showed that Rangers had money to burn. The culture of Scottish football changed. No other club could hope to match Rangers’ prolific spending, but they had to try. Celtic tried, but their own modest attempts at splashing the cash failed to halt the Ibrox juggernaut and almost drove them to extinction. As the rest of the league tried to narrow the gap, they had little choice but to implement Rangers’ model as best they could relative to their own finances. Importing foreign players became the norm and youth development was little more than a sideshow. It didn’t work. Rangers swept all before them, and with competition a thing of the past and fans struggling to identify with teams full of international journeymen, attendances plummeted.
The rest is history. Murray’s millions were intended to buy Rangers the European Cup - they failed. The other clubs drove themselves to the very edge trying to keep up, and it would be many years before most eventually dragged themselves back from the brink by returning to producing their own players. Many are still paying the bills. This brings us back to the present: bereft of money and with two decades of the negligence of youth development behind it, Scottish football is a spent force. Lack of home-grown talent, along with the emergence of new nations across a changing Europe, has consigned the national team to also-ran status at best. The artificially-funded runs of Martin O’Neill’s comparatively expensive Celtic side and Walter Smith’s EBT-fuelled Rangers to UEFA Cup Finals, although relatively recent, seem a distant memory. Scottish football is a joke and it’s hard to see a day when it can aspire to anything better.
Celtic will be rubbing their hands at what will probably be an extended period of domestic domination, but Hearts, Dundee United, Kilmarnock, Motherwell and others could realistically be vying for a Champions League place next season.
The punch line, of course, is that, Rangers didn’t really have the money. The SFA investigation and HMRC case against Rangers could prove that they did all this illegally. As Mark Daly’s recent BBC documentary Rangers: The Men Who Sold The Jerseys showed, David Murray’s so-called investment in Rangers was on the never-never. He was robbing Peter to pay Paul; borrowing heavily and moving money around between his various companies. If the BBC’s allegations are true then he was actually taking money out of Rangers, via the now-infamous EBTs. When Lloyds TSB finally called time on Murray’s debt, Rangers’ demise was inevitable. The very practices Rangers used to stick the knife into the competition brought about their own downfall.
So why should the Scottish game’s executioners be granted a staying of execution by the league they murdered? Why should Scottish football, out of short-term and arguably flawed ideas of economic self interest, protect a club that treated it so badly? If playing Rangers four times a season is the basis for your financial stability, it’s time to find a new model. Reliance on the customers of others for your own business plan is precarious at best and financial lunacy at worst. As for TV revenue, well, it’s not going to disappear. In the wake of the Rangers uncertainty, Sky stated that, “Scottish football is still very much in our plans for the future. Walking away has never been on our agenda.”
The much-vaunted TV money that many claim will be affected is embarrassingly low compared to many other leagues. Eighty million over five years, split between 12 clubs is hardly a fortune.
Maybe it’s time to look at the bigger picture. Yes, maybe SPL clubs will lose a few quid if Rangers have to start at the bottom but that’s short term thinking. What about the impact of greater competition on attendances? Since Rangers’ administration prevents them entering European football next season, Motherwell will take their place in the Champions’ League qualifiers. Should Rangers be out of the top-level picture for a few years, what other clubs might benefit? Celtic, not being directly reliant on Rangers for their income, will be rubbing their hands at what will probably be an extended period of domestic domination, but Hearts, Dundee United, Kilmarnock, Motherwell and others could realistically be vying for a Champions League place next season. If everyone shifts up one place in the hierarchy, virtually every SPL club could have a sneaky eye on Europa League qualification. Surely that will fill a few stadiums - and what a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for the teams that make it. This could create a redistribution of wealth in Scottish football, and not just for SPL clubs. As Rangers inevitably make their way through the lower divisions, virtually every club in Scotland will receive gate receipts from playing them along the way. These are serious sums for clubs that are run on a shoestring.
Maybe it’s time for a change. If New Rangers start in the Third Division, just maybe, by the time they arrive back in the SPL, they will be returning to a healthier, more competitive league, with a resurgence of supporter engagement that the Scottish game needs, possibly breathing a tiny glimmer of life back into the corpse of Scottish football. On the other hand, maybe all this is optimistic to the point of delusion, but what’s the alternative? Let the organisation that contributed most to the current parlous state of affairs walk back in and just go on the same? The status quo is unsustainable. Scottish clubs are an embarrassment in European competition. The much-vaunted TV money that many claim will be affected is embarrassingly low compared to many other leagues. Eighty million over five years, split between 12 clubs is hardly a fortune. What price a more competitive league? And what price a league that puts real sporting integrity first? Maybe it’s time to find out.
Follow John Clarke on Twitter: @johnclarke1
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