Rangers' collapse an opportunity for others
SOCCER ANGLES:There is a chance for Scottish football to reorganise. The east coast clubs surely recognise that. It’s some time since football there has been this intriguing, writes MICHAEL WALKER
WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON, Hampden Park, Glasgow, and finally some communication: after hours hanging around the foyer waiting for news from the Scottish Premier League meeting upstairs, an email arrived.
The time was 14.14, the message said: “SPL clubs today voted overwhelmingly to reject the application from Rangers newco to join the SPL.”
Short, and not too sweet for Rangers, this was historic. Rangers, who were formed in 1872, have never been outside Scotland’s top flight and had won the league title a record 54 times.
Rangers were the establishment.
Now they were no longer welcome.
The revolution was being televised and reaction would be long and loud. Emails winged in. At 15.26, a leading bookmaker sent this message: Celtic had been cut to 1/25 to win the SPL next season. Some thought that depressing, predictability being a fundamental problem within Scottish football. Not since 1985 has the league been won by a club outside Celtic or Rangers.
But others clearly thought 1/25 represented an opportunity. At 15.31 another email: Celtic were now 1/33 to win the SPL.
Around 90 minutes later, we had moved from the second floor to the sixth. That is where the SPL reside, as do, along the corridor, the Scottish Football League, as do, further along, the Scottish Football Association, the governing body.
On a shelf was an SFA brochure. Its title? “Scotland United: A 2020 Vision”.
Its second paragraph begins: “Traditions and heritage are the foundations of our national game. Yet they can also be a barrier to progress.”
A few minutes later and the SFA chief executive, Stewart Regan, was seated at a boardroom table being passionate about what must happen next: Rangers must go into Scottish Division One next season. If not, Regan mentioned the possibility of “social unrest” and of “a slow, lingering death for Scottish football.”
The morning papers had brought images of Monty Python’s dead parrots due to a remark from the gravel driveway voice of Raith Rovers’ chairman Turnbull Hutton; but in terms of alarmist language, which Scotland is not bad at, Regan had again raised the bar.
SO, WHERE ARE WE?
Regan used the phrase “we are where we are” several times inside that boardroom, but many wonder where that is.
On February 14th, Rangers entered administration. They had been pursued by the British Revenue and Customs over unpaid tax dating back years and more recently, over a sum of around €11.3m unpaid tax since businessman Craig Whyte took over the club last year.
The instant punishment for entering administration was a 10-point deduction that ensured Celtic won the 2011-12 SPL title.
In March, the SFA announced they would investigate claims that Rangers had paid players via methods other than club contracts. In April, the SFA censured Whyte for disciplinary breaches and later banned him for life. Rangers were also handed a 12-month transfer embargo.
In May, a former Sheffield United director, Charles Green, agreed to buy Rangers from the administrators. It means Rangers’ last two owners are called Green and Whyte. This tickles some.
In June, Rangers were forced from administration into liquidation – a club 140 years old has gone. There will be a “newco”. It will have to apply for membership of the SPL.
On Wednesday that application was rejected by SPL members. Rangers must apply to the SFL.
HOW DID RANGERS GET HERE?
A common explanation in Scotland is Rangers began over-reaching to the point of financial unsustainability in 1998 when owner David Murray appointed Dutchman Dick Advocaat as manager at Ibrox.
Scottish football’s credibility had been damaged by Rangers winning the league nine years in a row from 1989. Yet, Murray’s reaction to Celtic ending that run was to declare – famously then, infamously now – “For every five pounds Celtic spend, we will spend 10.”
The expenditure of Rangers, and other clubs, was already outstripping income. Scotland was bust, which is why the Old Firm talked so often about moving to England.
As the move south was debated, the accepted figure Advocaat spent on transfers in his three years in Glasgow was €116m, not including wages.
Tore Andre Flo cost €15m when he arrived from Chelsea. The brilliant Dutch international Ronald de Boer joined Rangers – from Barcelona. Michael Mols, another Dutch international arrived. Their wages cannot have been meagre.
And there were many others. Remember Gabriel Amato? He cost €5.3m.
As Alex McLeish replaced Advocaat and then Walter Smith returned, Murray acknowledged Rangers had overspent.
The sheer scale of the club’s debt, though, was less prominent than the team.
The calibre, and cost, of staff dropped but four years ago Rangers reached the Uefa Cup final in Manchester. It was the season they drew 0-0 at home to Barcelona in the Champions League.
HOW DID RANGERS GET HERE?
There is a longer view, voiced less, that Rangers’ rise and fall can be traced back to Heysel Stadium, Brussels and the European Cup final disaster of 1985. After that English clubs were banned from European football for six years.
Less than a year later, Graeme Souness stunned Britain by turning up at Ibrox as player-manager. Then he signed a Catholic, Mo Johnston, and Englishmen such as Chris Woods and Terry Butcher.
Souness changed the face of Scottish football, and Rangers’ perception of themselves because, although we cannot dispute Rangers’ status as an institution in Scottish life, the fact is between 1964 and 1986 Rangers had won the Scottish league title three times. In 1979 there were less than 6,000 there for the visit of Partick Thistle to Ibrox. Even in 1984-85, the average attendance at Ibrox was under 22,000.
By 1988-89 that was 39,000 and since 1992, it has not been below 40,000. The past 25 years – during which Rangers won the league 17 times – has been their glorious era.
As Souness left, and Butcher and others moved on, the pattern remained. It was Souness who introduced David Murray to Rangers and Murray sanctioned further spending. It is why Brian Laudrup left AC Milan for Ibrox in 1994, it is why Paul Gascoigne arrived from Lazio a year later.
In less than a decade from Souness, Rangers had developed a money culture.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
The money has run out. The worst-case scenario is that the old Rangers owe €164m. The “newco” has said it is committed to paying off some of these debts.
Rapid Vienna say they are still owed money for Nikica Jelavic, who has since joined Everton.
The “newco” insist that player contracts signed by the “oldco” are binding. But that has not prevented a swathe of departures. Kyle Lafferty has joined Sion in Switzerland, while Steven Naismith joined Jelavic at Everton on Thursday.
Manager Ally McCoist remains. He has a much-reduced playing staff and that 12-month transfer embargo.
McCoist was at Hampden on Wednesday to appeal to the SPL; by Thursday he was saying his preference is Rangers go into the Scottish Third Division.
The Scottish Football League vote on Rangers’ application next Friday – the 13th having been deemed preferable to July 12th for such a decision.
The SFA desperately want Rangers in the First Division in order to protect TV deals – Sky and others apparently willing to accept the “theatre” of Rangers down one division and fighting back, but not a three-year saga.
Without TV money, Regan has warned of autumn administrations in the SPL and elsewhere.
The First Division chairmen do not like the pressure they are under. This is not their mess, but they feel they are being told to clean it up.
They also, like many supporters across Scotland in a development that has surprised in its intensity, do not like Rangers’ attitude one bit. Although, belatedly, there was an official Ibrox apology on Monday for the chaos they have created, it was strategic and lacked sincerity. Some who follow, follow, others think they are still the people.
They, in turn, have been taken aback by the animosity directed toward them. They want to take their ball into the Third Division, alongside the likes of Stirling Albion, capacity 3,808, or Montrose, capacity 3,292.
Two seasons ago, Montrose’s average attendance was 393; East Stirling’s was 319. Rangers’ was 45,304. They may all be part of Scottish football, but they are not like-for-like.
The atmosphere is poisonous. All four divisions still have to be re-configured and the SPL starts a month today.
By yesterday, Celtic were 1/50 to win the SPL and fans across the country are saying they will boycott games if next Friday’s decision does not echo their judgment. In the air is a threat of an SPL2 breakaway.
Regan talked of “no winners, only losers in this” and of “fear of the unknown.”
But the absence of variety has been a 25-year long problem for Scotland. Now the Old Firm is gone, for 12 months at least, there is an opportunity for others. There is a chance for Scotland to re-arrange itself. The east coast clubs surely recognise that.
The thinnest of silver linings it may be, but it’s some time since Scottish football has been this intriguing.