Rangers: Walter Smith, Manager Of The Season?
Manager of the season? As per usual, Eddie Howe is a strong candidate; this year for establishing AFC Bournemouth in League One and for re-energising Burnley’s stuttering promotion play-off bid in the Championship. Some would choose Stoke’s Tony Pulis. Not only because of the startling events at Wembley last Sunday but also because his side passed the ball a couple of times last October. But reigning Scottish champions Rangers are heavily indebted; to Lloyds Banking Group (LBG) and to manager Walter Smith. Formally or otherwise, no-one at Ibrox has been able to spend a proverbial penny without LBG’s say-so for ages. So Smith is my candidate. Because of the performances he has wrung from his restricted playing resources and because of how he has transmitted disquiet and distaste for behind-the-scenes activities at Ibrox, with dignity and credibility.
Rangers have been fortunate on the field in that Celtic have been a dripping mess since Gordon Strachan resigned as manager in 2009. His replacement Tony Mowbray wasn’t up to it, while Neil Lennon is a rookie manager – something easily overlooked as, one way or another, he packs a lifetime’s experience into every month in the job. Rangers were nonetheless there for the taking over the last two seasons. But Smith kept them competitive. And goalkeeping heroics from Allan McGregor mean three SPL titles in-a-row remain a realistic prospect. Smith, though, has arguably been too successful for his own good. Rangers have been the subject of takeover speculation since majority owner Sir David Murray formally announced his intention to sell his 93% shareholding in October 2009
But while Smith has kept them in the hunt and, more importantly, the Champions League, the need to sell has been less pressing than if their European record had been as dismal since 2009 as, well, Celtic’s. This point has not been lost on current Rangers chairman Alastair Johnston, who noted recently that “the more we are successful despite all the pressure, the more the bank will think we can keep going like this.” Rangers’ takeover saga has therefore stretched beyond ‘protracted’ and board members announced this week that they feel they can leave things unresolved into another summer. This is particularly remarkable because Rangers’ finances are grim and would by now have been near-fatal but for Smith’s successes. Their financial woes are the usual ones. They’ve spent money they didn’t have. After a rampantly-successful first 12 years as owner, Murray famously pledged in 2000 that Rangers would spend £10 for every £5 Celtic spent.
Unfortunately, 120,000 of those tenners went on Norwegian striker Tore Andre Flo. And Celtic hired a manager in Martin O’Neill who, as Aston Villa fans can readily testify, was not averse to spending fivers. So, by 2007 debts had reached £16.5m through a combination of transfer overspending and European under-achievement. Even Rangers’ run to the 2008 Uefa Cup Final, with two wins and five goals in eight games (or “relegation form” as it’s known in this year’s Premier League), was only as lucrative as it was entertaining for the neutral. Without regular Champions League income, Rangers’ debts continued to grow, especially the ones with LBG who, like their banking mates in 2008, had their own debts to repay. Suddenly LBG became anxious to call in their loans, especially £20-30m ones to faltering Scottish football clubs.
Murray’s shareholding, held by his modestly-entitled business empire Murray International Holdings (MIH), continued to dwarf LBG’s. But by 2008, this was almost inversely proportional to their respective influences on Rangers’ fiscal policy. This manifested itself in October 2009, with the appointment to Rangers’ board of “corporate recovery specialist” Donald Muir and the announcement to the stock exchange that MIH were “considering options regarding… disposing of some or all of its stake in the club to a third party.”
A lot has happened at Rangers since then, yet nothing has changed. Rangers’ debts rose from £16.5m, via £21m, to £30m. This was still not excessive by English Premier League ‘standards.’ But it was excessive when most of it was owed to LBG, who wanted it back yesterday. On October 24th, Smith noted, as matter-of-fact as you like, that “the bank have taken over the running of the club” and that “they’ll have their own ideas and obviously investment isn’t one of them.” And from the deservedly-respected Smith, these words resonated. LBG were suddenly the bad guys, their bankrolling of Rangers’ success momentarily forgotten. Muir, scapegoated as “the bank’s board rep,” was voted off the board by a show of hands at the December AGM, until Murray came to the rescue with his 99,500,000 casting proxy votes.
However, LBG’s role as major club creditors was potentially under threat. Between 2001 and 2009, Rangers paid £46m to players via off-shore “Employee Remuneration Trusts,” vehicles widely used by EPL clubs and big City firms indulging in a spot of (ahem!) “tax planning,” hence HMRC disputing their technical legality. News of an HMRC investigation into Rangers’ payments broke in early 2010, with Rangers’ directors suggesting the potential tax liability – a guesstimated £24m – was making the club “unsellable.” Nevertheless, Murray wanted away. And the search for new owners began in earnest. Early suitors were football’s traditional mix of vagabonds, ne’er-do-wells, Middle and Far East consortia and property developers. Talk of a supporter buy-out was routinely dismissed as financially unfeasible – which, at a club owing £30m, was, metaphorically at least, a bit rich.
In early-March 2010, London-based ‘property tycoon’ Andrew Ellis lodged a £33m bid for the club. But his ‘mixed’ record in football – problematic associations with Queen’s Park Rangers and Northampton Town – were quickly exposed. The Scotsman newspaper suggested “Ellis will certainly not be able to build a compelling case on the basis of his previous experience in football.” Indeed, his deal was “on the brink of collapse” within weeks, with Ellis apparently “left shocked when it transpired that a major retail development that had been an integral part of the deal…could not go ahead because the club do not have clearance or planning in place.” And terminal doubts were expressed in May by Rangers chairman Alastair Johnston, who complained that “the situation regarding Mr Ellis’s proposed buying of Rangers has gone on way too long,” little realising what was in store.
South African-based director Dave King’s early interest met less cynicism, despite the South African authorities’ annoying insistence in “hauling (the tycoon) into a courtroom to face charges of fraud and racketeering.” That King was being given house-room at all was mystifying. He refuted many of the South African allegations, particularly those of tax fraud. But he was prepared to pay the South African Revenue Service (SARS) £55m, to “settle the litigation.” This was merely an “agreement” to “settle on a basis that works for me” and allow him to “continue to function in South Africa.” It was not, in any way, oh no, an admission of £55m worth of financial guilt; which makes me a Dutchman who was born yesterday.
According to King, Ellis’s deal was “unrealistic,” the fans’ plan was “always rubbish,” the bank was looking “for an asset strip” and the potential tax liability from the Employee Remuneration Trust was “not something that concerns me greatly.” He did, after all, “understand exactly what’s going on,” which, given his…er…”tax planning” record, was no real surprise. He ruled out investing in Rangers because “things must settle for a couple of months first” (fraud and racketeering allegations, for example). And this was handy, because by June 2010, Murray had taken Rangers “off the market” not having received an offer that was “in the best interests of the club its fans or its shareholders.” This didn’t stop a ‘silly season’ story appearing in August about Ellis receiving backing for a fresh bid from Vladimir Antonov, a Russian businessman with, shock, “alleged mafia links.” Antonov had a fraught business history even by Russian standards. And even Bournemouth’s property developer owner Eddie Mitchell smelt a rat. So there was little prospect of him ever getting involved in British club football, not even with basket case magnets Portsmouth.
Last November, more reports of a £30m takeover emerged, this time from “London-based millionaire financier and lifelong fan” Craig Whyte. Whyte looked like the right man at the right time, with ‘thrusting’ Tory entrepreneurs all-the-rage again. His PR-people spun him as the “youngest self-made millionaire” in Scotland’s history.” He “once owned an executive box at Ibrox.” And, in a faint echo of that other universally popular go-getter of our age, Alan Sugar, he “had made £20,000 before leaving school,” eschewing Sugar’s method – selling ginger beer to fellow-pupils at school – in favour of dabbling in the stock market. With whose money the 15-year-old was dabbling was as unclear as the legality of a 15-year-old dabbling in the stock market in the first place. And less attention was paid to Whyte’s considerable business failures since, including some very contemporary issues around the abilities his investment companies to “continue as a going concern.”
But by early December Whyte’s bid was already reportedly “approaching the end game” as he had already reached principled agreement with Murray to buy out his shareholding. However, Whyte was approaching it slower than a lazy snail with sunstroke. He was still “on the brink of a takeover” by mid-February. In March, the deal was “to be done by April.” And then the fun began. Small-ish print in the Stock market announcement of Ellis’s interest, read: “To ensure the complete independence of the assessment of the merits for Rangers of any possible offer, the board has set up an independent committee…to consider the full implications of any future offer for Rangers.” This ‘committee’ of ‘independent directors’ excluded those with an interest in the sale of MIH’s shareholding, namely Mike McGill and Muir, and non-executive directors Paul Murray and…Dave King. But its terms of reference, above, were something of a catch-all.
Whyte’s camp entered April confident that a takeover was imminent. And having agreed deals with Murray AND LBG, their confidence seemed justified. But the independent directors, totally silent between November and April, now discovered their “fiduciary duties” and “legal responsibilities” to look after the interests of “26,400 minority shareholders, many of whom are season-ticket holders.” They’d had “for some time… major concerns about its engagement in the process,” which was news. They were “disappointed” that Whyte’s offer “did not reflect the investment in the club that we were led to believe” and made only a “relatively modest amount of money available” for players. And the committee only now discovered that it wasn’t “in the best interests of stakeholders… to be pressed into an unrealistic timescale.”
Luckily (although it is difficult to say for whom), King had suggested an alternative offer for the club, which would be more likely than Whyte’s to keep them in their Rangers directorships. By the way. So the destination of Rangers’ ownership remains as clear cut as that of the SPL title. And the choice appears to be between a venture capitalist who owes £55m across South Africa and a venture capitalist whose latest ventures have failed to raise very much capital at all. Looking on at, and above, all this is Smith. Earlier this month, he hinted at the power struggle which has kept this takeover saga going. He said: “Things can’t go down any further,” but added: “I suppose it can go down a wee bit further if that’s the way people want to let it go.”
Otherwise, he has been dignity personified. “I can’t talk about the financial aspects. I can only talk about the player situation,” he said, adding, correctly: “The implications of lack of investment in the team are really beginning to show now.” One wag suggested that Ally McCoist’s job as Smith’s successor was getting more difficult each day, “and he doesn’t start for two months.” But Smith has more than coped. Despite completely lacking the money supposedly essential for modern football success, Smith is a modern football success. Manager of the season to date? For me, yes.
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