Some ill-advised comments made by the Celtic chairman John Reid at last year’s club AGM may now be coming back to haunt him, as rivals Rangers seem to be coasting to a Scottish Premier League championship. Mark Murphy takes a look at how the two clubs have progressed this season and finds that Reid’s bullishness couldn’t have come with much worse timing.
As Rangers fly off into the sunset with the Scottish Premier League (SPL) trophy safely tucked under one arm and possible new owners under the other, I wonder if Celtic chairman John Reid has pondered the advisability of his premature triumphalism at Celtic’s Annual General Meeting last October. Reid dominated the show, as he does. And thinly-veiled attacks on “other clubs that are local and who have had a lot of publicity” were mixed with not-veiled-at-all attacks on “a boring crowd of Holy Willies… (on) the other side of the city.” This was not thought to be a reference to Partick Thistle.
Celtic’s AGM discussed a relatively healthy set of financial results for the financial year to 30 June 2009, at a time when Rangers’ £31m debts were the talk of the footballing town. And Reid got all superior about the financial strategy of “borrowing endless amounts of money,” claiming: “that way lies ruin…fans and shareholders know that” and insisting that following suit “is what we won’t do.” But the two clubs’ more recent interim results suggest as much of a turnaround in fortunes as the SPL table. And although the in-pouring of Champions League money to Ibrox put only a temporary gloss on Rangers’ finances, history has been as unkind to Reid’s remarks as the more sensible commentators were at the time.
Of course, Reid, from the “go away and boil your head” school of Glaswegian philosophy, doesn’t do rueful. But he ought to learn. For Celtic to be thirteen points behind this Rangers team in that financial mess is as low as they’ve been for years. Not to mention the crushing blow dealt to Celtic’s European future by Uefa’s co-efficient system and its current preference for Belgium over Scotland. Celtic manager Tony Mowbray, under-fire like no Celtic boss since the last one, has pleaded for four transfer windows to build “his” side to challenge for honours. But by then – next January – the prospects at Parkhead could be poor indeed. Not as poor as Rangers appear to be at the moment, admittedly. There is some comic value to be had in the Govan at Rangers’ last signing being the very same Maurice Edu that won the recent Old Firm game with virtually the last (mis-)kick. But it is scant relief from the financial gloom over Ibrox.
Rangers’ fans complaints don’t stem as much from the debts themselves as the draconian, if arguably necessary, financial measures in place to try and secure the club’s future. The emergence of Donald Muir on the board as chief Draconian has provided fans with an identifiable focus for their anger. He could scarcely be less popular if he made all his public statements in a green and white tie and sang them to the tune of the Irish national anthem. And he only made it back onto the Rangers board at December’s AGM courtesy of owner Sir David Murray’s 900 casting votes. Muir is seen as doing Lloyds Banking group’s dirty work, as they insist on swingeing cost-cuts at the club. Muir, a “corporate recovery specialist” by “trade” claims he is a representative of Murray International Holdings (MIH), which is both Murray’s business empire and effective parent company of the football club. It was MIH’s own financial travails which first awakened the world to the extent of the possible troubles at Rangers.
In his statement accompanying Rangers’ interim results for the last six months of 2009, chairman Alastair Johnston claimed that “the board appreciated the understanding of Lloyds TSB Bank plc in supporting our initiatives to stabilise the club.” Rangers fans are, shall we say, unconvinced that the statement reflects the true dynamic of the relationship. The interim results showed a stonking operating profit of £13.1m on a turnover of £37.8m. But Johnston was quick to acknowledge that “due to the timing of our involvement in the Champions League, revenue is weighted in favour of the first six months of the financial year.” And no-one was fooled into thinking that Rangers’ medium-term financial prospects were improved, especially as Rangers were so bad in Europe that they missed out on Europa League qualification altogether.
Celtic’s European adventures were, of course, less commercially beneficial. Their genuinely decent result, the 2-0 win against Dinamo in Moscow in August, was submerged by the 5-1 aggregate gubbing by Arsenal and their tortuous inability to overcome Hamburg, Rapid Vienna or, until it was irrelevant, Hapoel Tel Aviv in the Europa League. Celtic’s 2-1 Champions League win over the then competition holders Milan had only been three years previously. But it might as well have been the week after they beat Inter to win the 1967 European Cup, for all the relevance it has now. Celtic posted interim operating profits of £4.71m. But they were a third of last year’s equivalents. And with the exponential growth of Celtic fans turning up at Parkhead dressed as green and white empty seats, those profits might as well have been in groats for all the relevance they have now.
Simply put, if Rangers can dominate the SPL in the mess they are in at the moment, they could win it with an overall majority if the finances were straightened by new owners and they were in situ when Scotland’s Champions League entitlement becomes one in 2011. The club has taken some selling, however. It has been on the market for almost as long as Newcastle and has attracted similarly little serious interest (and none of the joke interest that was a staple diet of the Newcastle Chronicle for much of 2008 and 2009). Andrew Ellis, a 41-year-old supposed “property tycoon” with a, shall we say, chequered football history, has won the race to get to the due diligence stage, beating off the requisite “mystery Far East” conzzzzzortium and Rangers director Daniel King, who has one or two billion well-documented problems with South African and its taxes. So, not a quality field.
Ellis’s family connections may have led to some disturbing “Bulstrode for Rangers” headlines which would have kept cardiac units busy in West London for a while. A David of that ilk was “linked to” Ellis’s bid as “another wealthy property developer, who has made his money from deals in Knightsbridge” – an area of London from which there remains money to be made. And this Bulstrode is the son of the 80s property developer of the same name. Bulstrode Senior ran a company called Marler Estates and had some up-front “rationalisation” ideas about the cash-strapped game football was in those days, the best-remembered being the idea of merging Fulham and Queens Park Rangers to form “Fulham Park Rangers.” Ellis, the focal point of the bid from “RFC Holdings (Guernsey) Ltd”, had some wacky QPR ideas of his own, such as moving the club to a new site near Heathrow Airport. He also rocked up at Northampton Town for a bit after his QPR adventure faded to nothing, becoming chairman for a bit, appointing former QPR man Terry Fenwick as manager for a bit less, before, to the relief of all concerned, they both sought new challenges.
Contemporary commentators have been quick enough to suggest that merging clubs isn’t on Bulstrode junior or Ellis’s checklist for their Glasgow adventure. But it is not yet clear what their plans are, other than to offer up £33m for general inspection, which would cover current debts and not much else. But while Rangers’ heavily-skewed interim results weren’t representative of any upward curve in their financial fortunes, they were a timely reminder of how far-too-important Champions League money is in a nation like Scotland. At 400,000 euros-per-point in the Group stages, even Rangers’ disastrous 2009 campaign would have wiped out an entire year’s trading losses for the likes of Aberdeen. And whatever pride John Reid takes in what he calls Celtic’s “highly creditable financial performance give all the circumstances”, that sort of cash injection could almost institutionalise Rangers as Scotland’s number one, self-perpetuating their status as Scotland’s sole Champions League representatives, should they become so in 2011.
So it is that while Rangers are way off the European pace on the field, and way off the pace off the field, Celtic are at least as way off again, thirteen points behind and staring a Rangers’ domestic treble in the face. John Reid will do well to have less to say about “Holy Willies on the other side of the city” at Celtic’s next AGM.