The scriptwriters for soap operas must be under enormous pressure to produce dramatic yet feasible storylines every few days. But if the pressure gets too much for them, which some might argue it already has, they can always consult whichever twisted mind writes Rangers’ stuff these days. Twice in the past few days – nope, make that three times – I have had to extensively re-write this article, what with Walter Smith (“he came, he saw, he…went away again”) and other oddball developments. And new questions keep coming. What is Rangers’ obsession with the name ‘Murray’? Why is ex-director Dave King really in Glasgow this week? And Bury? Really??
One constant remains. Rangers are damaged goods; some might even say disgraced. The full and final extent of this damage/disgrace is yet to be revealed – we may indeed be at that stage now, despite increasingly intense assumptions Rangers’ financial past will reveal further ‘misdeeds’ on at least two fronts. Yet despite the enormity of the coverage (sixteen pages in Saturday’s Daily Record newspaper, my Scottish friends informed me), the enormity of Rangers’ ‘misdeeds’, actual and potential, is still to dawn on many people. “RIP, RFC” screamed the Record on a typically attention-seeking front page last Wednesday, which will undoubtedly be a t-shirt slogan and a poster on the wall of many a childishly-gleeful Celtic fan by now. “We ask the questions, Green tries to answer them,” ran one Record headline, in the wake of HMRC’s “shock” announcement that they were going to follow their own published policy on insolvencies involving “crown money,” and oppose Rangers’ CVA proposals.
Even the Record couldn’t promise that Green would succeed in answering their questions…and wisely so. Amid the requisite shock, anger and disappointment, Green gave his usual quota of headline-grabbers. “Forget playing in Europe, we might not even be playing in Glasgow,” was his doomsday scenario – unless he had plans to sell Ibrox, a concept only just too ridiculous for this tale. He took the un-named interviewer down a number of irrelevant cul-de-sacs (“if I wanted to buy Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi…that could be the best news HMRC could have”). And he concluded that HMRC had “a lot to answer for.”
In fairness to Green, this ‘Q&A’ looked like a rush job, probably conducted over the phone. Finally putting some names to his consortium, in the immediate wake of the formal CVA rejection, wasn’t a rush job, or at least it shouldn’t have been. Yet it resembled one. When Notts County were boasting of new-found Middle Eastern riches three years ago, they named a number of people as investors who, it transpired, were not investors at all. And things at County did not end well. Green did likewise last Thursday. In confirming newspaper claims that his original consortium of “twenty individuals and families who have pledged support” had dwindled to “about five or six,” he listed Glasgow businessman Ian Hart among his backers. Within hours, Hart was denying everything, declaring support for the “opposition” which emerged that afternoon and letting slip some fascinating information about some of Green’s funding.
Hart said, three times in the space of about 70 words, that “I am not a member of his consortium.” And while those of a biblical bent waited for a cock to crow, Hart added that “when Charles Green was the preferred bidder” he had allowed money that “I invested in the youth development department some years ago…to be used in order to get a CVA.” Before anyone could wonder why this money wasn’t still “lying in the youth development department” and was now part of the £8.3m loan with which Green was funding his CVA proposal, Hart added that he was “in full support of Douglas Park,” a member of the Smith consortium which had bid for the club a few minutes after the last minute, earlier that afternoon.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the prospect of Rangers legend Walter Smith riding to his old club’s rescue over-shadowed Hart’s intriguing revelation. And Friday’s headlines were all about Smith, rather than “Green uses club’s own money to help fund takeover shock,” a proverbial template of which would surely have been lying around newsrooms since Craig Whyte’s Ticketus dealings were revealed. Reports of a Smith consortium had first emerged on May 10th, after Miller’s withdrawal, in one of those “exclusive by Keith Jackson and James Traynor” Record pieces that keep the chuckle muscles active. Former Rangers boss Graeme Souness was the name checked most often, while “rumours that multi-millionaire Scot Jim McColl” was involved were “unlikely.”
But last week, the Herald newspaper took the lead on Smith’s consortium, which included Douglas Park and…multi-millionaire Scot Jim McColl. Herald “sports writer” Richard Wilson was the BBC’s ‘go to’ journalist last week, appearing twice on Newsnight Scotland, mostly to cast doubt on Green’s ability to fund Rangers’ near-future. And last Friday, Wilson was the ‘go to’ man for all the “who, what, when, where, how and why” of Smith’s consortium. Herald business editor Ian McConnell penned a consortium-friendly piece headlined “Jim McColl: Why I had to save Rangers,” which seemed a touch premature. But most of Wilson’s article “The new bid: Standing up for what Rangers believe in,” was a transparent lift from a consortium press release. Modern journalists require the grim skill of “churnalism”, disguising press releases as real news stories. That skill deserted Wilson last Friday.
New Rangers chairman Malcolm Murray was the consortium’s public face, a season-ticket holder since 1968, armed with a dream soundbite of “making my Rangers debut on the same day as Colin Stein,” (a considerable step up from Craig Whyte’s fumbling claims that Davie Cooper had been a childhood hero). Possibly reeling from the Smith’s consortium’s emergence and the related feverish speculation surrounding manager Ally McCoist’s future, Murray’s interview with the BBC’s Alasdair Lamont last Friday was cringeworthy. He was comfortable focusing on the indisputable need for Rangers “fiefdoms and factions” to get together. But on the more pertinent questions of Rangers’ future funding and squad, he was a mess, constantly shifting in his seat and regularly looking beyond the camera, as if he was being coached through the interview – in which case the coach should be fired.
Murray was almost completely wrong in his interpretation of the employment legislation governing the transfer of Rangers players to Green’s company. “T…U…P…E…” he spelled out, probably more for his own benefit than ours, before stuttering that players would “TUPE across with their new contract, so we have them.” which didn’t even make sense. He also, perhaps inadvertently, revealed that Green has yet to comply with the legislation’s requirement to fully consult staff on the transfer. He even suggested that McCoist would fulfil those requirements by speaking to the players, overlooking the fact that ALL staff had to be consulted…including McCoist himself.
Mind you, nothing was worthier of a cringe than Murray revelation that “it’s my wedding anniversary today, but any Rangers’ fans’ wife knows what comes first, mine included.” File under “dinosaur.” Murray’s mantra was “constructive dialogue” with Smith’s consortium. But while Rangers observers in general and the Herald in particular anxiously awaited over the weekend for an actual bid from Smith’s people to kick-start that dialogue, there were some timely reminders of unfinished business. On Monday, the SPL announced that Rangers had “a prima facie case to answer in respect of its rules” and that “disciplinary charges” to be brought against the club over their thoroughly-documented (ab)use of Employee Benefit Trusts to pay employees.
Almost as if on cue, the Scottish Sun newspaper ran an interview with former Rangers defender Jean-Alain Boumsong, in which it was claimed that Boumsong “was alarmed that part of his wages would be paid into an EBT account.” £630,000 landed in his EBT during his six months at Ibrox in 2004, a figure to “alarm” those who actually saw him play. After former player Billy Dodds’ revelations in his Herald column last month that he had received “money owing to me when I had six months left on my contract,” one wonders why this prima facie case took so long to uncover. The SPL claimed their investigation, which began in March, was delayed by “an initial lack of co-operation from Rangers.” So the disciplinary charges will only be brought “when the future status of Rangers FC is clarified and prior to the start of season 2012/13.”
SPL clubs will therefore vote on whether to accept ‘new’ Rangers into their ranks before the charges are brought, thus avoiding the possibility of Rangers being expelled a league they have yet to join…and the SPL having to manufacture a credible excuse if Rangers weren’t expelled. And, apparently, “Rangers” were entitled to a vote on whether “Rangers” could join the SPL despite their parent company’s liquidation, because although “Rangers” were not entitled to the SPL “share” which gave them a vote, the fact that they hadn’t lost that “share” meant they could vote. I think. Also waiting to re-take the stage is the SFA “appellate tribunal” which, it is worth recalling, has to administer a specific named punishment to Rangers for the most “serious offences against the ordinary standards of corporate governance as one could imagine” and for “bringing the game into serious disrepute.”
These are offences and disrepute for which Rangers’ own counsel accepted the club was responsible in law and a level of disrepute more serious than anything other than match-fixing – withholding £13m in PAYE and NIC, which they took from their staff and…kept to pay for their team. With all this going on, and even taking into account their indisputably deep emotional ties to Rangers, some may have wondered why Smith’s consortium were interested. In his Herald interview, McColl explained that “a number of individuals in our group” had raised concerns after “interactions with Green,” presumably when Green was trying to persuade them to join his group. “The way it is going,” McColl noted, “there is not enough transparency.”
McColl then…er…”refused to reveal how much money he was putting into the Walter Smith consortium,” adding: “I don’t want to comment about me, or any of the consortium…I have no comment to make about who, or how much, or what.” Another actor in the Rangers soap opera, another missing sense of irony. And now, at least, we’ll never know how much. Smith and co. may have had “the team, and the fans at heart,” according to Wilson’s puff-piece. But after finally meeting with Green’s people this week… they ran a mile. Having said last Thursday that “none of our group has any desire to own Rangers Football Club”, Smith & Co have at least been true to those words. It was nonetheless surprising that, they, ahem, walked away so readily. Their claim that Green’s “business plan is not in accord with our understanding of the present circumstances at the club and the way forward” suggested that they would definitely “have to save Rangers.”
But rather than join forces – and finances, naturally – with Green’s consortium, they “would prefer to leave them to proceed in their own way,” not unlike the Blue Knights “stepping back” from the administration process to “allow” Bill Miller in. It may be then that Smith’s people are just waiting for it all to get too much for Green, as it did for Miller. Or, just as likely, they don’t fancy becoming attached to the sort of ‘cost-slashing’ regime Green probably has in mind (or crackpot schemes to buy Bury Football Club). Either way, the statement concluded: “we wish them good luck in their endeavours,” leaving the key words “they’ll need it” for others to add, given that Green will now have to deal with the various league votes, disciplinary charges, appellate tribunals and their potentially ruinous fall-outs.
Any hopes of a big profit for him and his investors may have disappeared by then – as may some of those investors. And to judge by Green’s massive PR-push on season-ticket sales this week, hopes of immediate profit may have disappeared by now. Hints have appeared that Green has struggled for support and finance. Throughout this past month, Richard Wilson has kept the concept alive in the Herald. But this week, Jim McColl revealed that “a number of the individuals in our group have great concerns because of their interaction with Green” who had been “approached by him.” These concerns helped spark Smith’s consortium into action. And for all Murray’s tale about “constructive dialogue” between the consortia, Smith’s people were not provided with the information they requested “which would give us comfort as to the identity of the (Green) consortium members, their strategy and their funding capacity.”
While Rangers soon-to-be-ex-director Dave King accused Green of using “the fans’ money” to fund his takeover (an accusation he repeated at Glasgow Airport on Sunday), he was more accurately presenting the scenario which appears to be facing Green this week. Green’s investors barely came up with acquisition funding and despite Green’s pledges to have raised £30m by mid-July, he appears reliant on season-ticket sales – “the fans’ money” – for on-going working capital (and where the funds to buy Bury would have come from, the Gods alone know). So Green might well be hoping that some unlikely “new” bidders will come forward with an offer noticeably in excess of Smith’s £6m – double-figure millions should do that trick – and maybe even trigger a short, sharp price war. The appearance of the seemingly seriously under-funded “property developers” Allan Stewart and Stephen McKenna ought, just now, to be viewed in that context.
But while such shenanigans are the staple ingredients of any “normal” takeover saga – especially the property developers, they could become an irrelevant sideshow. Rangers’ liquidation only killed off a company. The full story of Rangers recent financial past may yet kill off an institution. Perhaps the point of least dispute is that if any new Rangers club wants to “keep” the history of the liquidated club, it can’t pick and choose which bits. The punishment arising from the various investigations is the price of the 54 league titles (or however many is left after Rangers responsibility or otherwise for past misdeeds is determined). That price, of course, depends on how much Rangers have done wrong. Should the EBT-related investigations turn up no wrongdoing, Rangers punishments will stop once the SFA Appellate Tribunal fixes one that won’t be challenged in a law court.
Yet even though the Tribunal could not unreasonably suspend or expel Rangers and regardless of whether further financial misdemeanours are proven, the suggestion remains that Rangers should escape further punishment entirely. Rangers “fan and blogger” Chris Grahame bizarrely claimed on Newsnight Scotland that “Rangers have already been severely punished for everything,” which may have become a little embarrassing had he been asked to make a list. “The club has already suffered hugely and further extreme punishments would be an emotional reaction,” chairman Murray claimed over the weekend. “There is no point killing the patient when he’s trying to recover,” he added, confusing hospital with prisons. “It would be like a mass suicide pact…it’s like the French Revolution where people are demanding heads be cut off anyone involved in Rangers.” No emotional reaction there, then. And last week James Traynor asked: “how many more times must they be kicked?” He readily admitted that “Rangers are guilty of shaming the game” but concluded that they had “themselves been cheated,” citing a “vindictive…baying mob and their crazy notion that Rangers should be shunned because they are cheats.”
He also noted that such views weren’t “confined to the cheap seats,” as if such crazy baying was somehow connected to the amount you pay to watch a game. (Traynor, you are reminded at this point, probably gets into games for nothing). Traynor reserved one criticism of Rangers fans: “If there is anything in their DNA that’s irrational or wrong, it is their love of their club.” Yes, folks, “if it is a crime to love someone too much, then I am guilty.” And on that premise, Traynor believes we should “think straight…how about cutting Rangers some slack and doing the game a turn at the same time? Mercifully, there is no obligation to take Traynor seriously. He is this drama’s “comic relief” – the short act in Shakespeare plays where the dominant character is “a fool” or “a jester.” Shakespeare saw James Traynor coming. But Traynor’s reference to “doing the game a turn” is being taken seriously, to the point where it is almost governing the debate on Rangers future.
Arguments about “sporting integrity” and fair treatment for all clubs seem morally indisputable. Aberdeen supporters have signalled particularly high-profile opposition to a new Rangers being admitted into the SPL, and Greg Ingram of Aberdeen fans’ group Dons Supporters Together noted, correctly, last week, that “if this was any other team, we wouldn’t even be having this debate.” But the increasingly-dominant argument is pure finance. Would Rangers’ absence cost other SPL clubs more money than the threats from clubs’ supporters to refuse to renew season-tickets. “For the first time in the business of football,” noted Stirling University’s Steven Morrow on Newsnight Scotland, “supporters are threatening economic sanctions against their clubs.”
SPL club chairs and their directors have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders over and above any ‘customers.’ However, it is being presented as inevitable that fans’ sanctions will have less financial impact than the loss of Rangers and – more vitally, we are invited to assume – the loss of television money. The television money – a pittance by the EPL’s ludicrous standards but significant for the non-Old Firm SPL clubs – is reported as wholly dependent on Rangers being in the SPL. But it requires a bit more than that. The TV deal, the story goes, specifies four Celtic v. Rangers encounters per season. This can only be guaranteed if Rangers and Celtic finish in the same half of the league table when the SPL splits after the teams have played each other three times.
So If ‘Rangers’ are to be accepted into the SPL on condition that sporting sanctions apply, the league must ensure that such sanctions do not jeopardise this fourth Old Firm game, e.g. the SPL’s original ‘financial fair play’ proposal to deduct 33% of a club’s points for the previous season for failing to come out of administration via a CVA. Calculations of the potential loss rarely account for the huge slice Rangers themselves receive. Indeed, “loss of TV money” has become quantified as losing the lot, currently £65m but rising to £80m, according to the terms of a negotiated but as yet unsigned deal.
As a result, SKY’s announcement that they would not be “pulling the plug” on current arrangements has been treated as headline news – an “exclusive” in Monday’s Scottish Daily Mail, one of the better chroniclers of the Rangers saga. SKY have simply stated that “a degree of renegotiation” will be required because of “the quality hole in Scotland’s top division” caused by Rangers’ absence. It is unclear, therefore, how much clubs would lose from any of the three main considerations for SPL chairs; the value of the new TV deal, the loss of gate revenue caused by ‘replacing’ Rangers with last season’s SFL runners-up Dundee (Dundee United, for instance, might not lose out at all) and the strength of any season-ticket boycott.
Without credible estimates of those three values, the ‘damage’ caused by Rangers’ non-acceptance into the SPL remains theoretical, allegations that SPL clubs could not survive that damage remain unproven and Rangers’ fans’ threats, such as “I hope all the other clubs in Scotland will enjoy watching their clubs die if we are voted out” or (and this one is a classic) “if you punish us any further, we’ll buy Bury and play in the English League,” remain ill-informed. And anyway, if SPL clubs do struggle with short-term cash flow, there’s this ticket agency in London that can do them a deal…
So, let’s sum up. Rangers have gone bust. A new company has been formed to take up the football operation. Staff have not been consulted, as per legal requirements, on whether they want to object to the transfer, and the new company’s non-executive chairman Malcolm Murray, who clearly doesn’t know the legislation, says one of the staff will undertake the consultation, weeks late. Green struggled to fund the acquisition of the club, and was allowed to use money from the old club’s youth development department. Details of investors’ identities and future funding capacity were promised to interested parties but not delivered. When details of some investors’ identities were revealed, they were wrong. And Green is desperate for season-ticket money, despite the promised availability of £30m from investors.
Meanwhile, Rangers face severe sanction from the SFA for the most “serious offences against the ordinary standards of corporate governance as one could imagine” and for “bringing the game into serious disrepute” at a level more serious than anything other than match-fixing – offences and disrepute for which the club’s own counsel accepted responsibility in law. And it faces the prospect of further sanction if, as stated by two former EBT beneficiaries, the club improperly paid contracted money to players through an off-shore, tax-avoidance scheme. Yet Rangers fans think they have been punished enough. They claim demands for further extreme punishment come from the vindictive wing of the French Revolution. And they claim Scottish Football will die if Rangers are not let into its Premier League scot-free and with all its past trophies still to its name.
And you don’t have to be a Celtic fan or a crazy mock-outraged baying mobster to believe that that isn’t right.
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