This weekend the News of the World reported that the Andrew Ellis takeover of Rangers was back on, this time with funding from the almost inevitable Russian tycoon, in the form of Vladimir Antonov. The ‘paper quoted a “source close to” Antonov who claimed the deal was “99% complete”. This apparently came as news to Rangers who immediately denied any knowledge, and indeed to Antonov who also denied that any contact had been made, though he didn’t deny an interest. At the moment it seems likely to be yet another red herring in the ongoing Rangers saga, but for all the denials there is some plausibility to the idea that Ellis and Antonov might have teamed up. Antonov has the cash and is searching actively for a football club in which to invest it.
Earlier in the summer, Bournemouth were the target. More than one bid was made during June, with predictably ambitious talk of money being available to turn the club into a “Chelsea-by-the-sea”, but to general relief chairman Eddie Mitchell rejected it out of hand. (I was interested to note, when going to look for more information earlier this evening, that Ibase Ltd – the company through which the bid was apparently being made – no longer has a website.) If the more scurrilous accusations about Antonov are to be believed this was a lucky escape for Bournemouth. And to be fair to the News of the World here – which is not a phrase you’ll hear me using very often – they did at least highlight some of the skeletons Antonov is alleged to have in his closet, in the same article in which they broke the “news” of his Rangers takeover. The allegations, which have been made by government agencies in both Sweden and the United States, include money-laundering and links to organised crime.
Although Ellis has no such accusations hanging over him, his own track record in football doesn’t bode especially well either. In 2001 he made an attempt to take over QPR, part of the plan of which was to sell Loftus Road and move to a new stadium out near Heathrow. Subsequently, he had a brief and unsuccessful spell in charge of Northampton Town. In both these cases, the press have been able to spin it either way, depending on whether they wanted to cosy up to Ellis or not. In the QPR case there have been many before and since who thought Loftus Road too small, while at Northampton he may just have been unlucky with a disastrous managerial appointment in Terry Fenwick, and there are some fans being quoted who nonetheless give credit to Ellis for saving the club from potential administration and putting a new regime in place which still exists (without him) to this day. Not that I’d want to push the boat out too far in defence of him, myself – there was again talk at Northampton that it was all about a property deal and far more serious was the apparent suggestion of a merger with MK Dons.
By the end of last season, Ellis had been trying for some time to conclude a deal with Rangers – reports varied from day-to-day as to whether the deal was on the point of going through or dead in the water – until, around the time Antonov was failing to buy Bournemouth, David Murray lost patience and took the club off the market. As far as the club is concerned, nothing has happened since then to change that position – officially at least. The word being put out was that Ellis had failed to come up with the necessary cash – this may well be true, and if he has indeed turned to Antonov this would strengthen such an accusation, but there are a couple of reasons to treat it with caution. Firstly, of course, there was no longer any reason for the press to be nice to him if he’d ceased to be a potential a future Rangers chairman, no one in the Scottish press is going to take his word over off-the-record briefings from Ibrox who they rely on all the year round. But the other elephant in the room is the ongoing investiation into Rangers tax affairs.
This relates to the scam whereby players are paid a proportion of their wages through offshore Trusts to avoid tax. I say scam although it’s legal and a number of clubs as well as City firms and others use it. Or at least, it might be legal, but HMRC have their doubts and have been slowly getting around to challenging some of it. Arsenal were the most high-profile club to be caught out, they scrapped a similar scheme in 2005 and paid a raft of back-tax. Celtic also scrapped their scheme the following year. But Rangers have been running with it for a longer period – in the region of £46 million was paid this way between 2001 and 2009. If the decision goes against them then the club will almost certainly be liable for the tax on it, particularly where it concerns overseas players who have left the country, amounting perhaps to as much s £24 million. For a club are already hamstrung by debts generally quoted something around the £30 million mark this is clearly a big deal. It should be said that it’s far from certain that the case will go against them – and although not directly analogous, the failure of HMRC’s case against Portsmouth the other week in a case that also involved offshore payments may have helped them to breathe a little easier. I suspect that, for Rangers too, nothing much will come of it, but unless David Murray is sufficiently confident to guarantee he’ll cover it, it’s very hard to see why any reputable investor would be willing to buy the club while the situation remains unresolved.
Which brings me to the other propsective owner who has been mooted over the last year or two – David King, an expat businessman who has earned his fortune in, and then had it frozen by, South Africa. King is already a non-executive director at Ibrox, having put some money in a few years back, is a friend of chairman Alastair Johnston and appears to be keen – even if keenness and stumping up the goods are very different things. Nothing is going to happen, however, until he resolves his legal issues back in South Africa, which is set to take some little time yet even if he should manage to resolve them in his favour. He has been accused by the South African Revenue Service of large scale tax evasion, fraud, forgery, money laundering and racketeering and faces over three hundred criminal charges relating to them. Whatever the rights or wrongs, and even if King does manage to prove that he has acted within the law, it’s clear that he has used every trick in the book with offshire companies in order to avoid paying fair tax on his fortune. Which is sort of ironic, and you might think he would thus fit in perfectly at Ibrox, but I for one certainly wouldn’t want my own club to have anything to do with such a character. Any more than Antonov.
Predictably but no less depressingly, many Rangers fans seem unconcerned with any such matters of morality so long as someone can come up with the money to buy out Murray and lift the restrictions under which the club is currently operating, and which are continuing to bite even though Walter Smith has finally been given leeway to make a couple of signings. So far Smith has worked wonders in keeping the off-field troubles from affecting the performance of the team, but if that starts to slip, the pressure on Murray will intensify to sell up to whoever is available. Given the only options on the horizon at present, that’s not a pleasant prospect.
But for the time being the club’s future remains up in the air as it has done for the past couple of years, and we’ll just have to await developments. As for Antonov, I suspect the football world will be hearing more from him, whether it’s at Rangers or elsewhere. Expect the phrase “fit and proper person” to take its usual back seat.