It’s not what you own, it’s what you’re owed – this is how the balance of power currently lies at the Rangers Football Club. Lloyds Banking Group is owed far more than they own, and they are prepared to take drastic measures to get what they are owed – up to and including administration, if reports of Rangers’ mid-October board meeting are to be relied upon. The immediately subsequent appointment to that board of “corporate recovery specialist” Douglas Muir was the clearest indication that Lloyds wanted their money, about £30m of it, but even those in Scotland who knew that something like financial implosion was coming Rangers’ way weren’t prepared for amount of figures thrown at them recently, concerning the debts and borrowings which have kept them just within touching distance Celtic over the latter part of the decade.
In February, Rangers released interim financial results. These revealed the impact of their disappearance from European competition entirely, while most of the rest of us were watching pre-season friendlies. For Rangers, defeat in Lithuania even denied them the financial consolation of the UEFA Cup, a matter of weeks after they’d contested its final. The interims were, shall we say, to the point, running to as many paragraphs as there are pages in other clubs’ equivalent results. £4m losses over the six months, and a massive drop in turnover from £33m to £20m, and some non-mainstream media commentators were focusing on the fraught state of Murray International Holdings (MIH), the floundering business empire of former chairman Sir David Murray, and how Rangers reliance on them would have to be less, at a time when it needed to be greater.
A lengthy article on a Celtic fans’ website might not have promised a wholly objective analysis, but there was no denying the figures quoted. They backed up the argument that MIH’s superficially positive results were due mostly to “a whole host of one-off adjustments” such as £37m from one business sale and “operating profits from businesses that they no longer own of £16m.” (‘Number cruncher’, E-Tims website, 7 January 2009). Not all of the current bombardment has been reliable. One Scottish paper, admittedly on different days, reported that club bankers Lloyds Banking Group owed 11.5% of Rangers, while MIH owned 92%. By my calculations, that would certainly make Rangers the biggest club currently in financial grot. So for a minority shareholder to be pulling so many strings (ie, all of them) seems a little mystifying at first. One can’t imagine many 10% shareholders in England being such a pain.
Of course, the overall context is that Lloyds Banking Group is in a bigger financial mess than anything Scottish football as a whole, let alone one club, can muster – at the centre of yet another “biggest shake-up in British banking history” and on the front as well as the sports pages. They are chasing up all their debts. And the old ones from Bank of Scotland include generosity to Rangers and the Murray business empire which has underpinned current Ibrox troubles. In a sense, Rangers could be portrayed as victims of ‘Old Firm’ history, which placed them as the ‘Scottish’ club as opposed to Celtic being the ‘Irish’ one. There is a clear historical basis for the latter; Celtic was specifically formed, in 1887, to help Irish immigrants in the poor, predominantly East End of Glasgow. But even the Lloyds Banking Group statement, denying that they were currently running Rangers, contained traces of what sounded like the old mentality, with their insistence that Rangers “is an intrinsic part of Scottish life,” which is a lot to place on the head of a football club.
One suspects, however, that, Celtic wouldn’t be treated much differently these days and that the bank’s mentality is borne of the unhealthy dominance of the ‘Old Firm’ in Scotland. Either way, the story is bigger than the bare figures because it is Rangers. If Aberdeen had announced big losses one year after the best financial results in their history, the papers wouldn’t be running features all week long and dragging in their business editors for in-depth analyses, and we know this because Aberdeen did exactly this, and the papers didn’t. If, however, Rangers’ current problems are exacerbated by Lloyds’ perilous position, the list of proposed ‘solutions’ promises to do likewise.
Dave King, now a Glaswegian now resident and previously allegedly one of the richest people in South Africa is at the forefront of most takeover stories, and not just because of the easy headlines to which his surname lends itself. He is a ‘lifelong’ Rangers fan who invested millions in Murray’s Rangers’ dreams at the turn of the century and has expressed an interest in becoming Rangers’ new messiah. And the 322 charges of financial misdeed wouldn’t yet prevent him being considered ‘fit and proper’ to own the club. But…well…I didn’t even know there were 322 things you could do with money, and if there are, the law of averages suggests some of them must be illegal. King allegedly owes £180m in taxes), both personal and business, and the South African Revenue Service (SARS) has been after him for most of the decade.
The back story provides a few question marks. SARS has a blemished reputation for investigating and prosecuting tax offences, largely down to a lack of experience if one strange accusation against King has substance, his “attempts to evade the culture of growing tax compliance in South Africa”. Also, King was apparently originally rumbled when a SARS investigator saw a picture of a painting in King’s house worth many times more than the income King had been declaring to SARS. Quite why the investigators’ suspicions were aroused by the painting and not by the interview about King’s business successes, held in his posh Johannesburg suburban mansion isn’t clear. But what is clear is that if King is able to meet Lloyds current £30m asking price for Rangers, SARS will be quick to claim first call on that money and portray it as proof that King’s inconsequential South African income, such a pittance as to barely make it worth his while registering it for tax purposes at all, was a work of creative accountancy.
So, if King might find obstacles on his path from Johannesburg to Glasgow, who else is there? The list is not endless. The only other ‘business’ people named have been Hamilton-based Douglas Park (which, to confuse us Sassenachs, is also the name of Hamilton Academical’s grounds, both old and new) and Pau Murray. That apart, only the possibility of some form of supporters’ buy-out has been mooted, with the ‘Barcelona model’ much-quoted as the basis of such ideas. Rangers’ supporters’ organisations, including its Supporters Trust and the ‘Supporters Assembly’, have been quoted as vaguely in favour, although much of the talk so far has been woollier than the average Scottish greyface. The idea has been juxtaposed with Rangers’ past as a “covert”, “insular” and “conservative” “institution,” represented as a quantum leap from the old “no Catholics” days to, “what amounts to a socialist model.” Irrelevant and unhelpful in equal slices, and it has been dismissed by some because fans “had their chance” to buy the club during a rights issue in 2004, and “steadfastly” refused to take it.
Such criticisms ignore the context of the right issue, a clear attempt by Murray to clear debts, which were over £40m in advance of current levels, without ceding any real power or control and, in general, the arguments over supporter involvement have centred on democratic structures and cost, without touching on the real lesson to be learned from Rangers’ past, the need for financial transparency and good governance, every bit as much a priority for the Supporters Trust movement in the UK, as any “socialist model” of ownership. There’s been no lack of hindsight in contributions to the Rangers debate, and the ‘hind’ could be presented as the source of much of it.
Certainly no-one from the blue side of Glasgow is going to take heed of a Celtic chairman like Dr John Reid, a graduate of the “away and boil your head” school of diplomacy and a member of a Labour party in government whose record of borrowing is scarcely a shining example of financial probity. It should also be noted that Celtic were rather closer to outright bankruptcy in 1994, within the living memory of all but the youngest contributors to the debate. Rangers’ fans’ reaction has scarcely been more helpful, though. At the same time as fans are asking how draconian the bank’s cost-cutting proposals are, they are waving banners at televised games, proclaiming Muir, the bank’s board representative, “the enemy within”. They are also threatening boycotts of Lloyds services, which will hardly make Lloyds less keen to chase Rangers for money (unless there are echoes here of 1970s student protests against Barclays for their dealings with apartheid-South Africa: “If you don’t pull out, I shall take my overdraft elsewhere”).
At the moment, then, Rangers’ best bet seems to be to follow bank instructions and hope that any cost-cutting measures won’t have too drastic an effect on their playing fortunes. This is a strategy which is as reliant on Celtic’s dismal form continuing as on the quality of any players coming through the Rangers ranks to replace the “stars” that may have to leave. So it might just work. That apart, though, there are no winners in this game. Except one. Rangers play Romanian champions Unirea Urziceni in the Champions League this week, a match overshadowed by the finance stuff. Unirea’s 4-1 win at Ibrox two weeks ago inspired calls for Rangers boss Walter Smith to “away and boil his head” (and other, more profane requests). Four days later, Smith “let slip” that Lloyds Bank were “running” Rangers, and all of a sudden, he was the victim. Handy, that.