BBC Scotland’s senior football reporter Chris McLaughlin broke the news that Rangers would not be stripped of Scottish Premier League (SPL) titles by an SPL Independent Commission an hour before its findings were formally released on Thursday. The initial reaction from delighted Rangers fans was that their club was exonerated by the Commission of any breach of SPL rules in their registration of players paid partly through Employee Benefit Trusts (EBTs). Yet before that pre-release hour was out, it was clear that the opposite was true. Rangers were guilty of just about everything thrown at them. And the Commission’s report condemned the conduct of the club’s directors and representatives between 2000 and 2012. Yet Rangers’ fans’ sense of victory is undiminished. How so?

McLaughlin rightly identified the “agenda”; fellow-journalists looking for a “sexy” story from 40-odd pages of legalese, fans of other clubs (mostly, though not exclusively, Celtic, for obvious if hardly responsible reasons) and Rangers’ fans, apparently happy to take any condemnation (which is just as well) to keep their titles. So journalists have focused on the non-title-stripping. The “mostly Celtic fans” (categorised as “anti-Rangers haters” by one confused tweeter recently) have scratched their collective heads at how Rangers could improperly register players for years and not receive the sporting sanction usually applied in such cases. And Rangers fans have interrupted their cheering long enough to say “time to move on” …among other, less polite, suggestions.

The statements from current Chief Executive Charles Green and former owner David Murray contained more incongruity than you could shake a stick at –  if that’s how you prefer to spend your day. And you wouldn’t guess from reading them that Rangers were found guilty on all count, or why this was. Two issues have been given less attention than “title-stripping”; the legal knot which tied the SPL’s ‘prosecution’ in knots and the legalese booting that erstwhile Rangers administrators Duff & Phelps and solicitors Biggart Baillie received on their way to the kinder-sounding ‘admonition’ for non-cooperation with the Commission. The most recognisable result of player-registration ‘issues’ is an asterisk, against a team’s points total on a league table, directing you to the footnote “x points deducted for fielding an ineligible player.” And the assumption that improper registration = ineligibility has run from fans right through to the SPL itself. This, it was revealed during the Commission hearings, is incorrect – with the revelation and its timing possibly of equal importance.

Rangers fielded a whole team of improperly-registered players on the day they clinched the 2005 SPL title. But, for two reasons, this squad was deemed eligible to play. These reasons are astounding, but legally sound. “The issues,” the Commission reported, covered four time periods between 23 November 2000 and 1 August 2012. The first three reflected the timing of changes in SPL and SFA Rules. The fourth was Rangers’ period in administration. The SPL ‘charges’  against Rangers included playing ineligible players. However, the SPL failed to charge Rangers with this during the first two periods, to 23 May 2005. So the Commission was “not prepared to consider this part of the argument” until then. Worse was to follow for the SPL and its representative at the hearings, Rod McKenzie of Harper MacLeod. The Commission reported: “Mr McKenzie explained” that SPL rules “had hitherto been understood to mean that if, at the time of registration, a document was not lodged as required… a condition of registration was broken and the player automatically became ineligible to play.”

Not so. The SFA’s Head of Registration, Alexander Bryson, explained that “once a player had been registered with the SFA, he remained registered unless and until his registration was revoked.” So “even if there had been a breach of the SFA registration procedures,” such as, for example, the deliberate non-disclosure of £47m payments to players, the registrations would not be “invalid from the outset.” “This is an important finding,” the Commission report understated nicely. “It means there was no instance shown of Rangers FC fielding an ineligible player.” Not so much “important” as ‘fundamentally undermining’ the SPL’s entire case in this regard. So, had McKenzie yelled “now you tell me!!” at Bryson, it might not have been a surprise. You have to wonder at the lines of communication between the SFA, based at Hampden Park, and the SPL, also based at Hampden Park. It was (very) public knowledge from last March that the SPL were investigating Rangers’ player registrations, and from last August that Rangers were to be charged with fielding ineligible players.

Bryson would have known that no Rangers players were ineligible, unless this was revealed to him in a dream the night before he gave evidence to the Commission. Yet Bryson and the SFA remained silent on the matter, for reasons which would make fascinating reading. Thus the SPL had to prove that the actual non-disclosure of EBT payments gave Rangers an unfair sporting advantage – a thankless task, not least because it didn’t. Had Bryson and the SFA been looking to get Rangers off this particular hook (which they weren’t) they could hardly have conceived a better plan. The registrations were invalid because Rangers deliberately failed to disclose EBT payments. But the SPL could not establish this because… Rangers deliberately failed to disclose EBT payments – a situation which might have given Joseph Heller writers’ block. So the Commission didn’t even consider the question of whether Rangers “cheated.” It would be impossible to argue that Rangers were cleared of the accusation on a “technicality” without drawing accusations of an “anti-Rangers agenda” and “Rangers-hatred.” But, based solely on the Commission’s own words, it is equally extremely difficult to argue otherwise.

Immediate comparisons were made between Rangers escaping meaningful punishment and East of Scotland League Spartans being flung out of the Scottish Cup because one date was missing on one registration form for one player, Keith MacLeod, with the SFA accepting that Spartans had not sought an “unfair advantage.” The situations differed, though, MacLeod was UNregistered, rather than being improperly-registered. More analogous was Jermaine Darlington’s signing for Wimbledon in 2006. Darlington WAS registered, but with the Welsh FA, as he had been a Cardiff player. For his registration to automatically transfer to England “international clearance” was required. Wimbledon didn’t know this, so didn’t seek it. And they were deducted all 18 league points won with Darlington in the side. This was reduced to three on appeal to the FA because the FA were making it up as they went along. It was (very) technically improper registration, with ineligibility conferred retrospectively.

Presumably, no clubs have tested the SPL’s interpretation of its eligibility rules. But the football authorities should (could?) have resolved the issue long before any Commission hearing. No aspect of the Rangers saga would be complete without odd deeds from Duff & Phelps. And the Commission’s report delivers handsomely. The administrators, and Rangers’ solicitors,’ were charged with “failing to deliver” information to the SPL. But Messrs Paul Clark and David Whitehouse were busy men in March 2012, when the SPL came calling for the array of documents required for the investigation. They were set a deadline to produce the paperwork and, given the fraught circumstances of Rangers’ administration, their request for a deadline extension was reasonable. Alas, the Commission’s report noted, “no materials were produced” before the new deadline. Michael McLaughlin of solicitors Biggart Baillie was ‘Rangers’ (Oldco’s) representative. And he told the SPL that “the club” did not consider itself “compelled to intimate documents that relate to the Trust at this time,” a considerable change of story… and wrong.

McLaughlin then said Oldco would provide documentation “as and when it becomes necessary and appropriate,” a decision which was not theirs to make. Meanwhile, the administrators stuck to the original story, undertaking “to make… documentation immediately available.” But whatever the approach, the result was identical. As the Commission reported, tersely, suggesting impatience with events, “this did not happen.” McLaughlin, for whatever reason, misled the Murray Group, whose trust payments the SPL were investigating. He wrote that the SPL, had “requested intimation of financial information and financial documentation by Rangers” and “we have been asked to ask the Murray Group… if it would be prepared to intimate” the information. McLaughlin clearly confused the words “requested” and “required,” and probably gets his car insurance quotes from fictitious meerkats. He also told the SPL that “disclosure of the requested information might breach the Data Protection Act,” which might be regarded as the legal/financial stating that “the dog ate my homework.” “Financial information is not included among the ‘sensitive personal data’ listed… in the Act,” the Commission noted, which McLaughlin could surely have ascertained for himself by reading the act.

The reluctance to supply information echoed Rangers’ non-cooperation with HMRC investigators. So they were being consistent. And the deadlock was only broken when BBC Scotland aired the documentary Rangers – The Men Who Sold the Jerseys, in May. This documentary contained exactly the information the SPL were seeking, which BBC Scotland obtained “by unknown means.” And the Commission noted, with a hint of sarcasm, that “this event appears to have been the trigger for more activity in response to the SPL’s request.” Another week passed before Biggart Baillie produced any required information, which the Commission said “clearly did not” comprise everything which was “extant and should have been provided,” – the BBC had listed more data on its website. Only very eventually indeed was everything provided, which made it easy for the Commission to find Oldco guilty of all charges.

If the Commission’s report was part of “an excellent day” for Rangers, as fans’ spokesman Chris Graham claimed on STV on Thursday night, then their bad days since they went into administration must have been shockers.  But Graham was on shaky ground in belittling the Commission’s criticisms of Rangers. Journalist Graham Speirs called the report a “withering condemnation of Rangers.” Graham disagreed. “You’re getting into technicalities over disclosure.” Graham continued: “I’ll take the opinion of Lord Nimmo-Smith and the QCs” over those of Rangers’ critics.” In that, Graham was quite right. Unfortunately, though, in the Commission’s opinion Rangers were guilty of “a serious… breach of rules intended to promote sporting integrity.” “The seriousness, extent and duration” of these breaches was worthy of “a substantial financial penalty.” Rangers’ “deliberate non-disclosure” of EBT arrangements was based on a “seriously misconceived assumption.” And much, much more.

Still, Graham was prepared to “take that,” so long as ‘they’ didn’t take any titles, a viewpoint that most supporters would share with Rangers fans if they were to ever find themselves in the same position. Charles Green, meanwhile, felt that the above was “much ado about very little,” although he did also add that the issue “could and should have been dealt with by the SPL board.” It was also interesting to hear Speirs note on STV that Green was prepared to sacrifice titles for a place in the Scottish League’s first division last summer and that he “didn’t give a monkeys about titles”  until persuaded by manager Ally McCoist of the importance of the issue to fans. He then, Speirs concluded: “became a zealous defender… another example of playing to the gallery.” Murray had plenty to say too. The words “Murray Group Management Remuneration Trust” hint at his somewhat central involvement in this whole situation, but he might be wise to keep his own counsel for a while yet. Chris Graham wants people to “let the club just get on with things now,” and to a point perhaps he is right. But Murray and Craig Whyte being allowed to “get on with things” was partly responsible for the mess in which the club found itself. It is to be hoped that lessons have been learned from those mistakes, but if Rangers’  fans see the SPL Commission’s findings as an outright “victory” for their club when it was found guilty on all counts, those lessons might not necessarily have been learned just yet.

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