Monday, October 26, 2009

The Great Depression

John Hughes described Walter Smith as the "godfather" of Scottish football managers the other day. In recent weeks, however, Smith's traditional taciturn gravitas has been replaced by a more haunted look, the look of a man who spends his long, sleepless nights wondering what went wrong.

When he returned to Rangers he knew there would be hard work ahead. At times he must struggle to comprehend that he somehow turned the car crash he inherited from Paul Le Guen into a team capable of winning a league title, three domestic cups and making an improbable appearance in a European final.

All that must seem a long time ago. For weeks now the same question has been asked over and over again: "Are Rangers a club in crisis?" On Saturday evening Smith gave us our answer.
Now the bank have taken over the running of the club. They'll have their own ideas and obviously investment isn't one of them, I just think there's a stagnation about our club at the present moment.
The financial problems at Ibrox have been the subject of conjecture and innuendo for months now but Smith's post match comments at the weekend are the first time that anyone inside the club has addressed them publicly and with any degree of honesty.

Radio phone-ins and websites were immediately abuzz with rumours that the club was in administration. Unsurprisingly that seems not to be the case. Banks tend not to leave such announcements to post match interviews with Chick Young.

What we do know is that the bank is concerned enough to have placed its own man on the Rangers board. The debt seems to be somewhere between 25 and 30 million pounds and David Murray's non footballing interests are no longer considered by the bank as a secure guarantor of that debt.

If Rangers were you or me they'd not have been declared bankrupt but they'd be past the stage of putting the demand letters straight in to the shredder and they could forget about extending the overdraft.

The club is for sale and, apparently, some people are interested. But David Murray is wanting to recoup some of what he has spent over the last 20 odd years. Any potential buyer must be prepared to keep Murray sweet, take on a massive debt and overhaul a threadbare and limited paying squad. It's only a certain kind of guy that finds that kind of small change down the back of the sofa.

Things could get worse and who, Rangers fans apart, wouldn't be intrigued by the SFA and SPL having to step in to punish the Ibrox side for going into administration. The nightmare scenario is for "doing a Leeds" to transform into "doing a Rangers."

Some Rangers fans, applying the universal myopia of supporters, will shrug all this off, safe in the knowledge that Rangers are "a massive club." Indeed they are but the bigger they are, the harder they fall and all that. Right now Rangers, through monumental financial mismanagement, find themselves losing groundstaff to Partick Thistle because the Jags pay more and Jocky Scott gloating about having more resources than Walter Smith.
Administration or not that's a pretty bleak place to be.

And it doesn't look like getting better any time soon. A transfer window will open soon and Rangers will go into it hoping only to hold on to what they've got. Rangers, as they are just now, are a club with the singular ambition of keeping their head above the water. Nothing more.

Smith and his management team are out of contract in the second week of the new year. At the moment the board will be unable to offer them new deals. That means Rangers, the SPL champions, will face 2010 with a manager who doesn't have a contract.

Walter Smith has proved himself time and again to be completely loyal to the club. But lifting the lid on the involvement of Lloyds on Saturday was the latest in a line of well timed indiscretions this season. His patience is wearing thin. His legacy and the future prospects of Ally McCoist are not well served by remaining on the bridge of a sinking ship.

How long the board, and the now absent but still powerful Murray, can hope to hold on to a man in his sixties with no need to work except a sense of duty is debatable. Would Smith be able to say with complete honesty that he hasn't thought about walking away in January?

Rangers are no longer a club that can operate with matters on the football pitch as their priority. Servicing debts and cutting costs now dominate board meetings. If Walter Smith is worried about his reliance on a 39 year old centre half then his directors might be happy to listen to his concerns. But they are completely powerless to do anything about it.

We hear too much about football clubs and their finances, about foreign owners and debt, about unaffordable wages and January fire sales. But in any consideration of Rangers at the moment it is the machinations in the boardroom that must dominate.

Against this Smith's achievements over the last couple of years appear even more extraordinary. But he'd never claim to be a magician and he's now being asked to do a job that seemed unimaginable when he signed on in 2007.

Whether he stays or goes Rangers are now less a football club than a stark warning about the dangers of big business going wrong. Money may or not be the root of all evil. But when the money men make mistakes they tend to be more calamitous than a goalkeeper fumbling a cross or a striker missing an open goal.

Rangers are living in a new reality. By speaking bluntly on Saturday Walter Smith was preparing the fans, who are not given to managing their expectations, for a long, hard season ahead.

Without a new owner soon Rangers footballing decline over the next couple of years could be spectacular. Don't expect Smith to stick around to preside over that.