Thursday, April 29, 2010

'Cause I'm the taxman

"Lovely day."

"Aye, but we'll pay for this later."
It's never hard to find a Scotsman looking for the darkest of clouds in the clearest of skies. But I wonder how many Rangers fans looked at their celebratory drinks on Sunday night and saw a glass half full?

I'm sure they wouldn't have expected that they'd be given so little time to luxuriate in the comfort of title number 53. Or that they'd be brought crashing back to earth not by a resurgent Celtic but by the worrying knock of the taxman at the front door.

Added to the woes of financial mismanagement Rangers now have to deal with accusations of financial chicanery. To the tune, according to some reports, of £24 million pounds.

The club are prepared to launch a robust defence, a defence I'd imagine they would mount as if their lives depend on it, but I'm not wholly convinced by some of the noises apparently coming out of Ibrox.

Chairman Alastair Johnson has jetted in to deal with the latest crisis but he's also distanced himself from it, laying the blame at David Murray's door. Does that hint at acceptance of at least some questionable practices?

There also seems to be a default fall back on the "but everybody does it" defence. As bankers and politicians have found to their cost in recent months the public is not convinced by this kind of reasoning when the transgression would seem to involve a multi-million pound fraud. Portsmouth and Arsenal - the London club have apparently already paid out £11 million in back taxes - have found to their cost it's not really an excuse readily accepted by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs either.

Remember Mark Twain:

"The only difference between a tax man and a taxidermist is that the taxidermist leaves the skin." 

I'm not a tax expert. Discussions of offshore accounts and hidden payments bore me. People trying to avoid paying annoys me. That it always seems to be the richest individuals, the biggest companies, at the centre of scandal merely reaffirms much of what I hold to be true of society.

But, as I say, I'm not an expert. And Rangers have been found guilty of absolutely nothing yet. They might have done nothing wrong, they might have done less wrong than a headline grabbing figure of £24 million would suggest, they might have done something wrong and get away with it. I don't know. And I'd guess that the journalists, bloggers, Rangers fans, Celtic fans and tax experts giving their opinions don't know either.

Of more interest right now is the short term impact. How long is a court case likely to take? What would be the timescale for HMRC completing and dropping an investigation or completing the investigation and getting the matter to court?

Because what Rangers don't have, from a footballing perspective, is much time. I suspect all this makes it less likely that Walter Smith will still be in charge by the end of the summer. And it would now seem impossible that the players looking for new contracts are going to get the offers they expect.

Any attempt by HMRC to get money back would also put the future of players with any real saleable value in serious doubt.

As for potential buyers? Right now Rangers are like a big, detached house with lovely gardens and a sea view. You wonder why such a property could be so cheap. Then you find out about the asbestos in the roof and are told that former owners include Harold Shipman, Fred West and Peter Sutcliffe. You run a mile. The house sits empty, it's fading grandeur unsellable at any price.

So, and even if nothing else comes of this long term, HMRC have condemned Rangers to limp along like they have been for the past 20 months. For now they limp along as champions and that's a fairly sizeable crumb of comfort.

But championships are transitory. It seems that the financial woe that engulfs Ibrox is here to stay. It might just haunt the club long after the latest batch of silverware has faded and Walter Smith's last band of brothers have disappeared into the night.

Question: Can anyone tell me if any of the Scottish newspapers/media outlets have dedicated sports business journalists? I'm thinking of someone like The Guardian's David Conn. The problems at Rangers, the ongoing crisis throughout Scottish football, the continuing struggles of professional rugby, a Ryder Cup and a Commonwealth Games in 2014. Seems there's a lot to report, somebody could be missing a trick.

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