Thursday, December 22, 2011

SPL Advent: Rangers

Day ten of the SPL Advent. Rangers. Dreaming of a Whyte Christmas.

Rangers offer another chance for one of these half season reviews to become more a work of financial reporting. I'll try to resist.

We know the taxman cometh, we know Craig Whyte himself rarely seems short of a battle to fight and we know that other companies and individuals have raised concerns over Rangers' financial position.

We still don't know where this particular footballing fable about the perils of avarice will end.

Partly that's because the ins-and-outs of the previous board's relationship with the taxman will not be fully aired until January.

It's also because of Mr Whyte's apparent - to this outsider at least - refusal to properly communicate.

He seems quicker to engage lawyers than engage with fans. There's been the odd platudinous interview. But - again as a detached observer - the lack of an AGM for shareholders and the apparent brittleness of his relationship with the media really only serve to shroud a complex business situation in more mystery.

Is that me being guilty of wandering off the football pitch and into the boardroom and the tax office?

Yes and no.

I'd say that Craig Whyte and his new team have presided over a succession of PR blunders that have undermined them even as they've raised the business as usual signs.

That, of course, is entirely up to him. He obviously has a disdain for the media and doesn't consider himself, his business interests or his strategy for Rangers as public property.

But it's created a vacuum that's been filled by constant speculation, supposition, rumour and the odd fact. And Rangers have often looked paralysed in the face of it.

It has helped create a constant "club in crisis" narrative. And that's unfortunate because it's a narrative that hasn't been borne out on the pitch.

There were doubts about Ally McCoist's ability and suitability. There was a strong body of opinion that this was not a season where Rangers could afford to have a novice - all be it a fairly long in the tooth novice - at the tiller.

Two European exits before the summer was frozen from memory, an early league cup defeat to Falkirk. Even the opening draw at home to Hearts.

It all added grist to the mill. McCoist the entertainer was going to turn into McCoist the managerial clown.

Right now it seems like a thousand questions about the future remain unanswered. And it's far too early to make any predictions about McCoist's likely longevity or overall success as a manager.

Yet Rangers have a four point cushion at the top of the league.

They've lost only once, conceded only nine goals, won 15 games and have the league's best goal difference.

Those statistics don't suggest a club suffering a crisis on the pitch. There have been some tight wins, some iffy performances.

Yet they remain four points clear.

That gap has narrowed. At one stage it was a twelve point cushion. But Celtic had a game in hand and were always as likely to go on a run of victories as Rangers were to drop a few points.

I have to admit that I thought Rangers were hopeless - but not lucky - in beating Hibs a couple of weeks ago. I've not seen the game but I've heard tell of a couple of big strokes of fortune helping them past Inverness at the weekend.

Performances like that contribute to the idea of a side struggling to hold itself together as their main rival become ever more buoyant. It's a funny kind of perfection we demand in an imperfect game if 19 points from the last 24 is a sign of impending doom.

Crucially, of course, in the championship waltz played out in Glasgow, Rangers have - right now - the upper hand in the head to heads.

How McCoist must have enjoyed that 4-2 win at Ibrox in September. How he'd like to repeat it next week away to a Celtic side that look more inspired than they did a couple of months ago.

So McCoist is where he is. Top of the league, a four point gap and his team still monotously winning games, even those games they don't look like winning.

Which, as far as the league is concerned, is pretty much exactly what is expected of a Rangers manager.

And yet unease seems to remain. Will players - most crucially top scorer Nikica Jelavić - be sold to help balance the books?

What will happen with the tax case? And how serious will the consequences of that case be?

Amid all this games still need to be played. Three matches between Christmas Eve and the New Year holiday. Including that trip across Glasgow.

Big questions, big stakes, big games.

All McCoist and his players can do is keep winning.

Don't look back or turn away, life can be your's if you'll only stay


Keeping hold of their best players. A resolution to the tax case that is not punitive enough to demand further penury - or worse.

Rangers might be asking for some quite big gifts this year.

More important gifts than football?

Perhaps. But a win at Celtic Park, putting a halt to the momentum Celtic seems to have been building and extending Rangers' lead at the top of the SPL.

Well, that might just feel priceless.

The Scottish Football Blog blogathon took place in November in aid of Alzheimer Scotland and the Homeless World Cup. You can still donate to help two great causes.