Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Rangers taken to the brink

I was seven when Rangers won their first league title of my lifetime.

Up until that point Celtic had won three championships. Aberdeen had matched them. And Dundee United had slipped in with their solitary league win. I seem to just about remember Jim McLean smiling that day.

There's not been much for us non-Old Firm fans to smile about since.

Celtic got the centenary title of their destiny after that first Ibrox title celebration. Since then: 16 for Rangers, seven for Celtic. And bugger all for anyone else.

I know very little but Old Firm dominance. And I know very little but a Rangers domination of that duopoly.

So why should I care about the travails of Rangers?

The travails of a club whose onslaught of titles is pretty much all I've known, a club whose supporters contain certain elements who glory in behaviour I despise, a club whose attitude I've found arrogant, disrespectful, enraging.

I shouldn't really care.

But I do.

Not in a "Ha bloody ha. You reap what you sow and you lads are reaping it now" kind of way.

There is an element of that. Hubris inspires it. And, knowing what we now know, there have been people involved with Rangers who have displayed despicable hubris in recent years.

But I support a team that has stared down the barrel. I remember that. I wouldn't wish it on the mates I have that are Rangers fans. I wouldn't wish it on the men and women for whom Rangers provide a wage, a job.

Celebrating the onset of unemployment in Govan. That's unbecoming.

Yet Rangers are where they are - and yesterday's developments do little more than nudge us closer to knowing where that might be - through financial mismanagement.

It might also be, and we're approaching a legal decision about this, that they are where they are on account of a gargantuan theft against the state.

These are things that should be punished.

A theft against football as well. Our football. Championships have been won that Rangers couldn't afford. Talents have been taken from other teams - although we must concede that those other teams have enjoyed the financial benefits - that Rangers couldn't afford.

That's cheating. Doping the game. Financial doping. Doping is cheating. We've all suffered.

But as Rangers falsely speculated, others in the league often accumulated. Football can send us down a cul-de-sac where moral absolutes are hard to find.

Let's finger David Murray and his cohorts as guilty. We can, at the very least, sentence them on the charge of gross mismanagement.

They're likely to go unpunished for that. And that lack of punishment will remain a stain on the game.

Craig Whyte? Too early to tell. But the man - perhaps through no fault of his own - hailed as a billionaire saviour looks now to have taken Rangers to the edge in an act of brinksmanship against the tax authorities.

A man whose boasts haven't been substantiated, whose threats of a legal defence against myriad accusations look like so much bluster, whose recent court cases have left him looking uncomfortably small-time, whose plans for Rangers have led them only to the precipice.

As wrong as I might be, I can't find it in myself to trust him as one of the good guys.

So here sit Rangers. A footballing institution with a history of conquering their domestic game that is all but unrivalled, now tarnished and lurching to disaster.

The future?

Financial constraints? For sure. Administration? It looks likely. Liquidation? Whyte's taken a gamble to try and stave it off. He might not succeed.

Could we be looking at the end of Rangers?

There are street parties being planned across Scotland at the thought.

It won't happen.

They'll remain, perhaps much weakened, as part of our game.

Which leaves Scottish football - the same people who have both suffered and benefited as this Govan Enron cocked a snook at prudence - with decisions to make.

Celtic's Peter Lawwell pointed out today that his club don't need Rangers. That seems reasonable. Big, big club Celtic.

Rivalry - historic, poisoned, crazy, enduring rivalry - counts for a lot but it doesn't entirely define Celtic's financial future.

Yet their immediate budgets are tied to Scottish football. And Scottish football's budgets are tied to Rangers. Not every club would be able to cope like Celtic can.

If the nuclear "Newco" go-bust-and-start-again option is chosen by - or forced on - Rangers then they will remain in the SPL.

The other clubs will have to reason that it's a case of better the discredited devil you know.

No Rangers and no sponsorship. Or - as Neil Doncaster made clear when the new TV deal was signed last year - no existing sponsorship or media deals. All of them are dependent on four SPL Old Firm games a season.

Those deals can be renegotiated. But...

Take just one Old Firm game out of last year's SPL viewing figures and you're left with an average UK audience of under 135,000 per game.

No Rangers means reduced TV deals. That means less revenue from sponsorship and advertising.

Short-term - and I fear this might be very short-term - that could mean another club or two following Rangers down the swanny.

Long-term it means a league with reduced income. That means reduced prize money for what, one must imagine, would be a race for second place.

Celtic, with practically automatic entry to Europe and the wherewithal to chase their own TV money abroad, would move ever further away from the rest.

From duopoly to monopoly.

I'm still convinced that won't happen. Rangers, or "new" Rangers, will remain in the SPL.

But at what cost? Even a phoenix club is likely to face financial constraints at the beginning. And the SPL, which couldn't be seen to be entirely deaf to public opinion, might feel the need to add a punishment to its meek acceptance of "new" Rangers.

Rangers, skint and starting three consecutive seasons on minus 15 points, could struggle at first to make the top six.

With that outcome the SPL split, the mechanism designed to ensure four Old Firm games a season, would fall foul of the league's media and sponsorship deals.

The solution would be to allow "new" Rangers into a ten team top league. The pay-off would have to be the creation of the much discussed "SPL 2" with a nod to a more equitable distribution of TV money.

Conjecture. Nothing more. Ifs, buts and might-never-happens based on the events of a day that would have seemed unimaginable a decade ago.

The day the great beast of Scottish football was forced to admit the extent of its wounds.

The day Rangers took a step into the unknown.

And the day Scottish football was forced to follow them.

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