Sunday, November 25, 2012

Rangers: A hollow win

Whatever else it’s done, Rangers new life in Division Three hasn’t dented their ability to command column inches.

This week it was the results of the First Tier Tribunal that dominated the media, old and new.

The findings have been pored over. Lines have been read between to prove what the reader believes to be true.

Only one thing really matters though. The majority opinion found in the oldco Rangers company's favour.

Vindication for Sir David Murray and those involved with the controversial EBT scheme. A victory for the fans to celebrate over those who will now forever be framed as "enemies" of the club.

Those enemies include a vindictive tax authority - although the findings of the the FTT at no point accuse HMRC of indulging in frippery in their pursuit of Murray’s Rangers - and all those in the mainstream media and online who pre-judged the club as guilty and demanded the death penalty.

Confession time. I was named on a Rangers forum this week as one who should be issuing an apology. Strange company for me to keep, being included (admittedly at the bottom) in a list that included Neil Lennon, Alex Thomson and, somewhat oddly, Andreas Hinkel.

Another confession. I’m not going to apologise.

What I take to be the offensive passage from Valentine's Day 2012:

"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."

You'll note, I hope, that I didn't prejudge the outcome of the FTT - although my language might have been overly dramatic.

I think, and I've embarked on a somewhat egotistical trawl of my own archives, I was always careful not to make a premature decision on behalf of the three tribunal judges.

Yet I wrote the line: "That's cheating. Doping the game. Financial doping. Doping is cheating. We've all suffered."

How could I have written that when, according to the narrative adopted by many this week, Sir David Murray is once more above reproach and the FTT decision clears the Rangers he presided over of any wrongdoing?

Maybe that comes back to football's lack of moral absolutes.

Financial doping, noun,

Definitions

1) the situation in which a sports franchise borrows heavily in order to contract and pay high-performing players, jeopardizing their long-term financial future

2) the situation in which the owner of a sports franchise invests his or her own personal wealth into securing high-performing players, rather than relying on the revenue the franchise is able to generate for itself
Was Sir David Murray - along with other owners and directors in Scottish football - guilty of any of that during his tenure at Ibrox?

I'd suspect so.

Was he guilty of the kind of financial management described by Alan Keen MP in 2009?

"Lack of proper governance and financial instability are the two fundamental vulnerabilities to the success that English football has enjoyed in recent times. 
"Our report includes tough measures to improve the way the game is run and to combat 'financial doping' whereby short-term success can be bought at the expense of long-term financial stability."

I'd say he was.

Did Murray's business style at Ibrox fit Michel Platini's description of certain types of football governance representing a "serious challenge to the idea of fair play and the concept of financial balance in our competitions."

I'd say so.

None of this is against the rules, of course, and I fear that any rules that Platini's UEFA introduce on financial fair play will have the all effectiveness of a chocolate fireguard. Nor was Sir David Murray the only club owner in Scotland to indulge in such practices.

For a romantic old lefty like me though, it's an approach that doesn't fit with the spirit of the game. An approach that cheats the game of the fundamental requirements of fairness,

Others disagree. It was Murray's money to spend as he liked, Murray's club to fund as he saw fit and, as former Ibrox chairman Alistair Johnson said in September this year,:

"What is clear is that 'financial doping' is not and could never be construed as describing a situation where a club extends its credit facilities with a recognised financial institution."

Let the free market rule in football as everywhere else. Which is fair enough, although it also means that clubs and their supporters will sound hollow if they demand special treatment when they become the subject of investigations by the taxman.

In the case of the Murray era Rangers I think this week's decision has been used to fuel revisionism.

While it's true that he'd worked to lower the debt the club had amassed he failed to reach a stage where he was free from the attentions of the bank or able to find a legitimate buyer for the club.

Some bad luck played a part: Murray's Rangers helped create a new architecture for the European game that eventually left smaller leagues like Scotland in its wake. The game didn't offer the potential for earnings to reward a high risk business plan.

He also fell foul of the financial collapse that left the bank twitchy and, because this high risk strategy extended to other colonies in his personal empire, left him diminished as owner-protector of Ibrox in the eyes of those same banks whose own disasters cost him millions.

In speculating to accumulate at Ibrox, Murray sowed some very destructive seeds.

Enter HMRC - with their legitimate but ultimately failed investigation - and the stage was set for Craig Whyte, that evil caricature of a saviour.

The victims of all this were the Rangers fans. It's disrespectful to them for Sir David Murray's supporters to paint him as the wronged party in a nightmare that he co-authored.

There is a wider point here about the governance of football in Scotland.

I've written many times about how we gauge the successes and failures of our game with too much reference to the English game.

Our game is a very different beast. And our clubs must be managed differently.

We need to look at different models of ownership, different ways of delivering sustainability.

The Murray-model - and you can add in the Romanov-model and the Brooks Mileson-model - took no cognisance of that.

That's fine when the trophies roll in and the good times swing. But it's destructive when things turn sour.

It's a business model that disenfranchises the fans as stakeholders and turns them into anonymous consumers of big business.

The bigger the risks taken by the owners, the bigger the implosion will be if and when it comes.

And the more powerless the fans will be to step in and clear up the mess.

Where did a business model he no longer wanted to support and a tax investigation he wanted to fight but couldn't be sure of winning leave Sir David Murray?

It left him taking a quid and a fantasy from Craig Whyte. That meant the FTT win would forever be condemned to a Pyrrhic victory an nothing more.

There has to be a different way.

In the case of Rangers there has to be way of returning them to the top of the game that doesn't wrack up huge debts or lead to an end point where fans are celebrating the legality of a method of making overpaid players richer and a Labour MP is criticising HMRC for pursuing a case against a company working a system of aggressive tax avoidance.

The people's game indeed.

Last week I wrote about Hearts:

"Hearts aren't finished.

"We can only hope that the era of men like Vladimir Romanov soon will be."

For Hearts read Rangers, for Vladimir Romanov read Sir David Murray.

The prospect of an HMRC appeal remains. The findings of the SPL's inquiry into Rangers will be delivered in the New Year. There are growing calls to punish those who leaked information regarding the tax investigation to media outlets and the now disappeared Rangers Tax Case blog.

This story has not yet run its course. And Sir David Murray will remain in the public eye, unlikely to surrender his opinion of his own innocence.

But at every club we should be writing a new chapter, no longer in thrall to the dreams of unlikely profits propagated by false prophets.

Demanding a new start for a sustainable future.

If we don't, we'll be cheating ourselves out of the game we love.