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Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Independence day

Neil White

North of the Border looks ahead to the high-stakes vote on the future of the club formerly known as Rangers.


On July 4, the 12 Scottish Premier League clubs will meet to decide whether to let The Rangers Football Club, the reincarnation of the soon-to-be liquidated behemoth of Scottish football, into the top division. It's hard to ignore the symbolism here. This is Independence Day in the USA, when that young country celebrates its release from tyranny after a long and ugly struggle. So in Scotland, after generations of brutal oppression by the Old Firm, the other ten clubs have the opportunity to redraw their own constitution. The choice, boiled down, is this: allow the new Rangers immediate entry to the SPL after political horse-trading that could include the abolition of the current 11-1 majority rule on major change, a veto for the Old Firm when they align their interests. Or expel them, either to the Third Division, with one club from each of the three in divisions in the Scottish Football League moving up, or, via some weird improvised reconstruction ideas raised this week and yet to be fully explained, to the second tier. Many of the clubs will be under sever pressure from their own creditors, fearful of the financial implications of losing Rangers when a new television contract sits unsigned on a table somewhere at Sky Television HQ. However, some projections suggest that it would not take a large rise in season ticket sales to cover this shortfall. Moreover, for at least three years - the length of Rangers' UEFA ban under its rules governing new clubs - the European places, including, when the co-efficient allows, Champions League qualification, are up for grabs. Supporter power is a counter-balance to financial conservatism. Virtually every club chairman is being pushed by their fans to take the hard line. Predicting the vote is a lot of fun. Hibernian, in fine financial fettle and with a chairman, Rod Petrie, who has championed the cause of sporting integrity in all of this, look certain to vote against accepting a newco Rangers. If four more clubs follow suit, Rangers don't get in. The noises coming from both Kilmarnock and Hearts suggest they will vote in Rangers' favour. Celtic would lose a great deal without the Old Firm derby and the international exposure that brings and in pounds-and-pence terms have the most to lose if their rivals aren't around. Tepid statements about "best interest" voting from St Mirren and St Johnstone could be read as pledges in Rangers' favour. However, clubs including Aberdeen, Dundee United, Motherwell and Inverness Caledonian Thistle have given indications during all of this that they will listen to their supporters. If they go one further and act upon what they hear, they may make this a close-run thing. The vote of newly-promoted Ross County could be decisive. Even if the SPL membership of the old Rangers is transferred to the new club, the cost to it may be sufficient to give the rest of the league a window of opportunity to get closer to the prizes than they have been for a long time.


In the movie Independence Day, a race of hostile aliens invade earth with a locust-like intent of devouring every available resource before moving on to their next target. This draws clear comparisons with some perceptions of the arrival at Ibrox of its new owners, the Sevco consortium led by Charles Green. They have been described as asset strippers and have made clear their intentions to earn a profit for their investors before selling up and moving on. And so the dramatic return to this story of Walter Smith placed him briefly as a kind of older Will Smith, fighting against the odds to defeat the invaders and return things to the way they used to be. However, instead of using the aggressors own technology against them, as the Fresh Prince did so memorably in the 1996 blockbuster, Smith the elder could not break down the forcefield surrounding the mothership of Sevco, the consortium led by Charles Green who have purchased the assets of the old club. Attempts, by a consortium led by the legendary former Rangers manager, first to beat Sevco to the asset purchase and then to buy the new club from them, were both rebuffed. However, at least he repelled their attempts to assimilate him in to their nefarious legion, declining an invitation to join the controlling group and become chairman of the newco Rangers. Smith withdrew on Tuesday, highlighting again the lack of transparency in the Sevco group and the gap between their plans and Smith's understanding of the state the club is in. As with Will Smith's attempt to repel grotesque and villainous adversaries, this was played out against a backdrop of chaos and devastation. The SPL has just decided the old club has a "case to answer" over allegations of illegal payments during the tenure of David Murray as chairman, with the new club likely to pick up the tab once it becomes clear what league they play in. As the SPL published the fixture list for the new season, there was no Rangers, only Club 12. This could be the newco Rangers, Dunfermline Athletic, relegated last season, or Dundee, the second-placed club in the First Division of the Football League. The lack of movement in the transfer market in the SPL is quite staggering and tied up with the mess around the Rangers case. On a wider scale, the organisational structure of Scottish football is being tugged at from all sides.


One of the most confusing aspects of this tale for outsiders may well be the various governing bodies with an interest in football in Scotland, a small country with attendance levels suggesting a far-from-fanatical following for the sport. This week, reports claimed that representatives from the umbrella organisation, the Scottish Football Association, met on the down-low with the SPL and the SFL to discuss an overhaul of the structure of governance. This is in line with the recommendations of the report made by the former First Minister of Scotland, Henry McLeish, some time ago and also general common sense. However, like the vote on allowing newco Rangers immediate SPL entry, these talks have got to be contaminated by self interest. Each organisation has territory - and jobs - to protect. In light of the Rangers story, though, the case for a single governing body is clear. The creation of the SPL in 1998 was very little more than a rebranding, used to increase the income of the clubs who were at the top of Scottish football under pretty much false pretenses. In its immediate aftermath, the value of the league and its clubs was artificially high and those clubs spent well beyond their means on players that usually weren't that great anyway. The debt that encumbers most SPL clubs is historical and has its root in this boom period. Certainly, Rangers' spending was at its most insane in the early 2000s. Perhaps the end to their story and the debate around where the newco Rangers' saga will start is a good point to put the fantasy of a showbiz SPL, importing football talent and exporting global television rights, behind us. Maybe the clubs can work out how many people want to come and watch their team play, build a business around the income they can generate and then try to keep those customers happy and maybe attract some new ones. As they sell their best players, mostly to clubs in England, perhaps they will focus on making their young players better and more valuable. And maybe if all of that happens, like it does in other European countries of similar size, Scotland will, from time to time, have a competitive national team and clubs who can swing a punch in Europe. If all of that takes a bit of co-ordination, then surely it is better if there is one group making sure all the parts are moving correctly, and not three, each pulling its own way.

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