by Phil Mac Giolla Bhain
302 pages, Frontline Noir
Review by Pat Black
Rangers FC are a former football club who used to play in Glasgow’s once-great shipbuilding centre, Govan. They ran out of cash, and went into administration just shy of their 140th birthday, on St Valentine’s Day 2012.
That club is in a process of liquidation at the time of writing; although a tax tribunal has found in favour of the former Rangers over controversial Employee Benefit Trust payments, Rangers FC are dead. A new club, known as “The Rangers”, has formed in Scotland’s bottom tier, playing in blue and operating out of Ibrox stadium, entertaining sides such as Annan Athletic and Stenhousemuir.
Those are the facts of the matter. But in the west of Scotland, there are some who would dispute the indisputable.
In chasing city rivals Celtic’s records under Jock Stein in the 1960s and 1970s, Rangers overstretched themselves from the late 80s onwards. They did equal Celtic’s nine league titles in a row in 1997, but they could not emulate the Parkhead side’s benchmark European Cup win. As they pursued their dream into the 21st century, wages and TV revenues in the bigger leagues in Europe went through the roof. Making matters worse, a resurgent Celtic more than matched them on the field. And so Rangers spent way beyond their means to attract talented, box office players to Ibrox.
As they faltered at home and endured European catastrophes which denied them more lucrative revenues than the bread-and-butter of the Scottish league, the cash began to dry up. And then the financial crisis struck. Banks changed hands; some got swallowed up by the taxpayer. And lines of credit were swallowed up with it.
Sir David Murray, Rangers’ Thatcherite sugar daddy owner - who once famously boasted of spending tenners whenever Celtic spent fivers – shipped out once it became clear that Rangers were heading for a cliff, with a tax tribunal looming. After a short farce involving an asset stripper named Craig Whyte, the game was up.
Phil Mac Giolla Bhain has been instrumental in bringing this story to people. Along with Paul McConville and his Random Thoughts on Scots Law blog, Paul Brennan’s Celtic Quick News and the Orwell Prize-winning Rangers Tax Case, Mac Giolla Bhain has been at the vanguard of a new media revolution which all but offered the story of Rangers’ slow, painful death up on a plate to the mainstream Scottish media - for free.
That the sports desks in Glasgow and elsewhere may have deliberately chosen not to dine out on it - preferring to sup on the “succulent lamb” offered by Rangers’ public relations schemers until the disaster became too big to ignore - is just one of the many sub-sections of shame in this astonishing scandal.
Downfall is a collection of Mac Giolla Bhain’s blogs from 2009-2012, covering four discrete sections: finance, media, fans and Scottish football’s governing body, the SFA.
To me, the failure of the media in Scotland to tackle Rangers’ problems and provide their fans with simple, easily verifiable facts is the most shocking facet of the Ibrox implosion. In the enclosed, clubby world of Glasgow-based sports journalism, a sense of not going against the grain when it comes to Rangers is taken as read. I can call to mind certain editors – clever, morally grounded people in any other context – highlighting such big news stories as Rangers players’ cars being scratched while this fiscal, moral and administrative volcano was belching smoke in the background.
It’s not like the Rangers story was hidden until things got really ugly. Hugh Adam, a former Rangers director, was interviewed in the Scotsman as far back as 2002, when he warned the public that Sir David Murray’s stewardship of the Ibrox club was unsustainable. You’d have thought that a hint of unrest in one of the biggest football clubs in Europe might have triggered a wave of stories examining Rangers’ affairs, but not a bit of it. Scotland may be the only free country in the world where a massive story was hiding in plain sight, but barring the odd honourable exception like Graeme Spiers, journalists just didn’t want to know. Why could that be, do you think?
The first I heard of Mr Adam’s claims, not having read the Scotsman article, were on a Celtic fans’ website called the ETims. If the story was followed up at all, then one has to assume Hugh Adam’s claims were not taken seriously. But others outside the mainstream media enclave smelled a very large rat, and did something many of their paid colleagues did not: they sought advice, asked questions, sifted data and reported facts.
It was the first indication of something unusual going on in football circles; the first signs of the hegemony of the mainstream media being challenged by online journalists – partisan, unpaid, and frequently better-informed than the hacks dozing at their desks.
Will we ever know why the mainstream media didn’t pursue the matter? If we’re talking conspiracies, then pecuniary reasons are probably foremost. Bad stories about Rangers are bad news for newspaper sales, which have coincidentally fallen through the floor in Scotland as the Teddy Bears lumbered towards doom. But the cultural angle cannot be ignored. Rangers – in Sir David Murray’s own words, the biggest institution in the country after the Church of Scotland – aren’t simply a big fish in a small pond, for some; they are the pond itself. Even as recently as 2011, people were telling me that I was Chicken Little, chirping to anyone who would listen that the sky was falling on Rangers. It’ll never happen, I was told. Forget it. Not Rangers.
The hubris displayed by many Rangers fans has long been one of their more delightful characteristics. Proud, loyalist, protestant and unionist, many of them see themselves as the establishment. “We are the people”, they chant. It’s hard not to imagine these sentiments bleeding through to those who are paid to keep the public informed. So, bad stories about Rangers often didn’t materialise. Instead, you got notorious creative masterpieces such as “Rangers go for Ronaldo”; “Ibrox to become Vegas-style supercasino complex” and a recent favourite, “Rangers’ new owner (Craig Whyte) has wealth off the radar”.
These PR puff-piece titbits were not to the taste of bloggers like Paul McConville, Paul Brennan and Phil Mac Giolla Bhain, as well as the BBC’s Mark Daly and Alex Thomson of Channel 4 News, who gradually, incisively, picked apart the story of Rangers’ impending apocalypse. The bloggers are Celtic supporters, and Mac Giolla Bhain in particular displays an undisguised glee at Rangers’ come-uppance here. This may be a little jarring for the baggage-free neutral coming to this book blind. But as Mac Giolla Bhain asserts, there is an irony – close to paradox – in a Celtic fan from Donegal actually providing Rangers fans with the information denied them from their traditional media outlets. One such example is the day when sheriff’s officers turned up at Ibrox, an event which only Mac Giolla Bhain and a freelance photographer initially captured. Had such a thing transpired at Celtic Park, one would suspect a rather different reception from the news and sports desks.
But, this is the thing. It’s not about which team you follow, what school you went to, or which foot you kick with. It’s about morality. It’s about truth.
The financial stuff is where the story gets Shakespearean. No-one could have foreseen the fiscal cliff approaching in 2008; Rangers are not the only big beast brought low by the credit crunch. But the insight into Rangers’ last desperate struggles for life in 2010-2012 makes for horrifying reading for any of their fans with the guts to open this book.
As for the fans… well. Everyone’s some mother’s son. Rangers have their problems with sectarianism; along with the Orange Order, their fanbase is the nexus of anti-Catholic, anti-Irish sentiment in Scotland. The problem is institutional as well as cultural. The club had a “no Catholics” signing policy until as recently as 1989. Mac Giolla Bhain asserts that they appear not to have signed any Irish players in their history – the only senior professional side in the UK with such a record. Perhaps, as they used to say of Scottish Catholics, they could never find one good enough.
Not that Ibrox has an exclusivity deal on ignorance and stupidity. I could point you towards any number of unsavoury incidents I’ve witnessed, including Celtic fans calling ex-Rangers player El-Hadj Diouf a “black bastard” at a recent Old Firm tussle. Football crowds can be stuffed with morons any given Saturday, but as Oscar Wilde said, you’d need a heart of stone not to laugh at the plight of some of Rangers’ followers.
The pinnacle of many unsavoury antics at home and abroad was undoubtedly their disgrace at Manchester in 2008 before, during and after the Uefa Cup final. It’s the mass civic unrest that dares not speak its name in the Scottish media. Some people I know of a Rangersy persuasion who were there and saw the rioting first-hand will tell you with a straight face that there was no rioting; that a lack of public toilets was to blame for Rangers fans smashing up Manchester city centre and attacking the police. Or that it wasn’t Rangers fans at all, but infiltrators from the Chelsea Headhunters. Or that it was only a teeny tiny wee minority of fans anyway.
Feel free to check “Rangers Manchester riots” on YouTube and see for yourself, if you like.
Then there’s their charming songbook, boasting such ditties as “The Famine Song” and “The Billy Boys”. As Mac Giolla Bhain wonders – why are there no songs about Rangers’ great players of the past? Why nothing celebrating Gazza or Jim Baxter or Brian Laudrup or John Greig or Richard Gough or Andy Goram? Instead, they sing about sending Catholics “home”, or killing them outright. It’s very strange.
Mac Giolla Bhain first came to prominence by highlighting this tendency among the Ibrox outfit’s fans; he even got quotes from Irish government officials, appalled at hearing “The Famine Song” being bellowed from the Ibrox stands with impunity, and demanding action – a big story, again, all but ignored in Scotland. Here, the author questions supporters’ strange acceptance of the media line that all was rosy in the Ibrox garden, way beyond the point when it clearly wasn’t. He also looks at possible reasons why the fans weren’t manning the barricades as Celtic’s followers did, when their club nearly went out of business in 1994.
We’ll leave aside attempts on Celtic manager Neil Lennon’s life. But we should mention that journalists, politicians, lawyers, QCs and chairmen of other football clubs claim to have been threatened recently for the sake of perceived slights against Rangers. Are they all lying about this? Some apologists for violent bigots would have you think so. The atmosphere is more Mississippi Burning than Whisky Galore at times, to be sure.
Next; the SFA. Here, Mac Giolla Bhain tackles the football governing body’s high-level, shall we say, clumsiness. He focuses on a very strange set of circumstances involving the “phoenix” Rangers club which emerged post-administration. Minutes of meetings between clubs and officials at the SPL (the most senior Scottish league) and the SFA showed that there was a concerted effort among senior administrators to catapult the new Rangers into the First Division, over the heads of two other leagues’ worth of Scottish Football League clubs. Carry on fellas, no harm done.
I suppose you could make a business argument. Rangers have a lot of season book holders, and they fill other clubs’ stands wherever they go. As we’ve already discussed, they still sell a lot of papers. Except… the SFA’s president during the whole unfolding story was a man called Campbell Ogilvie. One of Mr Ogilvie’s previous jobs in football administration was at club level. That club was Rangers. Mr Ogilvie was a senior board member at Rangers during a big chunk of the period of time under evaluation from tax officials. He was understood to have received payments under the same EBT schemes which were the subject of the tax tribunal. Allegations of side contracts being issued to Rangers players – the subject of a separate inquiry, due to sit early next year – must relate to the period when he had a seat on the board at Ibrox.
Now, at most other businesses, if someone was under investigation or there was a perceived conflict of interest, you might expect them to temporarily step aside, to allow due process and for their name to be cleared. Good for the garden, as they say.
But at the time of writing, Campbell Ogilvie remains the president of the SFA. Nothing to see here – move along. As you were. Carry on, carry on.
The First Tier Tax Tribunal has found in favour of the former Rangers – but no-one should think that aspect of the story is going away any time soon. An appeal is being considered by HMRC investigators and they are not known for giving up, especially as the tribunal’s decision was split. And the fact remains that Rangers went out of business. They did so owing millions of pounds in taxes and in unpaid bills to creditors. And there is still the issue of dual contracts to be negotiated by an SPL inquiry chaired by Lord Nimmo Smith. If the dual contracts allegations are proven, this will render many of Rangers’ previous results null, and could lead to several the former club being stripped of several titles.
I’m not holding my breath for that. Events of recent days have shown us that nothing is certain in this strange story.
Rangers’ fans are understandably cock-a-hoop over the tax tribunal’s decision, which took many by surprise – including, I suspect, Sir David Murray, who reappeared in the press after long periods of silence during his former club’s travails to intone that “now is not the time for triumphalism”. Ah, that old time religion! This is being lapped up in the popular press, and celebrated with some glee among the former Rangers’ followers. In a fashion that struck me as very familiar.
And that’s understandable. In the west of Scotland’s footballing goldfish bowl, bragging rights are usually a matter of losing derbies, or someone lifting something shiny in the month of May. “Going out of business” usually isn’t part of the equation, but to be fair to Rangers fans, they’ve had to suck it up for a while. It’s only natural they should celebrate this as some kind of victory, despite the fact that their club still died amid financial catastrophe.
If nothing else, this story has been an education. Not being the next Andrew Carnegie, I’m ignorant when it comes to the tax affairs of big companies and high-earning individuals, so the insight into how some business transactions are carried out was welcome. While Rangers’ use of Employee Benefit Trusts – the subject of the tax tribunal – has been ruled to be fair and legal, I have to wonder at some people celebrating this fact. In this case, we’ve learned that big companies can provide their millionaire employees with tax-free loans through a trust, often up to the value of millions of pounds, without any repayment terms set by trustees. This is perfectly fair and legal.
That’d be nice, wouldn’t it? A loan you don’t have to pay back. I should let my bank manager know about this. Imagine how much easier life would be for working people with that sort of set-up! Hey, your employer could cut down on their tax, too. Everybody wins. Well, apart from the public sector.
Some people, in the week that unions informed us 660,000 public sector jobs have been lost since the coalition government took power in 2010 as part of swingeing cuts, find this scheme’s legal standing as something worthy of celebrating. Again; it’s nothing to do with what team you support. There are higher concerns. But your personal leanings are your own.
Strange days have tracked us down. While I cannot quite hide a sense of delight at Rangers biting the dust, I’m ashamed at what this story has uncovered in Scottish society before the eyes of the world.
Scotland’s a great country. Aside from the shortbread tin imagery of the mountains and lochs, tartan, whisky, Nessie and Mel Gibson’s battle mullet, it boasts some great historical figures, scientific discoveries and artistic breakthroughs. From telephones to televisions, from bicycles to the stuff covering your roads, not to mention Sherlock Holmes, the Wealth of Nations, Mr Hyde, penicillin and your love being like a red, red rose, the chances are that an important part of your world was thought up or discovered by someone with a funny accent - red hair optional.
What a pity that there’s such a cultural abscess festering there, even as the electorate faces up to voting for full independence in 2014.
And, yes, there are many decent, intelligent Rangers fans with the same values at heart, and I’d have something missing if I didn’t feel sorry for them. Well… kind of.
To any Rangers fans who’ve read this far without biting something, I would say: whatever happens to the team in blue whom you call “Rangers” in the future, never forget these events and how they changed your world. This story has nothing to do with a football rivalry or some tiresome tribal divisions among pale-faced people paddling in an extremely shallow gene pool connecting two islands. It’s about fairness, probity, responsibility and honesty. It’s about how you want society to be ordered, the integrity of those who are paid to report facts to you, and the people you want in charge of your institutions, be it something as fundamentally meaningless as a sports team or as important as a government.
We don’t owe anything to crowns, religions, popes, politicians, pop stars, writers or indeed football players, but we are indebted to truth and morality. The future of Scotland, whether it has anything called “Rangers” in it or not, must reflect that.