A Thousand Cuts

razors_t658Earlier I read a blog that Phil posted, a blog which made me smile because, if true, it joined a lot of dots and answered a lot of questions.

Before I get to that, let me tell you a story.

Bear with me here. This is important.

Way back in the annals of time, I read an article written by a famous British writer and journalist who had gone to some far-off country in the Africa’s to cover a revolution.

The government forces were stronger, by far, than the insurgents. They had the numbers and they had the cities and they had the money.

Yet everywhere the journalist went, he found ministers, soldiers and other high ranking officials in morbid terror.

Furthermore, no-one would tell him why.

Finally he was told to report to a senior intelligence official, who took him for a drive.

They headed out of the city, and towards the open country.

Finally, the car stopped on a plain and the official asked him to observe something.

Looking through the binoculars he saw a group of lionesses pull down a cape buffalo. It was an impressive sight, but not nearly as impressive as what happened next. The lionesses were attacked by a small group of hyena.

Their physical presence was nowhere that of the big cats, but they were nimble, cheeky, coming in from all sides, nipping at the larger, more powerful animals and then retreating swiftly, barking their odd little bark.

The lionesses tried to hold on to their kill, but in the end it did no good. The smaller, quicker hyenas ended up with it all.

The intelligence officer turned to the journalist, and he told him that the rebels would win because their tactics were better.

Their skill was in hitting, running, hiding, regrouping and then coming back to strike again.

The rebels did win. They overthrew their government within a year.

The full details escape me, but that’s not the point. They did it by inflicting the Death of a Thousand Cuts.

The strategy is as old as war itself.

Over the years that I’ve been blogging, I’ve thought about that story and the Thousand Cuts, and I am certain that I’ve mentioned it before, if not the specific story with which I associate it.

The Death of Thousand Cuts started as a method of torture in Imperial China, where they called in Lingchi.

We’re witnessing it happeneing at Ibrox right now.

Before that, let’s talk about tactics. The hyenas and the rebels knew tactics.

Tactics are necessary to win battles.

Strategy wins wars. It’s not about individual engagements but where they fit into the bigger picture.

The rebels clearly knew strategy too.

I have no doubt that Mike Ashley is a master of it.

He’s a self made billionaire who made his money selling trainers. How is that even possible?

Lesser men can barely run a single sports shop. He knows how to do “big think” like few others.

Those in our media and in the Sevco support who think King has beaten Ashley because he’s blungeoned his way to the Blue Room are missing the point. Ashley’s silence is ominous, because it’s the silence of a man who’s already thought this through and already has all the pieces on his side of the board arrayed just as he wants them. This game is already over.

Early in 2010, I wrote an article called The End Of Rangers? in which I pondered the previous year’s accounts from Murray International. Looking at them, I knew the club was doomed because the financial crisis had stripped away his ability to keep them running.

I wanted to see them collapse, and vanish for good.

In February 2012 they did.

A lot of people refuse to believe they died, but that’s less important than what has happened to the NewCo that rose in their place. They started from the bottom, with nothing. They have squandered the opportunity history afforded them to be more. Now they’re spending a second season in the second tier, having suffered a calamitous last 12 months.

We thought we’d spent the last three years watching the Death of a Thousand Cuts, and indeed that club has been bled almost white, but it’s the position Ashley has them in now that will make them scream both long and loud.

He is the true master of the ancient Chinese form of terror.

In his blog, Phil has charted the latest revelations from King’s meeting in London with the Sports Direct supremo.

This is the most important of the pieces he’s written on it, because it appears to have cracked opened the door of secrecy that the Sports Direct lawyers tried to close last week.

When I heard that their lawyers were seeking an injunction against the club I simply couldn’t believe it.

What was in those contracts that could be so bad that it requires an impenetrable legal veil, and the services of five lawyers?

More to the point, what was worse than the stuff that had already leaked out, the stuff that was already in the public domain?

The legal case was brought about because The Daily Record had printed details of the seven year rolling contract … a staggering and shocking obstacle to the club sorting things out without spending an enormous sum of money.

Now we know, or at least we have a hint.

Earlier in the year, The Union of Fans raised a little Hell with a claim that their scrutiny of the club’s accounts revealed that they were paying a hugely inflated price for buying in merchandising stock. I found that amazing, and hard to believe, especially the contention that in some cases they were being charged more for the stuff than the recommended retail value of the goods.

“No way,” I remember thinking.

Now it looks to me as if they were right on the money, although whether they understood the implications of it is up for debate.

This isn’t usually how football clubs and retail outlets do business.

But Sevco have an exclusive retail deal with Sports Direct and its Ashley’s company which sets the terms of that deal.

Incredibly, they seem to have written a phenomenally damaging clause into that agreement, one that was clearly intended to negate last year’s shirt sales boycott, and one which renders the “don’t buy merchandise” campaign which the supporters groups have just announced not only irrelevant but potentially dangerous to the club itself …

In short, Sports Direct are now billing Sevco for unsold jerseys … and according to Phil they are charging scalpers prices – nearly the full retail price – for the transaction.

This seems incredible on the surface of it, almost too crazy to accept at face value, but it ties in to what the Union of Fans claim to have found.

It makes good commercial sense to Sports Direct too because the current version of the deal was negotiated at a time when the club was being sniped at from King and others and they would have wanted to protect any investment they made, in particular as they were the only retail outlet available to stock what the club was selling.

It explains the need for that heavy handed legal team last week, to stop the full details getting out.

It explains that unusual mention of replica shirt sales in not only Sevco’s pre-EGM announcement (the one where King claimed they once sold 500,000 strips) but also Sports Direct’s reply, where they specifically told the club that it would make more money if it ordered less strips.

Because, of course, the number of unsold shirts shouldn’t affect the club at all … that should only affect the retail outlets selling them.

It doesn’t really matter what the mechanism for this is, whether it’s, as Phil says, literally billing the club the retail value of every shirt they have sitting in a Sports Direct warehouse or whether they have a “minimum profit” figure that has to be met, or Sevco themselves make up the difference … this is an extraordinary and deadly way for these arrangements to be structured.

It really is a long, slow bleeding out of Sevco.

Today the club’s fans are being asked to part with their money for season tickets on the premise that this is a Brave New Dawn, with new signings and a management team heading in a fresh, exciting direction.

Forget for a minute that what we’ve seen so far is the worst kind of “Sky Sports Scouting”, all “known qualities” rather than something more radical … that, in itself, is a kind of stability and I understand what the appeal in it must be.

But the biggest events to happen at Ibrox in the coming season are going to be those which happen off the pitch.

Dave King’s campaign of destabilisation worked wonders, beyond a shadow of a doubt.

It weakened the club to the point of near death, but the unintended consequence was that the board of the time was forced to go to the only man who could save them, the man who King and others had made into the symbol of The Enemy, even as he still possessed the power to change the terms of every deal he had with them.

And so, at some point, he did just that, knowing that the “long game” was the important one, knowing that King might win the early battles and that he would probably get to sit on the throne.

Ashley knew it would be the most Pyrrhic victory since Pearl Harbour.

He must have smiled to realise what it meant for King to take over and realise the scale of Sports Direct’s true hold over the club, one that remains absolutely unbreakeable to the present day.

Now the aptly named South African has found himself the monarch of a shattered, indebted, and indentured empire, one that still totters on the brink, like some medieval Prince who thought he’d inherited a kingdom but found instead a volcano of jealousy, greed, ambition, bloodshed and murder, and he charged with putting the lid on it.

In short, this won’t end well.

If he doesn’t already understand it, he’s very soon going to have a deep appreciation for what that means, and for what Shakespeare meant when, in Henry IV he wrote “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

In the aftermath of the Pearl Harbour attacks, a lot of the Japanese generals celebrated what, at the time, appeared to be a stunning win, much like King basked in the glory on the pitch at Ibrox in front of a fawning media.

But the general’s euphoria covered a multitude of serious errors by their naval counterparts, including the astonishing mistakes that left the carriers relatively undamaged, and the supply stores, especially the oil tanks, and the repair facilities, largely intact.

One of the admiral’s knew there were even greater implications, and at the end of the film Tora Tora Tora is a famously bastardised version of Yamamoto’s “sleeping enemy” quote.

The historical version isn’t nearly as sexy, so it’s the fictional one I’ll use.

“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”

That’s pretty close to the mark.\

King’s victory has come at a tremendous price. He’s made a deadly enemy out of a man who now considers bleeding this club out “just business” and is no mood to renegotiate his sweet, sweet deal because The Peepil ain’t happy.

But it’s another of Yamamoto’s (actual, historical) quotes which I like best, which fits more closely with what I’m trying to say, and should fill the Sevco fans with dread.

“I can run wild for six months,” he said in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbour assault. “After that, I have no expectation of success.”

The Sevco fans are having a wee moment in the sun today, but all too soon the dark clouds are going to roll in, because this party has to be paid for, one way or another … and unless King has grown altruistic in his old age, or Park is feeling especially generous, what they manage to bag from season ticket sales will very soon be gone.

And that’s when the fun really starts and the chickens come home to roost.

Ashley has made sure he can’t lose either way, and the boycott will not touch his profits.

What it will do is plunge the club deeper into debt.

You could not make this up, and on a day when the Sevco fans are gloating over Danny Wilson and the phantom “snub” to Celtic, I wonder just what it is they think they have to celebrate. This is the calm before the storm.

They sang songs on the deck of the Titanic too, you know.

The band simply provided the background noise.

It was the punters who were standing watching the lifeboats sail away, not realising there weren’t enough for everyone, who’s music filled the air that night.

Even as the ship was going down.

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Comments on A Thousand Cuts

  • RobHK

    Hi James,

    Very well put, although the klan may have differing ideas.

    With all that’s gone on with Ashley et al, big Mhick seems the only one able to extract a profit from Ibrokes. He has a seven year rolling contract (reportedly) so although he will bleed them into more debt ( and deeper into his clutches), I cant see him do anything other than provide the drowning carcass with enough funds as and when required, to keep their heads above the waterline.

    Of course all of this would require the submission and compliance of both the board and the fans. Who knows what will happen if they decide to attack big Mhick once again.

    If ever I’m in need of someone to draft a contract, I hope to God Big Mhick is available…

    If Carlsberg did contracts…..

  • iki

    The songs sung on the Titanic were more edifying, of course.

  • ryecatcher

    Great article again James….

    Your output,this last while, has been magnificent.

    The Titanic analogy made me splutter my Rowantrees / Ben and Jerry’s combination on the iPad screen.

    Built by Orangemen and Masons…..Sunk by Hubris.

    Full steam ahead and feck the icebergs….it couldn’t happen again …..could it?

    Chapeau indeed young man…..You are on mighty fine and perceptive writer.

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