It’s not for nothing that one of the first recording artists I ever got seriously into was Billy Joel. He has written some of the greatest songs of the last 40 years, and he was doing it from his very first studio album all the way to the last.
One of his best albums is Glass Houses, his seventh release.
It contains some of his finest work, and in particular the song which I nicked as the title to this piece.
The chorus lends itself so perfectly to Andrew Smith’s article in the Scotsman today … a preposterous piece with no grounding in reality at all. It is entitled “Dave King set to ‘do a Fergus McCann’ at Rangers.”
I think you already get why I’m writing about it.
It’s worth taking a look at the relevant lines in Billy Joel’s chorus before we get into it. Like I said, it’s perfect to me, summing up for us exactly how stupid Smith’s assertions are.
It’s just a fantasy
It’s not the real thing
But sometimes a fantasy
Is all you need ….
There are times when I read a piece in the Scottish media and I am half convinced that somewhere the writer is sitting in a boozer laughing his head off. This is one of those times, because I would be amazed if Smith actually believed a word of what he’s written.
Simply put, no-one, not even the most blindly optimistic Sevco fan, can actually be that dumb. I refuse to believe it. He’s fishing, or something, trying to get hordes of their fans to post how great the piece is. Or he’s trying to wind up Celtic fans.
I am not wound up, just confused. Because if he really does believe it …
Let’s start with the obvious facts.
The one similarity between Fergus and King is that they approached their respective clubs with a proposal to put cash on the table. In the case of Fergus, it was his own cash. In King’s case, it was other people’s money. Both had a proposal to go to the fans. In Fergus’ case, it was to make the supporters genuine partners in the endeavour. In the case of Dave King, should his share issue plan ever materialise it will actually dilute the existing shares that the fans already own.
That’s where the similarity ends, in the way these guys got started and in how they’ve pulled off the coup. Reading Smith’s headline, and first paragraph, you might be forgiven for thinking that’s what he meant, that their approaches were similar at the start … but he goes further than that, and an already stupid headline becomes absolutely barmy.
When Fergus McCann arrived to take over Celtic, his truly was the story of the “local boy done good.” He was a self-made man about whom there was nothing even slightly off colour far less the whiff of “dodgy geezer” which has hung around the Ibrox boardroom for the last decade or so.
When King first arrived in Scotland I thought his was a background that was begging to be looked into properly; just how did a Castlemilk boy who’d worked for Weir’s go over there, during international sanctions and apartheid, and make a fortune?
We know that in pursuit of that fortune he cut a few corners.
We know that he didn’t believe the post-apartheid South African government was entitled to its share of it.
He was facing over 300 criminal charges, in addition to his tax offences and basically “pled out” rather than face the rather lengthy prison sentence that government would have insisted on otherwise.
King, in other words, is tainted by his past. Fergus didn’t have one.
He did have something King doesn’t though. Fergus had a plan.
Indeed, it was such a strong plan that he was able to put a timeline on it. That is soaring confidence, the kind that comes with knowing everything you need to know, inside and out. To the outsider, Fergus was taking an enormous risk, one that could have cost him a good deal of his personal fortune. In fact, the man with the bunnet knew exactly what he was doing. He knew Celtic was a sleeping giant. He had done his homework.
Over at Ibrox, not everyone on the board was as dismissive of Fergus as David Murray initially was. The bank’s favourite businessman didn’t rate the wee man at all, and he didn’t try to hide it. He thought Fergus was a pure fool … a underestimation that was so profound it was to have reverberations for years, all the way through to the club’s liquidation.
But there were others at Rangers who knew better. One of them was Hugh Adam, the guy who founded The Rangers Pools and the one member of the Ibrox board who knew Murray’s policies were driving the club off a cliff. He knew what Fergus did; that Celtic was an untapped oil field, a gold mine that had gone undiscovered.
There were areas where things could be improved, to increase the cash coming in. The stadium was a dilapidated mess. The board had scoffed at the notion of pushing season tickets. The entire business side of the club was run like something from the fifties; money was still being collected in buckets at the gate.
Celtic was basket case company, but one with enormous potential, like a Rolls Royce with bad bodywork but a perfect engine. Adam knew it the same way Fergus did; he’d studied up on the subject, as part of a market analysis he carried out for his own club.
That market analysis is the perfect place to start if you want to look at the real difference between what Fergus did at Parkhead and the task facing King at Ibrox.
Even today, few understand – and even fewer accept – the full implications of what Hugh Adam found out when he conducted that survey.
The results of it were published twelve years ago, and the media, and the vast majority of the Rangers and then Sevco supports, have spent every day since then ignoring what he discovered, which is incredible considering how prescient he was when it came to predicting how the Murray era would end.
Adam was a smart guy, some say a visionary. He did as much to develop the commercial side of Rangers as anyone, singlehandedly bringing in over £18 million … which in today’s money would be closer to £60 million. He was, quite literally, the guy who built Ibrox.
What Adam wanted to know was just how many potential customers were out there. He devised a scheme which put the details of 50,000 fans in a database. He then proposed that each of those fans recommend a friend or relative living abroad to join the scheme.
Some at Rangers were predicting 100,000 responses.
In the end, they got back 2,800.
And even then, in Adam’s own words, “three-quarters of them didn’t know they had been nominated.”
As part of the same scheme, Adam decided to investigate Celtic.
What he found was that Celtic had something Rangers didn’t have; a truly global following.
“It’s the Irish connection,” he said. “Many Irish people may support Manchester United, Liverpool or whoever, but they all – every one of them – have an affection for Celtic. And, of course, Celtic also have a great Scottish following.”
He elaborated on the Scottish aspect, just in case people had missed the obvious inference.
“The difference is that, while the Irish all have an allegiance to Parkhead, there are millions of Scots who not only don’t support Rangers, but actively dislike them,” he said. “Despite the claims of international appeal, Rangers are, essentially, a West of Scotland club.”
Yet King – like Green before him – appears to be basing his plan on the … fantasy.
It’s not the real thing. But sometimes a fantasy is all you need.
When Charles Green went to the City of London to find investment, he shot for the moon by claiming a fan base of 500 million … which gave us all a good laugh and was the first sign that this was a guy who wasn’t altogether rational.
Yet, I always found it revealing that Green had to over-egg the pudding in quite such a blatant way.
If there really was a global following out there, he wouldn’t have had to pull such mind-boggling nonsense out of his floppy hat.
He’d have gone to the City with hard numbers, real numbers, the kind that could be verified and nailed down.
Fergus knew his numbers, which is why he was so confident, confident enough that he put his five year timeframe on the plans. He had everything sussed, before he was even in the door.
King is walking into the unknown, without a plan.
Several Sevco bloggers have noted this, including Bill McMurdo.
Even the lunatic fringe of the Vanguard Bears have written articles asking where the blueprint is.
They know, and they are very vocal about it, that King and his people have brought nothing to the table so far but a lot of big talk, and there is enough “if, but and maybe” in their assertions to worry people.
Fergus had markets to break into, untapped reservoirs of cash that the incumbent board simply lacked the imagination to exploit. At Ibrox, they are absolutely maxed-out already. Every revenue stream has already been squeezed to the max, and many of those are no longer even in the clubs own hands, hived off to various outside parties, Ashley included.
I struggle to understand what King thinks he can do.
He talks constantly about the Champions League, apparently in all seriousness and in complete ignorance of the fact that Celtic, with vastly better squads than his club is likely to have in the next decade, only make it to the group stages once every couple of years.
Smith’s article does get a couple of things right though, and they should have King’s alarm bells clanging crazily.
He points out that Celtic’s team were third in the league when the man with the bunnet took over, “and boasted a clutch of current internationals.” It took us four years and a lot of nail biting to regain the Premier League crowd. He’s bang on there.
Yet he doesn’t take the point to its logical conclusion, probably because it simply hurts too much to face the true scale of where Sevco is.
Right now, the club playing out of Ibrox is third in the second tier and they don’t have a squad of international players as much as a team full of overpaid has-beens and a rash of overpaid never-have-beens to boot, twelve of whom are out of contract in the summer.
He goes on to say that Paul Murray is concerned that the club’s recovery could take five years …
That seems more than a little optimistic from where I’m sitting.
I do understand what Andrew Smith and others in the media, Jackson in particular, are doing here, of course.
Part of it is the foaming at the mouth desire to see Sevco restored to what it was in the “bygone days of yore”, and being so blinded by that they’ve failed to understand that version was built on sand.
Part of it is simply a need for some good news, for Sevco fans, the core audience. No-one wants to keep reading negative stories.
More than anything, I find my way back to Billy Joel’s excellent lyrics.
Because this is just a fantasy, it’s not the real thing. And there is an upside, of course, to selling a fantasy.
It’s why the National Lottery prefers its winners to go public, because that increases ticket sales.
The fantasy gets people putting their hands in their pockets … and without that King is marking time until he, too, is removed from the Ibrox boardroom.
Sometimes a fantasy is all you need, and if there is a club who’s fans need to believe in a fantasy right now it is them.
The media is pushing the “road to recovery” story, and accelerating the likely timetable, because if their fans were forced to confront the brutal truth the club would be lucky to sell a single ticket for a single game.
The truth is, whether the fans buy into the vision or not the recovery of that club is going to take years.
Today, at Celtic Park, the home side stormed to a superb 4-0 win over our nearest challengers, Aberdeen, but you know what? The Dons are a very good side. Next week we play the first game in our triple-header against Dundee Utd, and you know what? They are a very good side too.
Hibs have beaten Sevco three times this season already, with almost casual ease, and then there are Hearts, who’s 10-0 win yesterday was the club’s record victory and sets them up to walk away with the Championship with a gap measured in miles.
Sevco are nowhere near the level of any of these clubs at the moment and the task of rebuilding until they can even test those sides looks enormous.
The fantasy that they can spend money – money they don’t yet have – and simply assume a place as Celtic’s closest challengers is exactly that. But it’s a necessary one or the King takeover might as well not happen.
He knows it, and the media knows it … and so they indulge those pushing the madness.
In the meantime, Celtic heads for four in a row with no end in sight … this time next year we might well be halfway to the Promised Land of the Ten.
Can you imagine the pressure that will put on a board that already has a mountain to climb?
Where King and his club will be by then is anyone’s guess.
Long may they continue to live in interesting times.
This article has been amended, to retract a suggestion that Andrew Smith has some Sevco sympathies. Guys who know him better than me have corrected that assertion, and I am grateful to them for that. I don’t want to be let off with anything I would hound the hacks for, so thanks friends.
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