The End of Rangers?

The following piece originally appeared on E-Tims, but is no longer available on that site. Thanks to the team behind that wonderful website for being the first to publish my stuff on Celtic, under the name Che Timvara. This website wouldn’t exist without guys like Mikey and Eddie.

In 1937 two brothers in Monrovia, California, started a hot-dog stand at the airport. Three years later they opened a restaurant, and eight years after that they customised it with a brand new concept, which they named The Speedee Service System. Business took off. They were making money hand over fist. They soon added new restaurants, and before long they had a chain.

In 1953 they began selling franchises to others. One of the first guys to buy one was a milk-shake salesman named Ray Kroc. He opened his restaurant in 1954, quickly became the senior partner in what was a rapidly growing company, and in 1961 bought the entire thing for a mere $2.7 million.

Ray Kroc did not found the McDonald’s fast food chain; he simply made it what it became, and this is why so much of the Empire bears not only his imprint but also his name.

Kroc was a businessman with a savage mentality, one that made him fabulously wealthy. Like most entrepreneurs, he believed not only in carving out a share of the market place, but in dominating it. What set him apart was that state of mind. Others may have been content to absorb the competition, but Ray Kroc wanted to crush it. Perhaps the most revealing statement he ever made was on this very subject, speaking about his competitors. ”If they were drowning to death,” he said, “I’d put a hose in their mouth.”

In 1988, David Murray took over Rangers, and he brought with him a little of the Ray Kroc mentality. Murray, like Kroc, was not there at the beginning of the business; he merely made it what it became, and for a while it was golden. How close it came to being a runaway success can be measured by the fact that a mere six years later, the Bank of Scotland called in the receivers to Celtic Park, and we came within cold inches of vanishing from the world of football forever. The depths to which we fell can be measured by hard numbers; in his first seven years at the helm, Celtic had a fifth place finish in the league, two fourth place finishes and four third place finishes; yes, you are reading that correctly. In his first seven years at Ibrox, Celtic did not even make the top two.

Let’s be in no doubt about this at all friends. That man tried to stick a hose in our mouth.

The year we almost went out of business, we finished fourth in the Scottish Premier League. The following year, the same. We endured a further two years of being second best, before Jansen produced the miracle and we were once again Champions. Having taken the prize he thought would be forever his, Murray threw more money at his club than has ever been spent in the history of Scottish football. He famously said “Whoever takes over Celtic next had better have very deep pockets,” and uttered the line for which he will forever be famous “For every fiver they spend we will spend ten.”

In those words lies the core of Murray’s deepest, darkest wish for us. In those ideas is expressed clearly his yearning that we had drowned, and not satisfied with almost having done it, he set out to try again. Could Rangers have survived without Celtic? Murray wanted to find out, and had he gotten his way we would have been gone.

The publication of the Murray International Holding accounts for the year up until the end of January 2008 reveals the scale of the reversal in fortune. The depths of the hole are vast. The consequences could be the most far-reaching in the history of the Scottish game, and the debate it has prompted in some quarters is far and away the most interesting in many, many a long year. Murray and Rangers, wound together so tight they are inseparable, are drowning in red ink.

In short, could this really be The End of Rangers? And if it is, what does that mean for us? Has the time now come to stick a hose in their mouths, and could we survive without them?

Before the question of What If can be answered, we need to examine where the respective clubs are at the present time, so we can gauge whether or not this discussion is worthy of serious debate.

Even a perfunctionary glance at the figures quickly brings any person with a modicum of reason to a couple of startling conclusions, the first being that MIH really is in serious peril. This is not supposition, nor blind optimism on the part of a few febrile minds amongst our support. This is real. Net debt is now hovering at or near the £760 million mark, putting the assets v liabilities equation perilously close to tipping the whole organisation into insolvency. Only vastly inflated estimates on the value of Murray’s real estate holdings are keeping the wolf from the door, and these numbers reflect the position prior to the global economic crisis, which has impacted real estate as much as any other sector. Is MIH actually insolvent at the present time? It is more than possible. Far more formidable companies than this have gone to the wall in recent months. Entire banks have been either wiped out or forced to merge with rivals, Murray’s largest creditor, HBOS, amongst them. These cold, hard facts can’t be hidden, and their effects cannot be hidden from. MIH is in trouble.

If Murray International Holdings goes under, Rangers are gone. The ties that bind are wrapped too tight, one around the other. Only those inside the Murray Empire know how deep the rabbit hole goes, but it is inconceivable that Rangers would survive the sudden crash of the edifice into which they are built. In those circumstances, they would be just another piece of the jigsaw through which the banks would be sifting looking for assets to dispose of. Debt ridden, no major source of income but gate receipts, and those dependant on uncertain success, with a worldwide reputation in the gutter ……….. only a madman or fool would take on the remains, and that would leave the club in the hands of the receivers.

This is more than possible. It is tangibly within reach.

As Rangers debt continues to rise, creeping steadily towards the high waterline which caused panic throughout the Murray Empire last time, the pressures from inside and outside that Empire will grow until yet another crisis point is reached. Last time, a little creative accounting saw Murray move the bulk of that debt elsewhere. Even if the entity MIH survives the present crisis, this is a one-time trick that will not be repeated. In its present form, MIH will never again be able to act as guarantor to the debts of one of its subsidiaries. With HBOS no longer on hand to keep the ship afloat, any Murray subsidiary consistently making a loss will simply be disposed of.

Lloyds will not be as forgiving of their debts as HBOS, not when there will be considerable pressure on the company to show they can turn the HBOS balance sheet on its head.

Celtic, on the other hand, are in rude health, not simply posting profit but reducing debt to the point where we will soon have no debt to speak of, a position once thought impossible for a successful football club. Those who talk about a board lacking ambition have missed the big picture by miles; when the Premiership TV market collapses, as is inevitable, the issue will not be about which clubs succeed and which clubs fail. It will be about which clubs survive.

Rangers’ fans have a far greater worry than vanishing from the Earth entirely though. That is a rare thing in football, and would probably be a blessing in the eyes of many compared to a far more likely scenario for a club of their size.

Rangers could end up in administration.

Only four years ago, the former Rangers director Hugh Adam forecast exactly that when he looked at the three-year plan being floated by then chairman John McLelland. That plan should have concluded by now, but it was buried as the ego-mania of Murray brought him back to the fore, and no sooner had he returned to the top chair but up went the debt again. The chances of administration have not receded; the situation is now unmistakably grim.

So, might that be their future course?

This too is impossible to dismiss as mere fantasy. It can happen. It has happened, and to clubs across Europe who were once considered untouchable. Fiorentina almost vanished for good in the nineties, and they were not alone. Leeds United, the most famous example in recent history in the UK, were Champions League semi-finalists in 2001, with a squad filled with top class players. Three years later, crippled by debt, every player of any value whatsoever gone, including their entire crop of youth talent, they were forced to sell even their training ground to stave off total financial collapse.

Now a third-tier side in England, they have just suffered the worst result in their clubs history, a one-nil defeat to non-league Histon in the second round of the FA Cup.

In England, the administrators have been called in at professional football clubs 48 times since the year 2000. And here, in Scotland, as if we need further warnings, Motherwell, Dundee, Dunfermline and others have been forced to trim their squads by tearing up contracts en masse in recent years, and Gretna vanished altogether a bare two years after competing in the UEFA Cup.

The idea that top clubs will end up being bought by wealthy foreign owners is not as concrete as once was thought either. Both Everton and Newcastle have For Sale signs up right now, and there is limited interest in either, and they are Premiership clubs, with the massive European and international prestige that comes with that tag, and West Ham are known to be in serious trouble.

Debt brings down football clubs. It’s a fact. The history books are littered with the corpses. To believe some force could prevent Rangers from becoming one of them is to believe in the wares of a travelling doctor’s shop. It is based on blind ignorance and a wilful avoidance of the facts. To say Rangers are too big an institution, too much a part of the fabric of Scottish football, for them to crash to such depths is to ignore that it almost happened to us, the club which brought this land more glory than it ever dared to dream.

The truth is simply this; had Celtic minded people not been there to pick us up, we would have been gone because no one else within the Scottish game was going to come along and lend us their hand. Quite the opposite, in fact. A lot of people here, including Murray, would have happily stuck the hose in our mouths and killed us for no other reason than to watch us die.

If Rangers end up in administration, what happens?

Clubs in administration are not football entities at all whilst they are in that position. They exist only to reduce debt. In recent years, no less a figure than John McLelland has stated openly, and somewhat brazenly, that Rangers will always have debt because of the way the club is run. In other words, this is a club that in its present form will never be able to sustain itself in the long-term. This sort of language is the stuff of nightmares for administrators.

Rangers, as a single business entity, might as well apply for non-profit status at the moment. Even at the apogee of their latest downsizing, they were still losing money. Player sales might give them one good year out of five, profits wise, but despite selling the entirety of their playing squad, Leeds United still went from debt into administration, and they had better assets to work with.

Yet, Rangers have downsized in recent years, and the financial results would still have been horrendous but for the sale of top stars. To downsize further would mean a vast reduction in the wage bill and the playing squad, leaving them with the bare bones of a team. In the twenty years of Murray’s reign there has been one season during which they have tried to live within such limited means, and they attempted to offset the decline in talent on the field by hiring the best man they could find off of it. His name was Paul LeGuen, and despite replacing him late in the day with Smith, to stave off complete disaster, they finished third in the SPL.

Right there is the most tangible proof of all that this is a discussion worth having, and not some flight of fancy. Rangers may survive, in fact they almost certainly will, as a football club, but the tantalising question is in what form will they survive?

The decline of Rangers to a point where third place finishes, or worse, become the norm is a prospect so real it makes my mouth dry. It is right there in black and white, in the history books for all to see; they have finished third in recent years when financial problems forced the downsizing of the playing squad. At present, they are seven points behind us in the SPL. The self same gap separates Rangers and their closest rivals, Hearts, for that third place. The press, as ever, focuses on what Rangers need to do to close the gap on Celtic. They appear to be largely ignorant of the forces that could tip the club the other way entirely, towards Hearts and the UEFA Cup spot.

Murray himself supports the conclusion that we may be on the verge of just such a seismic shift. He talks about January with trepidation so open you know the worst is being hidden. Players must be sold to reduce the size of the playing squad. No transfers into the club are planned. Even his long-term ideas, if such exist, appear predicated on hard times ahead; the talk is of promoting from within, giving the job to a novice, Ally McCoist. It is almost hard to believe this is the same chairman who brought in Advocaat and LeGuen.

In talking about McCoist he is admitting that the financial muscle to attract a genuine name is no longer at his disposal. If the appointment of Smith was a backward step, as I have long argued, then giving the job to a man with no experience at all in the modern game would be gambling with charcoal dice on a table soaked in lighter fluid where all the assembled players are smoking cigars. The most combustible part of that scenario would be the reaction of the Rangers support; if they turned their back on the club, as has happened on other occasions in their history where there was no success, the fall in season ticket revenue might offset the measures being taken to stabilise the balance sheet and then even rapid downsizing might not save them from the prospect of financial oblivion.

Rangers are in serious peril. This is a fact. The first question therefore is answered. This is a realistic debate to be having; we really could be looking at The End of Rangers, if not entirely then certainly as a force in the game with which we would need to contend for many, many long years to come. The questions we are left with are these; with the present situation as it is, should we endeavour to stick the hose in their mouths and watch them drown, and what would be the future for Scottish football and Celtic if we did?

I’ll answer the first question simply. Not only should we do it, but I am convinced there are people within Celtic who are trying to.

Take transfer policy for instance. In recent years, a number of players initially targeted by Rangers ended up at Celtic Park. Riordan, Miller, McDonald and Scott Brown are the most obvious. Of the four, two are still with us, as bankable assets. Miller went on to Rangers, but via Derby, in a deal which netted us a profit. When he signed he was a free transfer. Not only did we make money from Miller, we also forced Rangers to buy a player they initially thought they were going to get for free. In snapping up Scott McDonald, we forced them to spend £1.5 million on Steven Naismith, and our pursuit of Brown whilst he was at Hibs was instrumental in forcing up the price Rangers paid for Kevin Thomson. In signing Glen Loovens, the man Murray himself admitted was their principal transfer window target, we forced them to pay an inflated fee for Boughera at Charlton.

This is not simply about flexing financial muscle either. All of these players were first-choices for Rangers, and in signing them we forced them to change well-laid plans and pursue options at a time when the financial realities had forced them into narrow focus. The hilariously staged pursuit of Carraciola last year was a convenient cover for the simple fact that we had blown all their plans by snapping up Giorgios Samaras and Barry Robson, other players they had coveted.

That McDonald, Robson and Samaras helped us win the title last year is the icing on the cake. That Brown is blossoming into the midfielder we all hoped he would be is adding sprinkles. Loovens may or may not become a star, but he would certainly have improved the defence at Ibrox, which teeters on the brink of disaster game on game, and which has helped turn their four point lead into a seven point deficit during a three month spell, during which, despite being crippled by appalling injuries, we won every domestic game.

Transfer policy pales into insignificance compared with the damage being done to their reputation by the consistent good work being done by websites like this, exposing them for what they are, and, of course, by men like Peter Lawell and Dr John Reid. Make no mistake about it; the recent highlighting of The Famine Song was more than an attempt to protect our name and our Irish fans. It was a cold-blooded, ruthless demolition job on the standing of that club and its entire customer base at a time when Murray has all-but exhausted his options and is looking to get out at the earliest time.

For who in their right mind would take this club on, even if it were debt free and in good health? The riots in Manchester put their shame on every television screen in Europe. The Famine Song has exposed the whole club, from top to bottom, supporters, officials, everyone, to the most ruthless interrogation since UEFA’s investigations, and even in the face of a damning verdict they remain staunchly determined in their ignorance. They are a PR disaster waiting to happen for everyone associated with them.

Is it any wonder the one consortium bid floated publicly in the press was headed up by a hard-line former Ulster Unionist MP? This gives you a fair idea of the sort who are likely to be interested in taking the debt-ridden, scandal wracked institution out of Murray’s control. Only someone who’s own proclivities match those of the Ibrox faithful could go into that club with their eyes open and not be appalled. The limits on their viability as an investment are heightened by the behaviour of their fans. Dr Reid’s recent statements, in particular, were a source of great fear by everyone inside Murray’s Empire, and this, of course, was intended. Dr Reid is not a man who plays to lose; in fact, in his political life he showed time and time again a ruthless streak Ray Kroc would have found himself most at home with.

It is very much within Dr Reid’s mentality not simply to stick a hose in Rangers’ mouth, but to go to the tap and make sure the water is on full blast so as not to make a mistake and leave the victim alive and kicking at the finish. This is a man who believes in the Machiavellian creed that says, “If an injury is to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance is not to be feared.”

Dr Reid’s other statements bear considerable scrutiny too. When he talks about our club as an entity separate from Rangers he is openly discussing a future without their baggage around our neck. More, he is darkly hinting at a footballing landscape without them in it. He is saying that our survival, our existence, is not dependant on theirs. He is saying that our club is not defined merely by the rivalry between us and could do perfectly well outside of it.

Peter Lawell, perhaps surprisingly considering Dr Reid’s background in the political world, is subtler about things, but his statements at times indicate similar thinking, and he never misses a chance to put the boot into Rangers. How many times in recent years have Celtic released a statement which seems deliberately timed to embarrass or cast a bad light on Rangers? Late last season, as the Famine Song debate was gathering steam outside the press, Lawell nevertheless did not miss a single chance to make comparisons between our fans and theirs. How many official club statements were released, praising our fans, shortly following disgusting displays of hatred by Murray’s blue-shirted storm troopers? How many press interviews with Lawell have included references to “other less well run” clubs?

Our two most senior board members are in lock step on this one. The objective might not be stated in public, perhaps not even in private, but there is no discomfort with the idea and our policies seem to be geared in its general direction. Neither man would lose any sleep over The End of Rangers, and that says enough.

This year’s title win will be decisive in bringing this to bear. If we can make it four-in-a-row Rangers will be forced into unpalatable choices, like whether to sack Smith immediately, and who to replace him with if they do. If not McCoist, then they would need to promise the new coach a transfer kitty, which is beyond their means. Would they be willing to risk further debt on the off chance of catching us? Or would the decline become more marked?

Neither would bring the end at once, but nor would either choice pull them out of the danger-zone. If four-in-a-row happens, the best they can hope for is that for the next decade at least they will be at most two bad seasons away from a situation from which they might not recover. If we make it five, the end is in sight.

And what would the End bring for Celtic? Undoubtedly, people will say the clubs are too tangled financially for one to prosper without the other, and others still will say Scottish football would lose its potency if they were reduced to an insignificant rump. I dispute both views; I actually believe both Celtic and Scottish football as a whole would go on to greater strength without their influence.

Let me take the second point first, that the game in Scotland would be somehow devalued without them.

In Murray’s first season in charge at Rangers, the challenge came not from Celtic but from Aberdeen. Looking at the modern day, people may be forgiven for believe there must have been an enormous gulf between the two sides; actually, this is not the case. Rangers finished the season on 56 points. Aberdeen finished a mere six points behind them, and yes, back then a win netted you only two points, and had the present system existed the gap would have been far larger, but by no means were Rangers out of sight.

A seven-point gap the following year was reduced to a wafer-thin two points in the year after that, even as Murray’s financial muscle should have been putting them on another level entirely. Two seasons when Rangers won the league by miles were followed by what amounted to a three horse race in 1993/94. A mere three points separated Rangers and Aberdeen and a single point separated them from Motherwell, with Celtic a distant fourth, four points behind the Lanarkshire club and a dismal eight behind the Ibrox side.

Of course, the year that followed was horrendous in more ways than one, as Celtic came within an ace of vanishing altogether and the Pittodre club imploded. They fell from their second spot, and their position as Rangers principal challengers, to a shattering ninth in the league table and the fifteen point gap between the Ibrox side and their nearest challengers, Motherwell, was more than simply a consequence of the change to three points for a win. That year, we were fourth yet again, of course.

What changed in Scottish football was not that Rangers outpaced the rest by miles, but the re-emergence of Celtic as a genuine force. With our revival in the years that followed (we came within four points of the title the following season, when under Tommy Burns we lost only one league game) the balance shifted. With two clubs at the very top, far out of sight of the rest, the struggle for European places became desperate. The influx of foreign talent bled our domestic game of youth, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The break-up of the Celtic-Rangers axis would have positive benefits for every team in the country. Take Hibs for example. With a genuine chance of Champions League football, the numerous players who left the club for other pastures, with many going to Glasgow, might well have stayed. Certainly, the prospect of European football would have given their board greater latitude in wages, and thus they might have emerged as a genuine threat built on youth.

A virtuous circle effect would take hold. Attendances would go up as more sides saw a chance to stake a claim for that Champions League spot. Teams would take greater risks on the field if three points put them closer to that reward, and within a few years the standard of the game here would be vastly improved.

With no direct challenger to our power, we too would be encouraged to try new ideas. Youth would truly be allowed to blossom, and in time we might develop the Ajax-style system we have long talked about and dreamed of. The old rules would no longer apply; we would not be so focussed on the endless struggle to stay ahead of Rangers, and that would give us new focus and a new strategy.

Financial investment in the Scottish game, some of it long delayed as a result of the hated Old Firm tag and the perception that it is all about hate, would be encouraged by the end of that despicable term once and for all.

Eventually, Rangers themselves might recover, as youth would be the way forward for everyone, but they would do so in a national game utterly transformed. They would no longer be a principal power, just another club trying to catch us. Their enforced spell from the top table might also have the effect of removing once and for all the detritus and filth that surrounds the club. Maybe.

Soon enough the game in Europe will change, and when the debt that hangs over the Premiership finally drops like an anvil this process will be not long delayed, and whilst our immediate future is certainly in the SPL the more distant future will see us in some form of European League. There we will have the competition we need to satisfy the fans, and Rangers remaining relevance, as a team to give us a run for our money, will be gone with it.

And that, actually, brings me to a final point. Who in the end is going to argue that providing a challenge to us is reason enough to want to see Rangers survive anyway? The entire structure of the club is rotten to the very core, and if they were gone I would certainly not miss their malign presence or influence on the culture of this country. They are a detestable organisation in every way.

In the end, I think our ethos and our traditions and our ideology is strong enough that we can cope with their absence or, at the very least, their significant weakening. A penniless, powerless Rangers, on the very fringes of the game, or hampered so terribly that they fell, Leeds like, into the lower reaches, would be a source of amusement to me and I suspect to a good many others. Who would not salivate with unrestrained pleasure at seeing them humbled by the likes of Alloa in cup competition? Who amongst our number would not be overcome with excitement, or nearly paralysed by joy, on the day that they were relegated from the SPL for the first time?

In all honesty, if the worst fate of all befell them and they collapsed entirely, I would be delighted beyond measure. I would be content to a Zen-like degree, utterly at peace with the world and all in it. My mood would be akin to that of a man who has woken from a dream into a reality that is infinitely better. I would watch with bated breath as the removal vans came to clear out Ibrox. I would clap my hands with the delight of a child in a sweetshop as the pitch was bulldozed for a new shiny shopping centre. My sweaty palms would be clasped together in thanks to God for giving me the eyes to see the weeping fans laying wreathes and for giving me the ears that let me tune into the phone-in shows as they paid their tearful tributes. My happiness would peak at the moment the Rangers sign was taken from the stone wall and cast into the nearest empty skip.

Gone forever would be the institution that brought forth The Billy Boys, that gave us The Famine Song, that lorded, arrogant, over the rest of our game, and stained our culture with its filth. Gone for good would be the monument to superiority and hate constructed whole out of an ideology of Empire, built as a reminder to many of us that for a large number out there, our place here is that of barely tolerated guests and not as citizens with equal rights.

Napoleon once said “Never interrupt an enemy when he is making a mistake.” Over at Ibrox they have made plenty of them, both fiscally and in management style. The rent is about to come due, in a big way, and we have two choices;

We can stand and watch, and wait, to see what happens, or we can stick a hose in their mouth.

I’m with Ray Kroc on this one. This is about more than just one title win or a mere Generation of Dominance. This is about The End of Rangers, and if ever there was a goal worth shooting for in our history, then surely that is it. Would they want us to survive such a plight? They wouldn’t. They didn’t.

I would not mourn them. I would not miss them.

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