I recently watched, and reviewed, the outstanding 1971 film The Last Picture Show. I’d seen it before, and it was every bit as good as I remembered it. Shot in black and white, an artistic decision and not one dictated by necessity, it tells the coming-of-age stories of a number of teenage boys and girls in a small Texas town.
It’s a film of extraordinary beauty and power, a film which was risqué and daring for its time and place, and it established a number of its cast, including Ellen Burstyn, Jeff Bridges and Randy Quaid as significant talents. It also introduced the world to a sparky, sexy, shock of an actress called Cybil Shepherd. The movie was directed by the best director most people have never heard of, the then outstanding, and almost immeasurably talented, Peter Bogdanovich. He was 31 at the time, and the accolades that were poured on him after this movie came out sent his already huge ego to stratospheric heights.
In the course of making the movie, he fell in love with Shepherd and left his wife, Polly Platt, for her. It was a transformative period for all three of them, and for Bogdanovich it was the beginning of the end. He followed up the success of that film was two further triumphs, What’s Up Doc? and Paper Moon. He was an undisputed genius, and he knew it, and that was the problem. What’s more, in Shepherd he’d found a kindred spirit. They were young, they were rich, they were in love, and they seemed on the cusp of enormously successful careers.
Even in the heady, self-centred world of Hollywood, their ego-trip was a huge turn-off for everyone who came into contact with them. They weren’t disliked by many of their peers as much as they were loathed. Bogdanovich had such a high opinion of himself that most people couldn’t bear to be in his company, as he would determine to steer every conversation back to how great he was. His ego grew to such a monstrous height that whenever he went to a party and there were people there he didn’t know he would make a point never to introduce himself. He didn’t care who they were, and he assumed that because he was so famous everyone knew who he was already.
So it was that when Bogdanovich’s career began to hit the skids he found very little sympathy amongst his peers. His arrogance, his hubris, all the enemies he’d made along the way, it all came back to haunt him, in spectacular fashion.
By 1979 Shepherd had left him and his once promising career as a director on a parallel with Coppola, Scorsese, DePalma and the rest was over with. He never recovered from that period. He never rediscovered the magic. It had slipped away, like sand through a child’s fingers, and it would never return.
Ego has a price. Arrogance comes at a cost. Hubris encourages and inspires and leads to nemesis. It’s like a natural law. The Roman’s knew it before they forgot it, and became complacent and insular. The generals who won major battles were often honoured by a triumph – a parade through the streets of the city, with full military honours. The conqueror would ride in a gold chariot, and a slave would stand behind him, holding a laurel wreath above his head, whispering in his ear; “Respice te, hominem te memento.” – Look behind you and remember you are only a man.
Back then, the Romans knew that all glory is fleeting, and in the modern age almost every book on succeeding in business reminds you that the people you pass on the way up are the people you’ll meet again on the way down.
It’s as true in football as it is everywhere else. Nothing, not even the way it deals with failure, tells you what a football club is about like the way it handles success. For years this country has had to live with the notion that one of our biggest clubs was “the most successful in the world.” Those of us who don’t follow them were accused of being jealous, and maybe some were, but it tells us little about why that jealousy morphed into outright loathing.
The way they dealt with that success, and what they did with it, as well as the means by which it was attained, are what created the loathing. Rangers were the Peter Bogdanovich of Scottish football. Egotistical, arrogant and overbearing. They were unbearable at times, especially in the era of David Murray, where they openly boasted about having “one team for Scotland and another for Europe”. It didn’t matter that the “one for Europe” took routine hammerings. They loved to rub that in your face, and for almost a decade they ruled this game in the way Bogdanovich and Shepherd must have once thought they were the centre of every room they walked into.
That arrogance brought them down, that and the hatred which emanates from an all-too-large section of their support. It made sure that when the time came for them to seek the help of other clubs, when they needed friends the most, that doors were closed in their face, that help was hard to find. There was more to it, of course, because some measure of justice had to be done in payment for the many offences committed by the club … but the real reason the new club found itself stuck firmly in the bottom tier of Scottish football was that they did nothing to help themselves. Even in the throes of death they clung to the old superiority. They were making demands even as the life of the club was ebbing away. In the end, not even their own players could stomach the sheer effrontery and presumption of those in charge. When they tried to TUPE the players over almost every member of the first team squad walked out.
When it came time for the two crucial votes which would decide where the newco began its life, the attitude of those representing them appalled so many in the room that some clubs voted against their own self-interest to send them to the bottom tier. Yes, it was in keeping with fairness and the natural laws with which the game was founded, but those votes were asking that an exception be made, and it might have been made had the old hubris not been on full display. The same sense of entitlement prevailed even afterwards, with the demand that the new club be recognised as a continuation of the old, except for when such a continuation would have had consequences. The ego that led to their death has tainted the formation of the new club, in a way which is abhorrent to anyone who looks at it through anything but a blue tinted lens.
The arguments continue to rage about the EBT verdict, and LNS judgement, but for me the so-called “official” word has never mattered a damn. The historical verdict will be different from any delivered by a judge, or a tribunal. For ten years, Rangers used a tax dodging scheme to finance the buying of players.
David Murray himself said so, in an interview when he admitted that without EBT’s the club would never have been able to bring some of them to Scotland. Nimmo Smith’s verdict that this conferred no sporting advantage is patently ludicrous, as was the SFA’s shocking defence of what they allowed to happen on their watch. The events were, and continue to be, a scandal, a taint on our game. They were cheating, pure and simple, and that will not change no matter what the record books might record.
The historical record, particularly where it applies to these last couple of years, will always cause those who come after us to look more closely, and explore these matters in their true context, and in that context this was a crime against sport.
What happened at Rangers, reflected in what’s gone on at Dunfermline, and what is happening at Hearts, are the all-too-predictable consequences of clubs trying to live beyond their means. I still believe they offer a worms eye view of a coming calamity in English football, where no matter how much the EPL clubs earn they seem to spend more. That state of affairs can’t continue any more than what happened at Ibrox, Tynecastle and East End Park could have continued.
That entire league is like a car driving at high speed towards a brick wall. The driver might think he can plough on through to the other side, but there is going to be a crash and everyone on board is going to be very lucky if they can walk away from it.
In that regard, it’s difficult to argue that the mind-set which afflicted Rangers is only a symptom of a wider malaise that has spread through the game like a particularly aggressive form of cancer, eating it from the inside. Yet, Rangers are a peculiar case in point because what happened there was on a different order to what’s befallen other clubs across the land. The conditions were different. The ramifications were different. The causes and underlying reasons were different. And the result is likely to be different too. There is no widespread clamour for helping Dunfermline, or for Scottish football finding a way to save Hearts for the “greater good”, yet there’s an unarguable logic to making sure they survive which can’t be denied.
To a degree, I can understand the reactions of Rangers’ fan sites to what’s happening at Hearts. Anger, and hate, are the default position for some of the assorted pond life who inhabit those forums. They have no interest in anything other than themselves, and as perverse as it seems to the rest of us, they genuinely do believe they were hard done by these last couple of years.
They refuse to take personal responsibility, and so cast around for others to blame. It doesn’t matter that it’s a skewed version of reality. Assume that it’s your reality, and you too might find yourself picking up a shovel and volunteering for grave-digger duty.
There is a moment in the wonderful HBO show Game of Thrones where one character describes the mind-set of another. “He would see this country burn if he could be king of the ashes,” he says, and that seems to apply rather well to a lot of the Rangers support. I know full well that there is a sub-sect of that support which has never given a hoot for the health and well-being of the game here. I understand that a growing number of them are consumed by retribution and the need for vengeance, and that this symbolises everything that is wrong with their world view. They genuinely do not care if they rise to a decimated SPL on the level of the Welsh or Irish league. They would be happy to be considered a big fish, even if this was only comparatively.
What I find hard to stomach, and difficult to accept, is the gloating on certain Celtic sites. I thought my contemporaries were smarter than that. I hoped they were better than that. Celtic is the last remaining superpower in the Scottish game, and that might well be the case for the next 10 years or more. But what good does it do us if we rule over a wasteland? What benefit does it bring us to be the one eyed man in the land of the blind? Is that what we want for ourselves, and for the game here? King of the ashes? Who gains from that? Certainly not Celtic. Would a Dutch under 21 defender have signed for us today if our league was reduced to that sorry state? Would there be any hope at all of finding the next Victor Wanyama, far less keeping the man himself? Would we ever again be able to attract, far less retain, the services of a Larsson?
Rangers died. The newco will not challenge us for years to come. That club will never be able to sign a Laudrup or a Gascoigne, and even the future itself is fraught with gravest peril. The all-out destruction of other clubs, like Motherwell, like Aberdeen, like Dundee Utd, would certainly not hurt them in their quest to claim some of the old club’s strength.
But how does it help the rest of us?
How does it benefit those who’d like to see this game made better? The short answer is that it doesn’t, and shame on anyone who looks at this through the prism of hate and wishes Hearts dead. It would be a disastrous moment for our game.
Let’s be honest; it doesn’t really matter whether this version of Rangers retains the history or not. A club is more than the contents of its trophy room, and some version of them was going to exist come what may. The history is good only in that it’s a nice advertising gimmick, a nice way of keeping the fans believing, and a source of comfort for the dark years that lie ahead. Their fans can live on past glories until the cows come home, but in every way that really matters, the Rangers we knew is gone, forever, and that’s a truth many people have yet to face. What happened last year was not a short, sharp shock. That club was annihilated, hollowed out, shattered beyond any hope of repair.
They have the second highest wage bill in the Scottish game – a ridiculous statistic, and one which places them in a precarious position – but it’s less than a quarter of that at Celtic Park. Their infrastructure is a shambles, and facing a Herculean rebuilding job which they’ll have to do with very limited funds. There is no knight in shining armour to make it all look good, and when the share price falls through the floor, as it will, there will be no hope whatsoever of bringing in the kind of funds they need to even start the reconstruction by virtue of another floatation.
To all intents and purposes, the Second Division football team playing out of Ibrox bears no resemblance to the one which was playing there just 18 months ago, and those days are not coming back. What was is gone, and what remains is a shadow, whatever it calls itself, whatever strip it wears and whatever the SFA records might say. All glory is fleeting, and what lies ahead is not a triumphant sprint to the summit but a long, slow climb up the cliff-face, with darkness all around and a sheer drop to (another) death should they slip even a little.
And it needed to be this way. The things that club was up to in the latter years of Murray, and in the two years since he sold the whole thing for £1, were so scandalous that the damage done to Scottish football by their death would have been eclipsed, utterly, by the scale of what would have happened had they been allowed to get away with it all. The existential risk the game faced lay not in what might have happened if Rangers had vanished, but in what certainly would have happened had the authorities gotten their way and cobbled together a grubby, shameful deal that saw them saved. That would have been the true extinction event.
League reconstruction was a necessary evil, and even in a form we don’t much like it is better than doing nothing and watching the game die. That it has happened with sporting integrity uppermost in the minds of all concerned is a genuine triumph, something Scottish football can look back on in years to come with a great deal of pride, but if we’re being honest, it couldn’t have happened any other way. The game here has grown somehow, has moved past the notion that some clubs are “too big to fail” and learned to get on with things. The new Rangers has filled the coffers of clubs who otherwise might have struggled to stay afloat, and their long, slow march through the leagues will certainly be of enormous benefit to many more in the coming years.
The game in this country can’t afford others to go the same way. We need Hearts to survive, as we need Dunfermline to pull itself back from the brink, and for St Mirren to grow, and for Aberdeen, Motherwell, Kilmarnock, Hibs and others to find a way to do more with less. Some of these clubs have excellent scouting networks, and thriving youth systems. The need to spend big bucks isn’t as acute as it once was. They can produce their own players, or find better ones more cheaply, and two of our more talented managers, Stuart McCall and Terry Butcher, have resisted the pull of jobs in England to stay with SPL clubs. That’s a significant development.
There are times when I get fed up with the attitudes of some in the game here. We have a Scottish Government which seems determined to drive all expression and colour out of the stands. We have an SFA discipline system which treats managers and players like children, punishing bad language like a parent sending a kid to bed without supper. The petty, often vindictive, ways in which the life is being drained out of the game is loathsome, and something has to give in the near future or between those on the outside and the incompetence of some on the inside, ordinary fans, top managers, good players and the sponsors are going to turn their backs and walk away. Yet this is still the game I love, this is still something special, something that contributes a tremendous lot to this country, and to all of our lives.
Right now, we are in the Land of the Blind. Here, the one eyed man might be king, but it’s not a landscape I want any of us to inhabit. Hubris has already destroyed one club in this country. Hatred could destroy everything that’s good about what’s left.
Peter Bogdanovich’s meteoric rise and spectacular fall led to him becoming a much more rounded person. He never got to be another François Truffaut, which was his ambition, but he has become one of the world’s foremost experts on cinema and is regarded as a giant in that field. His books are insightful, cutting, brilliant and intelligent. He even dabbled in acting, and found he was quite good at it. On occasion he even got behind the camera again, and has had some success, though of the more moderate variety. Most importantly, his ego is firmly in check, and he looks back on those days with some weary acknowledgement of the giant asshole he was.
Falling so far, so fast, could have shattered him. It shattered many others at the time, and has destroyed many more since. Yet after a while, when the urge to avoid the places he’d once been king abated, and the need to face again the people who had celebrated his collapse came on him, he began to make the rounds once more. This time, when he went to parties, he made a point of approaching people and, in a manner of speaking, introducing himself.
“Hi,” he would say, his hand outstretched. “I used to be Peter Bogdanovich.”
He was both right and wrong. He was still Peter Bogdanovich, just a different one.
When the fans in one half of Glasgow call themselves Rangers they are wrong. But they’re also right.
They are a different one … but in a very dark sense, what killed them lives on.
Their need to see blood is to be expected. The rest of us should have more sense. I have no interest in being the one-eyed man in the land of the blind any more than I have in looking, satisfied, around a desolate landscape and realising we’re the kings of the ashes.
Scottish football needs us to be better than that.
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