Who watches the Scotsmen?

I read with bewilderment, this lunchtime, a statement by the board of Clyde FC which offered some insight into the thinking of the SPL and SFA on the car-crash which is ‘the Rangers issue’.

Laid out clearly, for all to see, is the incredible blind-spot of the SPL as a commercial organisation – alongside the staggering impotence of the SFA as a governing body. Allow me to explain these two statements in a little more detail.

The SPL conundrum or ‘You can’t have it both ways’

It would appear from Clyde’s account that Neil Doncaster, SPL CEO, presented the SFL clubs with a rather crude Hobson’s choice. The Scottish game is, according to Mr Doncaster, poised for financial meltdown unless the ‘Son of Rangers’ is admitted to the first division of the SFL; admit them or accept the consequences (to the tune of £16m in lost television revenue and sponsorship monies). The consequences, in this case, also include the withholding of the £2m ‘settlement agreement’ which the SPL is committed to provide annually to the SFL.

Mr Doncaster’s case was simple: football is a business, the clubs and leagues are businesses… so act like it. We cannot wave goodbye to this amount of revenue.

I have to say, it’s a very reasonable position for a business. But there’s a problem with this outlook, because as Clyde have noted,  Mr Doncaster has not followed the reasoning through to its ultimate extent.

SPL clubs – and increasingly, SFL clubs – have recently borne the brunt of a fan-power tsunami. Supporters of all stripes have contacted their clubs to make their feelings known about ‘the Rangers issue’; there is no doubt that a significant majority are opposed to any preferential fudge in favour of a ‘Son of Rangers’ club. As Dundee Utd discovered several weeks ago, the strength of this feeling is great enough to have perilous consequences for season ticket sales.

Now, there is a school of thought which says that Scottish Football is more than a business: it’s an institution, a collection of clubs which transcend P&L accounts and balance sheets to existing as keystones for their respective communities. If one believes this synopsis, then it might be reasonable to assert that irrespective of how ‘the Rangers issue’ is settled, fans will just keep coming back anyway – because what would their lives and identities be without Dundee Utd/Aberdeen/Hibs etc? Perhaps this is behind Mr Doncaster’s decision to ignore the implications of concerted fan action on the clubs’ collective bottom lines.

Perhaps.

But one thing is sure: you can’t have it both ways, Mr Doncaster. Either the clubs are businesses which are at the mercy of their customers, or they are institutions which will withstand any financial onslaught by weight of historical inertia. They can’t be one when considering the sponsorship which pays your wages, then another when debating whether to give their fans the finger.

The SFA debacle, or ‘Don’t just do something, sit there!’

The SFA has a clear role to play in Scottish Football. It’s notionally the governing body, invested by FIFA with the power to license clubs and leagues, sanction transfers, run the national team and generally safeguard the health of the game in this country.

Over the past few months, a picture has emerged of an organisation that:

  • Holds deeply conflicted interests, particularly in their continued employment of Campbell Ogilvie, a man actually implicated in the Rangers EBT scandal
  • May already have known that Rangers did not meet the financial requirements for League competition last season, but allowed them to compete in any case
  • Is liable to be overruled by FIFA with regard to sanctioning Rangers for seeking legal redress outside of sport, should it fail to impose appropriate punishments

With this as the backdrop, the SFA appear to have decided that inaction is the best policy. While they have the power to simply state that the ‘Son of Rangers’ club will be refused SFA membership unless it enters the third division, they are paralysed by fear of what will happen if they exercise that power; in truth, they are probably also paralysed by fear of what will happen if they fail to do so.

Our governing body is unwilling to govern. This effectively makes Scottish football a ‘wild west’ environment, where the outlaw with the biggest gun gets to set the agenda, as the sheriff weeps in his office, staring at the badge in his shaking hand and swigging from a bottle of warm whiskey.

The buck accelerates

The man with the biggest gun, currently, is Neil Doncaster… or so he thinks.

That’s the reason why Mr Doncaster has handily passed responsibility (for what he sees as Scottish Football’s financial meltdown in prospect) to the SFL clubs. It is they who will be obliged to make the decision on which his future likely hangs, they who will ‘take the heat’ – a position which also suits the cowering SFA – and in light of the official rejection by SPL clubs of a ‘Son of Rangers’entry into the league, it seems their decision will be a final one. Doncaster clearly believes that his implicit threats will seal the deal in favour of a first division entry, but I disagree with him.

One huge, £16m gun is impressive to brandish, certainly – but is it more or less deadly than the massed ranks of firepower represented by season ticket holders walking away all over the country?

In such a firefight, my money is on the fans. The Scottish game will survive in some form as long as an appetite for competitive football exists amongst Scots; poison the product with corruption, demonstrate that the leagues are anything but truly ‘competitive’ and that appetite will wither.

What good is a TV deal, when no-one wants to watch?

Finding the thread

A Twitter feed is a wonderful thing.

Not always, of course. I can’t unequivocally endorse any source that frequently produces a stream of terrible puns, or results (via retweets) in my having to read anything which Guido Fawkes has to say.

Occasionally though, my feed can help me see patterns with beautiful clarity… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Barely a day goes by without quotes from, or commentary on, the Leveson inquiry reaching me via Twitter. The extent to which the entire hacking scandal and subsequent legal process has gripped those I follow is striking; it’s also a reflection of how gripped I am personally by the whole affair, as I have actively followed some of the more knowledgeable individuals in search of their Leveson insights.

What has inspired this ferocious appetite for information? Well, I won’t retread the details of the hacking scandal in depth; suffice to say that one or more powerful press organisations have crossed a moral and legal line with their conduct, perhaps also trying to evade detection and punishment for these transgressions. The people of the UK, by and large, are pretty unhappy about this.

Last week, a new story began to flood my digital awareness, with the revelation that traders acting for Barclays may have lied to manipulate a hitherto obscure interest rate known as LIBOR; the net effect of this deception may have been a negative impact on the borrowing costs of vast swathes of the UK population, perhaps stretching to other financial markets. The response from Barclays has been relatively tepid: apologies have been issued and the non-executive Chairman has stepped down, leaving the actual decision makers who presided over this shady and damaging activity untouched.

The feelings of financial commentators – and as they wake up to the implications, the wider populace – are significantly less tepid.  The discovery of this incident is seen as a loud, clear indicator that the banking culture in the UK, far from having learned its lessons in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, is still operating under a prevailing, dark amorality. Anger is building amongst a people who have already begun to feel the pain of cuts; they see the organisations they blame for their tightening belts acting as if nothing has changed, continuing to wheel, deal and excessively consume with the support of their tax contributions.

News is emerging that RBS has sacked ten traders in connection with similar practices. As the scope of the scandal widens, a clamour is building for a ‘banking Leveson’ to be established. It’s a demand I believe the Prime Minister, lurching as he does from PR flashpoint to PR flashpoint , will find hard to ignore.

Both of these issues are relatively far-reaching in their connection with the public. Before I come finally to the point, I’d like to illustrate one with a more parochial appeal.

For those familiar with Scottish Football, it will be unsurprising for you to learn that I am interested in the demise of Rangers Football club. If you know nothing about Scotland, Football or the two in tandem, allow me to offer a short synopsis:

  • Rangers FC, one of the two largest clubs in Scotland and the most successful in the history of the Scottish league, has suffered financial meltdown and has been liquidated.
  • The problems at Rangers stem from irresponsible, even reckless management of the club over a number of years, including the operation of an illegal tax evasion scheme for employees which was concealed from the footballing authorities in breach of league rules.
  • In the aftermath of Rangers’ demise, various parties are engaged in a squabble over its assets, emotional legacy and the right to form a ‘successor’ club.

As the plight of this enormous – and potentially highly profitable – club became clear, various figures within the game began to devise plans to somehow keep Rangers FC (or whatever ‘Son of Rangers’ club emerged) in the Scottish Premier League (SPL). When these plans became known, a supporter revolt arose which seriously threatened revenue for all the SPL clubs who would be involved in voting on them. The message from supporters was clear: don’t let cheats off without punishment, or you undermine the whole point of sporting endeavour.

The result of this groundswell of opinion is that, before the vote has even taken place, numerous SPL chairman have publicly committed to refuse the ‘Son of Rangers’ entry into their league. While other desperate attempts are made by the game’s governing powers to give the club a leg up, to prevent them being forced to restart in the lowest professional division, fan opinion remains clear and I expect that fan power will win out, relegating Rangers to Scottish Division 3 before the start of the next season in August.

And so to the point. What is it that Twitter has helped me to understand with respect to these three unsavoury tales?

In each of these cases, powerful and wealthy establishment figures have taken liberties with the rest of society – and subsequently attempted to evade, ignore or cajole their way out of punishment. The reaction of society itself has been incredibly consistent: a wholesale rejection of the behaviour of these toxic organisations and a demand that they be held to account.

It was not so long ago that we in the UK were looking on, in paternalistic fashion, at the struggles of ordinary Egyptians in Tahrir Square and their comrades in the Arab Spring. How terrible it must be, we thought, to live in a country where democracy is a facade and powerful, corrupt interests simply steamroll the average citizen.

Now, with such corruption revealing itself in numerous areas of our public life, we’ve had a taste of that medicine… and if social media is anything to go by, we really, truly don’t like it. The collective feeling that we would like to do something about it continues to grow.

Look upon my Twitter feed, ye mighty and despair…

Follow @daveshed

And so it ends: not with a bang…

…but with an administration.

Before I spend any time discussing the plight of Rangers FC, a disclosure: I am a Celtic supporter. One of the more rational stripe, but nonetheless someone who might be considered to have a viewpoint not entirely sympathetic to the troubled club. If, dear reader, you wish to dismiss my musings on this basis, please feel free to do so.

The Scottish public is accustomed to the idea that businesses, even industries, can overextend and ultimately fail. Our press reports that a painful number of Scots go bust every day. But when it came to Rangers, it seemed that an enduring blind spot existed in this country’s perception of the club’s activities, particularly over the sustainability of its spending policy.

I won’t rehash at length the famous David Murray quote about outspending Celtic 2-to-1. What I will say is that, in the vast majority of cases, if the individual controlling a public company made such a statement their shareholders and other stakeholders (such as employees) would be rightly concerned. That’s because a healthy business must remain profitable, balancing its income and outgoings in favour of consistent gain, in order to guarantee its continued existence. Placing the cost base of your business outwith your own control, at the mercy of your competitors’ investment decisions is lunacy, plain and simple.

It’s tempting then to explain away Mr Murray’s bold proclamation as hyperbole, simply an indication of his intent to pursue success with total commitment. But the facts don’t support that more rational interpretation. It’s now clear that Rangers did vastly overspend in their efforts to remain ahead of Celtic, whatever the club might have blustered at the height of their excesses.  They trod a path which implies that they had either forgotten that Rangers FC was a business, without a god-given right to exist, or that they believed the normal rules did not apply to them.

If, of these two delusions, it was the latter that gripped the Rangers board, the myth has now been comprehensively shattered.

Rangers FC is not, never was, too big to fail.

So, returning to my initial point: why, for so long, has the Rangers support and the wider population of Scotland acted as if the problems of the club did not exist, or were conventionally manageable?

Ultimately, I put this down to one mental stumbling block above all others: the perception of Rangers FC as ‘a Scottish institution’.

I’ve heard and read repeated references to the club in these terms over the last several days. It’s a dangerous fallacy for anyone to think about a commercial enterprise in these terms. Ask any businessman, from the bottom rung entrepreneur to the FTSE 100 Chief Exec and they will tell you the same thing: it doesn’t matter if you have a classic brand, if you are a household name, if large swathes of the population find it difficult to imagine today what life would be like if you didn’t exist tomorrow. All that matters is whether you have run your business in such a way that you can afford to pay your bills and continue trading.

Being ‘an institution’ didn’t save Woolworths, or Kodak – and it won’t save Rangers.

Neither, it should be noted, did such a status in the public consciousness save Celtic when we were hours from going to the wall in March 1994. Instead, a hard-headed businessman named Fergus McCann saved Celtic, taking the club on and refusing to bow to the clamouring demands of our fanbase for success at any cost during the Rangers 9-in-a-row era. McCann focussed instead on running the club in a sustainable and businesslike fashion, on ingraining such a philosophy within the substance in the club. For the most part, he succeeded and today history has certainly vindicated him.

The plight of Rangers FC is a warning to all of us not to lose sight of what truly matters. Doubtless, some within Rangers believed that they were building a glorious era in the club’s history as they flushed good money after bad and indulged in – at best – questionable practices around the payment of players. In the cold light of Valentines Day 2012, it is apparent that they may instead have consigned the club to history.