The world of Scottish soccer is in a ferment this week, and we use the word "soccer" quite deliberately. The two-part compound word "football" sticks in our throat, because the Scottish game has plenty of the first part but absolutely none of the second.
The reason for the sudden outbreak of sound and fury, which will ultimately signify nothing, is the revelation by the SPL of what the blogosphere is already calling the "Cheat's Charter". In itself it's actually a fairly innocuous document, and indeed could be portrayed as a crackdown. It proposes a raft of new penalties for teams going into administration or liquidation, with sanctions both on and off the field – a 75% reduction in monies paid by the League to the offending team for three years, and a 10-point deduction for two additional years following administration.
Since none of these punishments are currently part of SPL rules, one could not entirely unreasonably depict the changes (should they be agreed by the clubs in the meeting at the end of April) as a tightening-up of procedures. But equally rationally, the supporters of 11 out of the 12 SPL clubs are seeing them as something else entirely. Because what the proposed new rules do is explicitly lay down the route to a possibility which until now was only implicit – the return of a post-liquidation Rangers Football Club directly into the top flight of the Scottish game.
Nobody, of course, yet knows what lies in the final chapter of the Rangers story. We still await the judgement in the Big Tax Case, and the club's administrators are still maintaining that escape from administration via a Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) is a possibility. Most commentators, though, see liquidation as the only plausible outcome, and it's all but universally agreed that if that happens, a new company (or "newco", in the jargon) will rise phoenix-like from the ashes. And that's where people start to get angry, because the Scottish game's administrative bodies have until now dealt uncompromisingly with teams which fell into such circumstances.
When SPL club Gretna FC went into administration in 2008, they were demoted to Division Three of the SFL, a move which caused the only potential buyer to withdraw and the club's 62-year history to come to an abrupt end. In 2010 when Dundee FC went into administration (owing just £365,000 to HMRC, of which they'd offered to pay 27% immediately) as a result of overspending on expensive players, they were docked a whopping 25 points by the SFL.
Livingston FC were demoted from the First to the Third Division of the SFL on a technicality in 2009 despite having survived administration. And when Airdrieonians faced oblivion in 2000, with hopes of saving the club, they were actually forced into liquidation by none other than Rangers FC chairman David Murray, over a debt of just £30,000 about which he said, with considerable chutzpah:
"I feel very sorry for Airdrie and their supporters but we're running a business. We have given them repeated warnings and felt they were playing on our good nature."
(Rangers currently owe HMRC approximately £14.4m NOT including either of the tax cases – roughly 40 times Dundee FC's debt to the Revenue in 2008 – and just over £1m to other Scottish football clubs, or 33 times what it pursued Airdrieonians for in 2000. A further £40m is owed to other creditors, and the two tax cases could add an estimated £90m more to the figures, according to administrators Duff & Phelps.)
But all this is well documented, as are the mostly-groundless justifications for the SPL clubs hypothetically admitting a New Rangers straight into the SPL. If, as is widely assumed, such a thing eventually happens it will come as no surprise to anyone. The thing this blog finds the most dismaying about the entire affair is the certain knowledge that other than complaining bitterly and furiously on the internet and on call-in shows, the people without whom there would be no sport at all – the paying customers – will ultimately lie down tamely and let it happen.
Keen-witted viewers may recall the events of March 1998, in which two of the directors of English Premiership club Newcastle United, including chairman Freddy Shepherd, were caught by the News Of The World grossly and repeatedly insulting the team's fans and players, mocking the gullibility of the former in particular for buying overpriced replica shirts and suchlike. The club's "Toon Army" of supporters was predictably and understandably outraged, and there can surely have never been a more compelling case in history for a protest boycott.
Most sizeable Premiership teams are largely watched by fans with season tickets, who have already paid their money in advance. The support therefore has the option of demonstrating its power by boycotting one or more games without damaging the club they love – a game played in front of a near-empty stadium would do very little harm to the club's revenues but show the owners that the fans have it in their power to destroy the business, or at least to bring down the board, should it treat them with such disdain. Instead, Newcastle's two remaining games that season were both attended by 37,000 capacity crowds, everyone still buys the replica shirts and after a brief period of fake remorse Shepherd remained Newcastle chairman for nine more years.
The same gutless sentiment is already being aired in Scotland, even as the storm about the "Cheat's Charter" rages across Twitter – Tom Hall of @ScotFootBlog, for example, advertises a post on the subject by angrily suggesting that the SPL might be better denoted as the Self Preservation League, the Shameless Plonkers League or the Stuff the Public League, but then reveals the shameful truth in the actual feature:
"I'm hearing a lot of people saying they'll be finished with the SPL if a new Rangers are allowed a place in the SPL under new rules. I understand that argument but my own view will always be that I support my team not the league they play in and I will continue to do so."
You hear that, dastardly besuited fat-cat fiends of the Stuff the Public League? If you dare to perpetrate this heinous crime against all possible justice, the enraged Public you just Stuffed will teach you a lesson that you'll never forget by… turning up and obediently handing over their cash every week as usual. Yeah, NOW you're scared.
But of course, it's not just the fans who lack the will to grow a pair. The admission of New Rangers to the SPL will only happen if the other 11 clubs vote for it, and at first glance it makes no sense for them to do so. The SPL was created primarily to serve the interests of Rangers and Celtic at the expense of its other members, and it has served that function extremely well. But having signed their own (slow) death warrants in the first place, the 10 "provincial" clubs appeared earlier this year to have finally woken up to the pickle they've placed themselves in.
The 10 non-Old Firm clubs are currently engaged in an attempt to change the league's hopelessly unbalanced 11-1 voting structure – one which is likely to fail due to, duh, the hopelessly unbalanced 11-1 voting structure, whose entire reason for existing was precisely to prevent the other teams doing what they're trying to do now, ie ganging up on the Old Firm to achieve a fairer split of the league's money. The Old Firm (to everyone's disbelieving astonishment) have already said they'll veto the changes, using the hopelessly unbalanced 11-1 etc. And for some reason which defies any sane explanation, the 10 clubs seem set to meekly let them.
Yet now more than at any other time since the SPL's creation, the smaller clubs in fact have all the power. Let's imagine, just for a moment, that a fairy godmother appeared and bestowed the Other 10 with marginally more courage than a baby mouse at a cat show. Let's say they all told the SPL to shove their "let New Rangers straight in" idea where the sun don't shine, and that they were rejoining the SFL as a new top division, leaving Celtic and New Rangers all on their own.
(This theory assumes that the SFL would go along with the Other 10's plan, perhaps in return for concessions on an extra promotion place from Division 1 and some TV cash. The SFL also has a vested interest in Rangers 2.0 not being directly admitted to the SPL, for reasons we'll touch on in, ooh, about five paragraphs' time.)
What, then, could the New Old Firm do? Their pals at Sky aren't going to fork out all those millions to watch Celtic and New Rangers play each other 38 times a season (whereas the newly-unified SFL will certainly get at least some interest from broadcasters, the lower sums of money being offset by a more even share-out). We already know England doesn't want the Gruesome Twosome. Where could they go?
For Celtic, the choice would be pretty easy – be left in the wilderness clinging to a sham of an ancient rivalry against a Rangers (Newco) PLC that'd almost certainly evaporate overnight anyway (who's going to buy a team that doesn't have a league to play in?), or rejoin the SFL with the rest, safe in the knowledge that they'd win the lion's share of trophies and still get to play in the Champions' League? The club are adamant they don't need Rangers to survive – now's their chance to prove it, and we're sure their supporters would be more than willing to temporarily sacrifice a few derbies for three or four seasons for the permanent gloating opportunity it would provide.
Rangers 2012 FC could then be admitted to the Third Division, play their way up to the top flight on merit if they could (very likely – even in highly diminished circumstances it's not hard to economically outmuscle Albion Rovers with a fanbase numbering tens of thousands), and everything would quite probably be back to normal within a few years with everyone's sporting honour intact.
(There would, of course, still be an argument to be had about all the trophies Old Rangers won through "financial doping", but that's a relatively trivial matter of history-book adjustment, not business.)
As a by-product, Scotland would also have a much healthier and more competitive league – not least from the huge boost I Can't Believe It's Not Rangers would have brought to the coffers of the lower-division SFL teams as they passed through. In our previous feature we largely dismissed the effect of a couple of games per season against Rangers on the average attendance of an SPL club, but when your usual home gate struggles to reach 500 the extra cash provided by 5000 travelling fans takes on a much greater significance, and it's not hard to imagine some level of TV interest in following the Ibrox side's journey through the leagues too.
Even for New Rangers, there'd be little benefit to walking straight into the SPL. Let's say it took them three years to get promoted up through the three lower divisions. Had they spent those three seasons in the SPL instead they'd have done so in a financially crippled state – thanks to losing 75% of prize money and TV revenues under the proposed new penalties, and being skint in the first place – and under UEFA rules they'd be banned from playing in Europe for all three years even if they finished high enough. (Which would be far from certain – indeed, they wouldn't even be guaranteed a top six spot in their new impoverished form, and therefore couldn't even be certain of two profitable home games against Celtic.)
So they'd actually be just as well to take their medicine, start in Division 3, maybe nurture some young Scottish talent, win the right to enter the SPL like anyone else, and earn the club back some much-needed dignity and respect at the same time.
(Besides, even at the turnstiles the loss from doing the decent thing would be negligible anyway – we know Rangers fans are so proudly loyal that they'd all still fill Ibrox for every game even if they had to fight their way back through the lower divisions past East Stirlingshire, Alloa Athletic, Dundee, Livingston and Airdrie United. Cough.)
Finally and obviously, letting the newco straight into the top league is completely irrational behaviour for the Other 10. A few Rangers-less years would be tremendous news for them, substantially improving their chances of trophies, European qualifications and all the knock-on benefits that come with them. Their crowds would go up, rather than running the risk of a boycott (however slight, for reasons we've already noted) from supporters finally scunnered with the cynical manipulations of the SPL. And they'd be part of a league that could hold its head up in public, rather than looking like the craven, cringing, contemptible creatures they will if they let Super Ally's Rangers-Style All-Stars FC in with a nudge and a wink and a funny handshake.
It won't happen, of course. If the last 20 years have taught us anything, it's that the people's game in Scotland, perhaps even more than anywhere else, is governed by tiny-minded, short-sighted buffoons incapable of acting in even their own best interests let alone that of the wider sport. Rangers have spent themselves into bankruptcy, Celtic almost did the same and the Other 10 have conspired in their own demise, while the fans turn up like sheep and hand over hundreds of pounds a year to watch a pointless farce, because they can't think of anything else to do at the weekend.
So Rangers will cheat the taxpayer out of a vast fortune – enough, we'll note in a passing nod of relevance to this blog's usual subject matter, to pay for half of the scrapped Glasgow Airport Rail Link so beloved of the Unionist community in Glasgow – while making an even bigger mockery out of the history of the SPL than it already was, and then carry on as if nothing has happened. And we'll let them, because it seems that absolutely nobody in Scotland has any balls.