12 Mar 2012

The dangers of Rangers’ tax shambles

Last week I asked for non-Rangers and Celtic fans in Scotland to give me their observations on the current Ibrox detox. Several hundred emails later, I surface to bring you the first of a series of blogs.

First of all, a big thank you for the hundreds of emails and tweets. It is clear that very few Scottish football fans are of the Ahmedinejad tendency – almost nobody wishes to see Rangers “wiped off the map”. But when it does come to proper and fitting punishment, a strong consensus exists, of which more later.

What comes through strongly is the belief that the Rangers debacle is a genuine opportunity to rebuild Scottish football on a more interesting and fairer model. Ramsey spoke for almost everyone when he wrote: “Most see this as the perfect opportunity to better the league and the game as a whole.” A chance to recreate genuine competition in the SPL and consider wider matters beyond the “the self-interest of not just the old firm but the entire SPL.”
The key observation, though, is that the current focus on owner Craig Whyte and declaration of his not being “fit and proper” to run a football club is missing the point.

As non-Old Firm fans see it, the decade or more long practice at Rangers of allegedly paying players one amount for tax purposes, but another larger amount to save around £45m on tax via so-called employee benefit trusts, began way before Whyte. Legal or illegal. A least one former director has publically confirmed this too.

Rosaleen said: “It all stemmed from before Whyte’s arrival, and yet nobody up here from the media is doing any serious investigating beyond him!”

Though that doesn’t square with recent significant revelations in both the Sun and Mail shedding light on Rangers’ alleged practice of paying stars one sum, but telling the authorities they were paying another, to save millions in tax. We await judgement from a tax tribunal as to whether or not this practice was legal. That this actually happened is not apparently in dispute, it is the legality that is under question.

And here we get to a huge groundswell of opinion from aggrieved fans beyond the Glasgow cauldron (pace Partick Thistle). Because the rules clearly state that you have to tell the authorities full details of player contracts or they are ineligible. If Rangers did not do this – and it is still an “if” pending that tribunal – a decade of silverware, championships and glory is under possible forfeit. The stakes could not be higher.

If that is the case, Tony writes: “In effect Rangers have fielded many players over many years in all competitions who were ineligible to play. This is confirmed by former Rangers director Hugh Adam last week and is subject to a current commission of inquiry by the Scottish Premier League.”

And it was also confirmed by Mr Adam, who told the Mail the practice had gone on for longer than a decade and predated the SPL.

What many fans cannot understand, though, is how key individuals in the game were serving both as directors of Rangers FC and on the Scottish FA and SPL. The job of directors – beyond trotting along to Ibrox and sitting in the box in a suit – is to oversee proper governance of the football club.

Campbell Ogilvie, for instance, is current president of the SFA and was not only a director of Rangers during the period under investigation, but also company secretary of the club. It was his job to know about contractual arrangements with players.

So far Mr Ogilvie has not stood aside from his current role whilst the SPL investigation is under way. How many such contracts were signed? How many did he see? Did he know about them at all? If he did, did he sanction them being signed off? If he didn’t – why wasn’t he doing his job? Is there not a conflict of interest in his current position?

We are currently putting these and other questions to Mr Ogilvie via the SFA, but as things stand we are told he is not doing any interviews but is “distancing himself from the current investigations”. When we asked if he has formally stood aside, pending the outcome of the investigation, we were told he has not.

As one fan put it: “If it is held to be true that Rangers, in implementing an unlawful tax evasion scam on a huge scale, fielded ineligible payers, whilst those responsible were serving as directors of the regulatory and licensing bodies, we can say with certainty that the game of football in Scotland has been corrupt for 15 years or so.”

One Clydebank supporter put it thus: “I am now reading that I’ve been ploughing my hard-earned cash into a league that has effectively been rigged in favour of one big side … but now I’m expected to just move on.”

This is the key area fans want some answers about and where – right or wrong – they feel they are being short-changed by what they see – time and time again – as an over-cosy relationship between the Old Firm, the SFA and SPL, and the Glasgow media.

One oft-repeated refrain is: “The media in Glasgow keep telling us how much Scottish football needs Rangers – what they mean is how much they need Rangers, not Scottish football.”

Nobody likes a cheat in sport. And here it’s claimed we have one in the shape of the loudest, biggest club with what some see as a tawdry history of bigotry, violent fans and a frankly supremacist culture. So when the bully and the cheat gets his come-uppance, there will be some vitriol.

If anything, though, I was surprised by the considered responses most made to Rangers’ implosion.

But of course there’s real anger out there: “We have been duped … for 15 years,” wrote one fan, “and we are now sinking the boot into the perpetrators of the deceit. They have had a few days of pain. We’ve suffered nearly two decades. To hell with them and all who support them or feel sorry for them. They are cheats, simple as that.”

Well, it is for the HMRC and the tribunal process to decide if Rangers FC was in fact and law a criminal and cheating organisation in the period under examination. But we can say there’s already evidence starting to emerge in public to support that as yet unproven allegation.

With the clock ticking at Ibrox, fans across Scotland are not short of ideas about what should happen. But as I said, remarkably few want Rangers wiped from the face of the earth. They just want existing rules implemented – a near-revolutionary suggestion, it would seem, given the current unfolding saga at the top of the Scottish game.

Coming up next: Crime and Punishment – What to do with Rangers Football Club; should they be found guilty; and is liquidation the only way out?

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