18 Feb 2012

The ‘wretched saga’ of Rangers Football Club

As Rangers play their first match since going into administration, Scottish football journalist Graham Spiers writes for Channel 4 News and says the next few weeks will be “grisly” for the club.

The 'wretched saga' of Rangers Football Club. (Getty)

In Glasgow the prospect of Rangers FC going under still beggars belief. But the club is currently in the hands of administrators and, as staggering as it sounds, might yet be liquidated in the weeks ahead.

This is a wretched saga which has driven Rangers right to the brink. The club is being investigated by HMRC and might ultimately face a bill of up to £75m.

If found guilty in a tribunal which will deliver its judgement within weeks, this would be a crippling sum Rangers could not possibly hope to pay back.

The club regularly plays to 50,000 crowds, has a huge fan-base, and is one of world football’s greatest, if often troubled, brands. So how has it come to this?

The answer, to many, lies in the actions of two figures. Sir David Murray, the Rangers chairman of 20-plus years until very recently, drove the club on with a fevered and emboldened ambition. At one point under Murray Rangers’ net-debt stood at £82m – a grotesque sum for a club restricted by commercial life in the Scottish Premier League (SPL).

Murray in time managed to wipe out that debt but his legacy at Rangers – of bombast and bravado – meant this club forever seemed to live on the edge. Worst of all, it was Murray who, 10 years ago, made the decision to remunerate Rangers first-team players via Employee Benefit Trusts [EBTs], which HMRC is now investigating.

Murray’s EBTs decision will haunt him for the rest of his life. It is potentially ruinous for Rangers. We will know in the weeks ahead if this decision will finally kill off Rangers FC as we know it.

Independent inquiry
The Scottish Football Association confirmed on Friday that it will conduct a full independent inquiry into the activities of Rangers.
The governing body will investigate whether there have been any potential breaches of their Articles of Association.
The SFA say attempts to obtain information relating to their "fit and proper person" requirement - regarding Rangers owner Craig Whyte - have been restricted by the club solicitors' failure to share information.

The other key figure in this Rangers tragedy is current owner, Craig Whyte. This 42-year-old Scottish entrepreneur has a past clouded in controversy, including having been banned as a company director for seven years.

While Rangers have lurched into crisis, various Whyte dealings since he took over the club last year have left the supporters aghast.

Rangers could be set for a grisly slugfest over the coming weeks.

On Saturday Rangers play Kilmarnock in a league match at Ibrox, but only after policing costs were able to be met, and the players were told that, for the next month at least, their salaries would be paid. But the Scottish champions are in dire peril, and perhaps even in its death-throes. It all amounts to a disgusting betrayal of 140 years of this august football club’s history.

Duff and Phelps, the club’s administrators, are putting on an optimistic face about Rangers coming out of administration, and surviving. But HMRC might have something to say about that. If they win the tax case then many doubt that the revenue agency will simply walk away empty-handed and allow Rangers to re-emerge totally debt free.

If HMRC play hardball with Rangers – as I believe they will – then the club might well face liquidation. And then it will be a case of a “phoenix club” being born, though what of Rangers’ assets, such as Ibrox Stadium, and Murray Park, the training complex?

Read more: Rangers FC go into administration

Who will claim these? Rangers could be set for a grisly slugfest over the coming weeks.

Rangers in the late 1980s was once called “the richest club in British football”, given the wages it was able to pay to top players, such as Terry Butcher and Trevor Steven. Not any more. This vast establishment club of Scottish football is on its knees, and might well be facing death.

Channel 4 News contacted Rangers but the club declined to comment. Graham Spiers is a football writer and broadcaster.