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Strange tale of Bob Carruthers and the others

Published on 28 March 2012

Bob Carruthers would not be the first rugby follower to cook up a daft wheeze in the Roseburn Bar, but it would be wrong to suppose that the idea that took shape in his mind in the celebrated Edinburgh watering hole on the last evening of May 2006 was entirely the product of the pints he was pouring past his tonsils.

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By the time he had left the Roseburn that night, Carruthers had decided he would bid to take over the running of Edinburgh Rugby club. The influence of drink cannot be completely discounted, but as Carruthers' other business interests have embraced such disparate ventures as producing a film called Zombie Driftwood – "a surreal combination of zombies, paradisiacal beaches, heavy metal music, Hitler, beer and bagpipes" according to one review – and writing a history of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, he is clearly not the sort of fellow for whom sobriety is any sort of constraint.

Carruthers, in cahoots with his younger brother Alex, famously tied up the Edinburgh takeover in record time.

Or rather, he famously didn't tie things up at all, for the deal he negotiated with the former SRU chief executive Gordon McKie was a mass of loose ends, and they started to unravel almost as soon as he moved his backroom team into collection of Portakabins that served as Edinburgh's offices at the time.

Within a few months, the rows between Carruthers and McKie were public knowledge, with claims and counterclaims being made by both sides as they battled over competition revenues, gate receipts and, well, just about anything else they could think of.

An almighty stushie then erupted when, early in 2007, the union pulled the plug on the Border Reivers, and the tit-for-tat spatting was taken to another level soon afterwards when Carruthers barred Edinburgh players from taking part in Scotland's World Cup training camp.

From a distance it seemed that McKie and Carruthers made them thoroughly incompatible bedfellows all along, and that their hasty marriage of inconvenience was always destined to end in messy divorce. The alimony details were not made public at the time – August 2007 – but Carruthers' account of the settlement is that the union, through its subsidiary The Murrayfield Experience Ltd (TME), would buy back the team for the sum of £250,000.

In truth, for all that the rugby media feasted on the flamboyance of Carruthers at the time, McKie probably considered it good value to stump up a quarter of a mil just to be rid of the guy.

Generally speaking, Carruthers had made himself about as welcome as an outbreak of scrum pox at the headquarters of Scottish rugby, and you could almost hear the sighs of relief when the dalliance was finally over.

Except, of course, that Carruthers does going quietly like Simon Cowell does self-effacing modesty. Which is how it came to be that the 51-year-old media mogul – Carruthers, not Cowell – was yesterday holding court in an Edinburgh hotel, still fighting the fight that most of us thought had been settled five years ago.

Officially, the occasion was the launch of his book, The Murrayfield Experience, which boasts the intriguing subtitle Inside the Sex Rats' Union - Or rather, the launch of the book to which he has contributed a foreword, the principal author being one AN Alikadoo, a name previously unknown in the canon of modern Scottish literature.

"I polished it up," was the most Carruthers was prepared to say about his involvement, claiming that the real author simply wanted to keep himself out of the legal line of fire should the war break out again.

Carruthers' main beef with the SRU was that they used The Murrayfield Experience – the company, not the book – as the vehicle for taking the Edinburgh team back under their wing.

Now I'm prepared to admit that a gathering of Scottish rugby hacks does not exactly bristle with great legal minds of our time, but in the grand scheme of things it still seemed like rather a recondite point. Carruthers subsequently claimed that TME-filed accounts suggested that it was effectively dormant. Again, the subterfuge being hinted at was not exactly clear.

Conspiracy theories aside, any audience with Barking Bob is likely to be an entertaining affair, even if enlightenment does not figure on the menu. And with due allowances made for the fact that his opinions are bound to be coloured by personal grievance, he did make some good points about the overall shape of the Scottish game. Specifically, he highlighted the fact that the money that is currently gobbled up by two professional teams is money that could be better spent fostering interest at the game's grass roots.

"What we've lost sight of is that the clubs are the stakeholders in the Scottish Rugby Union," he explained. "Our clubs are struggling and not getting the money that they should. Rugby is an incredibly fortunate sport in that £20m-£30m pounds per year pours into the kitty, but our club game doesn't get its share.

"More money for the clubs is one way of getting more people playing. To do that you have to shift the burden of professional rugby off the shoulders of the clubs.

"That's what we were about back in 2007, although it didn't work for various reasons."

Perhaps the bizarrest twist to all of this is that Carruthers says he would do it all over again. Indeed, he claimed that he has already held an exploratory meeting with Mark Dodson, who last year replaced McKie at the SRU, with a view to bringing private investors back into the professional game.

Carruthers suggested that the avenue could be to again take over at Edinburgh, or to open a new franchise further north – probably Perth – effectively reviving the Caledonia Reds. The union's line, Carruthers explained, is that they want to hold station with the two professional sides under central ownership, for a couple of years at least. Then again, with lawyers' letters flying back and forth between the two parties, and with Carruthers having just dropped off a large file on the TME affair with Lothian and Borders Police, it is perhaps understandable that they should be cautious in their dealings with the man.

More's the pity. They just don't know what fun they could be having.

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