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2012 REVIEW: RANGERS

Football alone could not contain the Rangers story.

Rangers take on Brechin City in the Ramsdens Cup, their first match of a new eraPhotograph: Colin Mearns
Rangers take on Brechin City in the Ramsdens Cup, their first match of a new eraPhotograph: Colin Mearns

The events and consequences of Rangers Football Club plc falling into administration reached into law, accountancy, media, even politics. The impact was on an institution of Scottish life, but it was best understood by how it affected individuals, how priorities and perspectives altered. Some issues even now remain unresolved.

It began on Valentine's Day, when Craig Whyte stood on the steps outside the main entrance of Ibrox and read out a statement revealing that he had called in administrators. The moment was resonant, but also indicative. Whyte, after all, did not need to face the resentment of the Rangers fans in public. In many ways, he was a significant part of the saga. He lied, almost from the outset, and his purchase of the club – using money borrowed from London-based firm Ticketus against future season ticket sales – then his refusal to pay Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs (HMRC) the PAYE that they were due, was the work of a man living by his wits and old habits.

Yet at no stage were the football authorities able, or willing, to intervene. Who was protecting Rangers – or indeed any club – from the harm caused by an unsuitable owner? That inadequacy remains unaddressed, so that the traumas Rangers faced could still be visited on any other club. Similarly, politicians tended to steer clear of the situation, particularly since the tax aspect made it a less appealing case. Yet we consider football clubs, and the Old Firm in particular, to be social, cultural and community institutions, and in turn they deserve proper political support.

There has always been a tendency to try to frame what happened to Rangers as part of an overarching conspiracy, that each of the critical decisions was linked. In truth, though, it was individual misjudgments, greed, opportunism, and panic that worked together on the fate of the club.

Rangers were victims, in a sense, of Sir David Murray's willingness to drive up the clubs's debt, and use the Employee Benefit Trusts tax avoidance scheme to such an extent that it prompted HMRC to serve a tax bill of £24 million, and so left the club in limbo until the case was resolved by the First Tier Tribunal – in Murray's favour – last month. By then it was too late.

Those circumstances drove away potential buyers, leaving only Whyte in May 2011. It was Rangers fans, as well as the players and staff, who suffered, though, along with the creditors who lost out when Whyte's actions led to administration. They had all benefited, materially and emotionally, from the largesse of Murray's ownership – the hefty salaries, the success, the glory – so the painful consequences had to be borne. But Whyte's recklessness, and the descent into insolvency, was more abrupt and more traumatic than the price of Murray's bombast. The financial crisis gripped the support – they turned up in vast numbers for matches but were raw and emotional – and left us to reflect on what constitutes a football club.

Since it was the loyalty and commitment of the fans and the staff that kept Rangers afloat, there is a strong argument to acknowledge that a club is what those who follow it want it to be. Rival supporters claim that Rangers died when the plc failed to achieve a Company Voluntary Arrangement, and the business and assets were sold to a consortium fronted by Charles Green. Yet many clubs have changed ownership and ownership structure during their histories, and have remained the same entity. Once the Scottish Football Association transferred Rangers' original licence to Green's consortium, it was recognised by the governing body, UEFA, and more recently the European Club Association, as the same Rangers: 140 years old.

There were already broken relationships in Scottish football, but the demands placed on clubs and administrators to deal with Rangers' situation caused further estrangement. Scottish Football League clubs did not appreciate being dictated to by Scottish Premier League chairmen, who voted not to transfer Rangers Football Club plc's share to Green's consortium, and so consigned the club to the lower leagues. In a plan devised by Stewart Regan, the SFA chief executive, Neil Doncaster, the SPL chief executive, and David Longmuir, the SFL chief executive, the Ibrox side would have been accommodated in the First Division, and so in all likelihood would have returned to the top-flight within a year, protecting the SPL's television and commercial deals.

Yet the SFL clubs – and the vast majority of Rangers fans and staff – did not want to accept this compromise. Now, as talks continue over league reconstruction, the wounds of last summer have not yet healed enough to allow agreements to be reached. Rangers are slowly rebuilding, and last week's £22.2m share issue will allow the club to invest in its future, but the game itself has yet to recover.

Last summer, the SPL demanded that Rangers accept the stripping of five championships won during the years that EBTs were in use, in return for being granted their SFA licence, even though Rangers had not been found guilty of registration breaches in the way they administered the tax avoidance scheme. That was a prejudicial stance, and an independent commission established by the SPL will sit in judgment in January.

There were lessons for all clubs to learn, though, since fan power became a significant issue during the summer. A "No To Newco" campaign rose among activist fans of clubs such as Celtic, Aberdeen and United to compel their club chairmen to vote against transferring the SPL share to Green's consortium. Now Rangers have said they will not accept their ticket allocation for Tannadice in February because fans don't want to go, and will donate their half of the cup gate receipts to charity. Supporters, for so long disenfranchised, now hold sway over their clubs. Decisions might be less measured or ameliorative, but in many ways they will be more democratic. It is, after all, fans who hold their club together during a time of crisis, as the Rangers supporters showed.

Questions have been raised about the way Duff and Phelps handled the administration process, and legal challenges abounded as Rangers received a registration embargo and Green fought the club's corner vigorously after taking over.

However, the media, perhaps, has been one of the areas most affected. No aspect of the story held for newspapers, so social media moved to the forefront of coverage. As did bloggers, in particular the Rangers Tax Case (RTC) site that began as a source of pertinent information but became swallowed up by its own self-regard and ultimately called the outcome of the case wrongly.

A new wave of bloggers has emerged, particular among Rangers fans, who now discuss and write about the clubs's roots, culture and social history more than ever. That is liberating but as with RTC – and the venomous spite that is evident online around contentious subjects – it is unrestrained. Newspapers once broke the stories, but as the Rangers saga showed, they are now better placed to analyse them, to provide perspective, reason and commentary.

There was a time when most people, blithely and wrongly, assumed that an institution such as Rangers would never fall so far. In falling, the club has found a way to adjust and revive itself, but so too must the others touched by this story.

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