FROM the heady highs of matchday anticipation to the abject lows of watching a club in its death-throes, supporters are riding a roller-coaster, writes Graham Spiers
It HAS been an incredible journey with Rangers. For 41 years I have been watching this great football club – I suddenly feel middle-aged – ever since my father first lifted me over an Ibrox turnstile sometime during the 1970-71 season. Back then, I now know, it was the age of innocence. Today, I am suddenly confronted by a club in its death-throes.
I feel like a ringside witness to the rise and fall of Rangers over all these years: first as a fan on the terracing and then, for the past 20 years, as a journalist, often finding myself inside Ibrox speaking to the managers, players and chairmen of the club. Along with the Scottish legal system and the Church of Scotland, Rangers FC was once described as “one of the three great pillars of Scottish society”. In one sense this seems a ludicrous description but, accurate or not, it is a pillar that is now coming crashing down.
It was intoxicating being a Rangers fan as a kid. Football fans the world over will tell you something similar: I can still feel the pulsing excitement in my veins, just thinking back to those Saturday afternoons when the matches loomed. Ibrox back then was the classic, oval arena in the British football tradition and you simply couldn’t wait to feast your eyes on its great edifice.
Like many fathers and sons at the football, my Dad and I stood in the same spot week in, week out at Ibrox: two-thirds of the way down the terracing at the uncovered Broomloan or “away” end. From being initially “lifted over”, I would scamper with pulsating excitement ahead of my parent, up the vast steps to the top of the arena, then along maybe 20 yards beside a wall, to be greeted by the mesmerising scene before me: the gleaming pitch, the gathering crowd, plus that unique “football smell” of Woodbines, pies and Bovril. Just writing this now, I am transported back to that magical world.
This was the early 1970s. Back then Rangers had a team that, for me, hardly ever seemed to change, and whose line-up I can still reel off, like stanzas from a poem, in that quaint 70s way when football teams were cited in clusters of threes: “McCloy, Jardine and Mathieson; Greig, Jackson and Smith; McLean, Conn and Stein; MacDonald and Johnston…” I haven’t even bothered to check this line-up on Google because I don’t need to. That team, give or take the odd name-change due to injury, is embedded in my brain.
The one game, until I was 12 or 13, that I was never taken to was the Old Firm fixture. “Please, Dad, please!” I would implore him from about the age of eight or nine, but he would hear none of it. Thus I would be exposed to the ritual – and the agony – of the famous Grandstand teleprinter as it clattered away from about 4:45pm on BBC1 on a Saturday, chattering out the football scores while you placed your hands over your eyes.
I came from a split footballing family. My sister was a Celtic supporter and, invariably, as I recall it now, Celtic got the better of Rangers, home or away, in those early 1970s days. The intonation on Grandstand as the “classified results” were read out was solemn, painful and recurring. “Celtic 2, Rangers 0” or “Rangers 1, Celtic 2” seemed to be results arriving with a painful consistency. My first Old Firm game was actually in January, 1975, when Rangers, on a ploughed Ibrox pitch, hammered Celtic by 3-0. It was a dark, freezing winter’s day, but my euphoria that night was uncontainable.
Back then, even as a kid, you did have a slight sense of some of the sins of the club. Rangers supporters had a problematic reputation, and I was there at Ibrox when the club’s then general-manager, Willie Waddell, took to the pitch in the late 1970s to make a public statement from a podium, in which he distanced the club from its erstwhile policy of religious discrimination.
My memory might be deceiving me, but Waddell that day, I believe, delivered his statement wearing a Rangers top – I even think in a red top, which at the time was the club’s “second strip”.
Either way, as I got older, I had a dawning sense of what the Scottish sportswriter Ian Archer once called Rangers’ “occasional disgrace and permanent embarrassment”. Even so, it never diminished my appetite for the club.
If you had said to any of us back then that Rangers FC would die, it would have seemed a ludicrous, fanciful notion. The club appeared as strong and immoveable as the famous red brickwork of the main Ibrox facade. Yes, football clubs needed “running” and “management”. But death? Disappearance? Absolutely no chance. That kind of thing, surely, happened to clubs like Bradford Park Avenue or Third Lanark. Rangers were the absolute embodiment of British might and strength. Nothing in heaven or earth, it was believed, could ever remove Rangers.
Four decades on from those days, these are agonising times for Rangers fans. The club has been done-in by reckless mismanagement, some huge dollops of arrogance and hubris, and what seems to have been a wilful disregard for the laws of the land in terms of tax-paying. The club is on its knees, indeed, it might even be in the process of being lowered into the grave. The truth is, the mighty Rangers forget that, either in love or war, there are both rules and consequences.
On a personal note, I seem to have spent the past two days hawking myself from one broadcast studio to another, metaphorically kicking Sir David Murray at every turn. It is not a type of punditry that has sat easily with me. Murray, principally through his decision to utilise employee benefit trusts (EBTs) at the club, has been the unintending architect of Rangers’ ruin. But it is done now. What is the point, I sometimes think, in kicking and kicking him?
Murray wanted only the very best for Rangers. He never meant the club any harm, as weird as that statement now looks. His ambitions were vast for the club and, the truth is, the vast body-politic of the Rangers support bought into it. Under Murray, as Rangers made swingeing annual losses of £29 million one season and £31m the next, how many of those supporters who are now bleating raised their voices in protest at the time?
As for Craig Whyte … how can I put this safely and euphemistically? The word “slippery” might have been invented for this shambolic character. In courts of law in England and Scotland, Whyte has been panned for some of his business practices and, inheriting the Murray mess, he has now led Rangers into administration and to the point of extinction. In all of these dodgy Rangers dealings, I believe taking the club into administration has been a part of the Whyte plan all along.
Rangers supporters are rightly angered. It has been a disgusting betrayal of the club and its standing in the world of football. This is no over-excited newspaper headline: Rangers as we know it might die in the coming weeks. In my lifetime, I feel as if I was there at the intoxicating beginning, and now at the abject end. When I take a step back from it all, it still seems scarcely believable.