While the giants of Scottish football are rivals, Celtic should not seek to punish the other half of the Old Firm too heavily, writes Michael Kelly
David Murray’s statement apologising for selling Rangers to someone on whom he failed to do sufficient due diligence reveals more about his approach to the problems Rangers were causing him than it does about his judgment. In the latter years of his ownership, the club was in such trouble and imposing such a burden on him that he was desperate to pass the buck so that he could concentrate on his core business which, he admitted yesterday, had recovered when once again it was his sole focus.
It was an issue of mindset and self-preservation that caused him to bale out so injudiciously. In many ways his judgment was spot on. He realised that the best thing for him financially was get out quick. He couldn’t get out quick – the club was for sale for three years – so he just got out. And just in time, because it is difficult to believe, given what we now know about the disastrous financial circumstances of the club, that administration was anything other than inevitable.
In terms of his image too, Murray’s judgment might have been right. He is suffering criticism now but condemnation would have been much more long term if the club had gone under while he was still the majority shareholder. This way he has got Craig Whyte as a scapegoat to chase before him into the desert of blame. It is just unfortunate for Murray that administration followed so quickly on his transfer of ownership. If Whyte had managed to get through even one season there might have been sufficient time elapsed for Murray to be able credibly to wash his hands of the affair. However, the fact that it did happen so fast suggests deep-seated problems that Whyte was unable to manage but certainly did not create.
It was good to hear Murray confirm that Campbell Ogilvie, one-time Rangers secretary and now SFA president, played no part in making any payments to players which Murray contended were unexceptional anyway. I have known Campbell for many years. Indeed, we used to laugh at the name RC Ogilvie at the bottom of Rangers tickets. “The only RC at Ibrox” was the joke which he shared. He is a man of principle as were most of the Rangers’ directors that I knew. It is uncomfortable for all of them that their actions may be scrutinised in the enquiries into Rangers that are promised by the SFA and others.
One subject for these investigations – should any ever take place – is whether any players’ payments were made that were contrary to the rules of football. If it is found that they were, the SFA and the Scottish Premier League will have to decide whether Rangers should be stripped of trophies won and, further, if those trophies should be awarded to the teams that finished second in the various competitions. It is against my whole view of sport that matters other than what happens on the field of play should count. But there is an obvious argument that financial cheats should be treated in the same way as athletics treats drug users. On balance then it would be right to strip Rangers of ill-gotten gains. But it might not be appropriate for other clubs to be awarded honours that they themselves didn’t actually win. For example, could Celtic in all conscience accept league titles that they threw away by Martin O’Neil’s overcautious approach at Fir Park in 2005 or the team’s failure to turn up at Inverness last season? You bet they could! Ben Johnson’s gold went to Carl Lewis. Celtic would grab these titles with both hands.
But while the rivalry on the field between Scotland’s biggest clubs has always been intense, away from the heat of games, relations have usually been warm, close and helpful. As we face this uncertain future for Scottish football one thing is sure, Celtic and Rangers must stick together. Already the other SPL clubs, scenting weakness, are banding together to plan ways in which to clip the Old Firm’s wings. Any adjustment in the way TV and other receipts are spread among the clubs must certainly improve the position of the ten. It might even lead to closer competition. But that competition would be fought at an even lower level than it is at present. European success is at the moment a distant dream. If Celtic and Rangers had even less money to spend on players they’d rarely get past the first qualifying round.
After the initial wave of pleasure at Rangers’ discomfiture most Celtic fans realise the necessity of restoring them to health. Those who still resist this notion are on the fringes. They are the ones who sing most passionately about Celtic’s history. Here is a piece of that history which they do not know but which might convince them that the club should extend a helping hand to their great rivals. Rangers were once before in financial difficulty. It was in the 1920’s when my grandfather, James Kelly (a former Scotland centre-half), was chairman of Celtic. Rangers had a temporary cash flow problem and their board came out to his house in Blantyre to explain the problem and seek help. Celtic gave them an unconditional short-term loan. The fact that Rangers felt able to ask and that Celtic willingly responded indicates that both clubs were aware of their inter-dependence. Murray sought to supplant that symbiosis – possibly because he never came to Rangers as a supporter. He would have been the first to boast that Rangers could prosper outwith the Old Firm.
But Celtic should ignore his track record and resist any collective punishment on Rangers and their fans over the mistakes of a few men. The club cannot offer Rangers any funding this time. But, it would be ludicrous to condemn any reconstituted Rangers to the third division just because that rule happened to be applied to Livingston. Change the rule. Equally, Rangers’ attempts to return to stability should not be hampered by the imposition of any financial penalties from the football authorities. Celtic, and indeed the rest of Scottish football, should make it as easy as possible for Rangers to save themselves.
It is the sporting thing to do.