Aidan Smith: Old Firm plundering damages Scots game

Hibs midfielder Scott Allan supported Rangers as a boy and is believed to be on their radar, but would he want his status to fall by moving to Ibrox?  Picture: Jane Barlow

Hibs midfielder Scott Allan supported Rangers as a boy and is believed to be on their radar, but would he want his status to fall by moving to Ibrox? Picture: Jane Barlow

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WHEN I was younger, so much younger than today, I wrote a letter to a footballer. I’m a bit nervous about admitting this now because I suppose it was fanmail, similar to what a teenybopper – are young, pop-obsessed girls still called that? – would seal with a kiss and send to One Direction. In my defence, the letter was grammatically spot-on. Not because I went to an especially good school, simply a Scottish school of that period. I didn’t use pink ink, nor was there any heart-shaped punctuation.

Iain Munro, you will remember, was a left-sided midfielder with a fair degree of craft about him, able to operate up and down the flank, and these days we’d describe him as a wing-back. He wasn’t the best player in the Hibernian team, circa 1976, and sorry about this Mrs Munro, nor was he my favourite. The reason for the letter was that he was about to sign for Rangers and I suppose I must have thought a last-gasp plea from the foot of the old high terracing might have persuaded him to change his mind.

Iain Munro in action for Rangers. Picture: SNS

Iain Munro in action for Rangers. Picture: SNS

You never forget your first time. The first time a player from your team is transferred to the Old Firm. I get it now; I understand why this happens. As they often say, to excuse a lot of things: that’s football. But at the beginnings of your fandom you’re very protective of your team and all its component parts.

Don’t get me wrong. This wasn’t on a par with “Daddy doesn’t love Mummy any more”. And – no offence intended – we were talking Iain Munro. Still, one of our guys was leaving. It was, in the melodramatic world of adolescent boys, a big deal. Then of course you wise up. You have to, because depending on your club and its talent pool, this sort of disappointment can become a fairly regular occurrence. So you find comfort in pawky humour and masochistic smirks when the new signing tries on his latest colours for size. And you wonder: is Thingummybob – how quickly we forget their names – going to utter the immortal line, “I’ve always wanted to play for Celtic/Rangers?”

Munro, it turned out, always wanted to play for Rangers. And he did, but only a handful of times in the two seasons he was there. He was able to revive his career after that disappointment by playing in England and even winning Scotland caps. But in the brutal manner in which we assess the lives of footballers he was a Rangers flop.

He’s hardly alone in that. They have been many and they have been underwhelming. They’ve arrived at Ibrox from other Scottish clubs where their reputations were high, more often than not as that of the star men – only to tread water or even go backwards, losing valuable years. In the past Rangers could afford these dabblings in the local market, writing off the losses in time for the next cherry-picking season, but they can’t any more.

‘Hopefully the days of stockpiling and obsessive collecting are gone’

Another midfielder at Hibs is reportedly on their radar, though. Scott Allan supported them as a boy, just like Munro, so if he were to move then doubtless those hoary old photo-ops parading the light blue (only a few pence going to the club, don’t forget) might at least contain a depth of feeling. But Allan, while only 23, couldn’t countenance Ibrox not working out for him. He has suffered quite a few disappointments already.

He wouldn’t want to leave Edinburgh full of dazzle like David Templeton only to disappear from view. He wouldn’t want to go from running the show with considerable swagger at his previous club to being booed in Govan like Ian Black. He wouldn’t want Player of the Year nominations to appear distant memories as they were for Kris Boyd, Jon Daly and Dean Shiels after their arrivals at Ibrox (and Allan indeed went one better and scooped his award). I mean, I’m presuming he wouldn’t be prepared to stomach any of this for the better money he’d earn there.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to write him a letter, Easter Road – I’m over that sort of thing now. But I’m interested in his progress and that of Danny Wilson, also being linked with Rangers, in his case a return there, and I’m absolutely fascinated, as I’ve always been, by what happens to good footballers when they pitch up at the Old Firm. The rest of us, not intimately involved, kind of have to be.

Because so many have gone there – half a Hibs team since Munro to Ibrox, half a Hearts team too, the best of the rest to both Rangers and Celtic, whizz-kids and SPL-mature types – can the ones who’ve not subsequently managed to star at these places be solely to blame for that? What about their agents and advisors and what about the management of these clubs? Ally McCoist may feel he was let down by his signings but what do these guys think he did for their careers? The Old Firm have in the past bought players they don’t really need, but don’t want the rivals to have either. Hopefully the days of stockpiling and obsessive collecting are gone.

Rangers have a new manager now, a man who wants to change the culture of the club; who acknowledges the “goldfish-bowl” of Glasgow football, mentioning it early on his first day; who as an ex-City trader will insist on value for money; who will provide rather fewer last big paydays for established names.

Probably given his background, Mark Warburton has a flow-chart, though maybe not a Tore Andre Flo-chart. Only in the job a week – and no change here – he’s been bombarded with advice on players. Wilson’s name has been prominent, as has that of Allan, while other observers have suggested Rangers’ first English boss return to the market he knows best to do his recruitment. Fans of those Scottish clubs fed up with their best players ending up at the Old Firm would surely welcome that.

It seems a long time since Rangers plucked a likely lad from the provinces and turned him into a legend, which makes you think they’ve forgotten how to make this policy work. Alex MacDonald, ex-St Johnstone, was one such, although it was the Perth club which provided McCoist as well. He knew what he was about, at least for a while.

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