Stuart Bathgate: Craig Whyte’s hopes of a comeback look like wishful thinking
Welcome mat unlikely to await return of absent Rangers owner, writes Stuart Bathgate
Craig Whyte’s decision to stay away from Ibrox on Saturday was taken with regret, according to the man himself. He was “taking a step back from events”, a statement in his name explained, because he did not wish to “become a distraction”. It was a self-denying ordinance made necessary by events, he insisted, adding: “I would dearly love to be at the game”.
The implication of the statement was clear. Once this painful but necessary process called administration is over, once Rangers have re-emerged leaner and healthier and happier, Whyte will be back to cheer on the club he has supported man and boy.
The disbelief of others, however, has been equally evident. For them, this was no temporary measure, but the first of a long series of absences which will stretch to infinity, if not beyond.
“Whyte’s away” was the headline in one paper yesterday. “He won’t be back,” the sub-head read, while the intro contained the suggestion that Whyte was “highly unlikely” to ever return.
The scepticism of that report is wholly understandable. Whyte’s statement included a number of assertions about Rangers which have yet to be verified, so why should we believe the implication that he will be back as soon as possible?
There is no reason, really, to lend any credence to Whyte’s words. But his actions are a different matter – and those actions, over the past seven months rather than just the past seven days, suggest that he will be desperate to remain involved.
It is perfectly possible for someone to buy a football club solely for financial reasons – not very likely, but possible. And in that case, it is wholly conceivable that the purchaser in question could stay away from the ground, an absentee landlord whose interest in the product on the park did not extend beyond the effect the results had on the club’s balance sheet.
Whyte may have bought Rangers from Sir David Murray primarily with the aim of making a profit, but that was surely not his only aim. If it was, he would not have placed himself so eagerly at the centre of the club’s visible life.
He had probably not missed a single match this season before Saturday, having attended Rangers’ games both home and away. And, having declared himself to be a lifelong Rangers supporter, what more pleasant duty could there have been for him than hoisting the league flag during the first match of the new campaign at Ibrox?
To behave like that, and then walk away without a qualm, would be highly unusual. That kind of dissociation between public behaviour and private feeling is rare even in accomplished actors.
Whyte gave every impression that he was living the dream. To act in that way, and then court opprobrium by shunning Rangers games, makes no sort of sense. It is unnecessary, inefficient and counterproductive. Even the most coldblooded of businessmen would recognise that.
Whyte may well think he is more clever than everyone else around him, and if he emerges from this crisis with a profit he may be proven correct. But there is probably also an element of wishful thinking in the way he has acted: a part of him that wants that cleverness to be acknowledged by the wider public. A part which hopes, despite everything, that the Rangers support will welcome him back with open arms once this long dark night of their collective soul is over.
But is it possible for someone, once they have been so vilified, to make such a comeback? Is it preferable to stay away or stick it out?
There are recent precedents in Scottish football for both approaches. Across the city from Ibrox, Michael Kelly was a member of the Celtic board which in 1994 eventually ceded control of the club to Fergus McCann after a bitter battle. Vilified by many fans both before and after the takeover, the former Lord Provost of Glasgow is rarely sighted these days at the ground where he once held sway.
At Tynecastle, conversely, the former chairman and chief exeutive Chris Robinson remains a regular attender at matches. The Hearts official once needed around 30 police, assisted by dogs, to get out of his own stadium one night, as supporters let him know of their anger at his agreement to sell the ground to developers. But he kept going to games then, and although he has remained a hate figure for many Hearts fans long after his sale of the club to Vladimir Romanov, he can still be seen in the directors’ box at most games.
Both Kelly and Robinson took their clubs to the brink of major changes which were opposed by the majority of supporters, and it is arguably only thanks to the emergence of McCann and Romanov that Celtic and Hearts escaped the fate which has befallen Rangers under Whyte. But the example of Robinson does at least show that it is possible for a leading official to be massively unpopular yet still go to his team’s games both during and after a crisis in the club’s life.
Will Whyte feel able to return to Ibrox, even if and when Rangers are out of administration and restored to something approaching rude health? He may well want to, but that return to health will probably not be enough in itself.
He will need to accrue a fair amount of credit along the way, and become, if not exactly revered, at least accepted as the man who set Rangers on the path to a better future. But right now, such acceptance looks a long way off.
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