Stuart Bathgate: Integrity maintained despite warnings of doom
WHATEVER financial difficulties may arise over the coming years, Scottish football can at least wake up this morning, gaze into the mirror and look itself straight in the eye.
The honest, honourable thing has been done, despite the dire warnings of doom.
That is the first consequence of the vote taken yesterday at Hampden which admitted Rangers to the Third Division of the Scottish Football League. A vital principle has been maintained. For the longer-term future of the game, that has to outweigh any fears of monetary trouble.
Supporters and journalists alike have at times dismissed club officials as blazer-wearing bureaucrats; at times, in some cases, correctly. But yesterday, when it came to something that really matters, those same officials acted with real integrity, and refused to be browbeaten into agreeing that Rangers should be parachuted into the First Division.
As a result, the game in this country has taken on an extraordinary new look – one which would have been deemed unthinkable just a few months ago. For a time, when the talk was all about different parties vying to take control of Rangers and lead the club out of administration, a clean conclusion to the mess left by Craig Whyte looked on the cards.
The Blue Knights group, led by Paul Murray and Brian Kennedy, had the backing of Rangers fans and the respect of many others. Had they taken over, the club and the game might just have got back on its feet some time ago. But that bid and others failed, Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs rejected Charles Green’s bid to leave administration via a Company Voluntary Arrangement, and the next step was liquidation.
Green remains in charge of the new Rangers, but enjoys the active backing of no more than a tiny minority of the club’s supporters, and must contend with the open mistrust of far greater numbers.
That fact adds greater uncertainty to what is already a very fluid situation. Presuming Rangers progress one division at a time and win promotion to the SPL in the spring of 2015, who will own the club then? What state will it be in, and how happy with it will the supporters be?
In fact, never mind what might happen in three years’ time, what about three weeks? Many Rangers fans have refused to buy season tickets until Green offers greater clarity on his plans, so what sort of attendances should we expect at Ibrox?
Away games at tiny grounds will be buzzing, but will the 51,000-plus capacity stadium be even close to full, or will we witness the sort of small crowds that were last regularly seen there before Graeme Souness took over more than a quarter of a century ago?
The other issue, of course, is what will happen to the SPL without Rangers? The overall size of the travelling support in the top flight will certainly drop, but to what extent will it be offset by a rise in the number of fans turning up to back their teams at home?
One thing is sure. If the vote yesterday had gone the other way, or if SPL clubs had earlier allowed Green’s newco to hold on to the old club’s place, there would have been widespread disenchantment. Supporters of every other SPL team, convinced that the league had gone out of its way to favour Rangers, would have stayed away in their droves.
That was the background to yesterday’s vote that neither SPL chief executive Neil Doncaster nor his SFA counterpart Stewart Regan appeared to understand. That whichever way the vote went, the economic consequences would be serious.
Without Rangers, the top division would lose its supporters and risk losing some TV revenue. With them next season, it would lose thousands of other supporters who felt that it was not truly competitive, but run for the benefit of one of its two biggest clubs.
Regan and Doncaster apparently thought they could balance financial need and sporting integrity by putting Rangers into the First Division for next season. But they completely misread the predominant mood within Scottish football, and hence failed to see that the crisis would have an economic impact whatever way it turned out.
Indeed, if yesterday’s suggestions are true, and an attempt is made to launch an SPL 2 and invite Rangers to join it, it looks as if some leading figures have still not grasped that mood. Or perhaps they have grasped it, and are now willing to ignore two overwhelming democratic votes – 10 to 1 against Rangers being in the SPL, 25 to 5 against them in Division One.
I was going to call them “conclusive” votes, but alas, nothing about this saga seems to be conclusive. At least Green’s statement, delivered after the vote, struck a positive note by saying that Rangers would accept the reality of life in the Third Division.
“We wish to play a constructive part in Division Three and encourage our fans to support the other clubs within the league by attending matches and delivering to them the benefits of having Rangers within their league,” he said. And at least Regan’s statement on the SFA website joined in the tone of reconciliation with its talk of the need to “reinvigorate the national game”.
But there was also an ambiguous conclusion to Regan’s words. “Ultimately,” he wrote, “there must be an outcome that enables Scottish football to move on with consensus, clarity and confidence into a new era for the national game.”
Surely that is what yesterday’s vote produced? Surely a majority of 25 out of 30 is more than enough to constitute a clear consensus? Certainly, everyone should be able to move on now.
Contrary to what Green, Regan and Doncaster appear to think, yesterday’s vote was not about “punishing” Rangers. Many supporters of other clubs may have had that as a motive, but for the officials who met at Hampden, the issue was about how to treat a new applicant. And the decision was to admit it, as is the custom, into the Third Division.
Scottish football would be in a far healthier state if Rangers had never gone into administration. But it happened, five months ago today. Let’s accept that we are where we are, that Rangers are in the Third Division, and talks about league reconstruction should continue at their own pace, free from the desire to make one club a special case.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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