RANGERS manager Ally McCoist will garner little from playing to the fans at Ibrox, and needs only look to Celtic managers of the past for hints on dealing with a slimmed-down transfer budget, writes Glenn Gibbons.
When Lou Macari was manager of Celtic in the closing days of the failed Kelly/White directorial axis, he was informed by his board that the absolute maximum he would be allowed to spend on the purchase of a player would be £50,000. To express the significance of the figure in house-buying terms, it would have been enough to cover the cost of acquiring football’s equivalent of a single-end – with outside loo.
In essence, the controllers of the Parkhead purse had informed their manager that spending money had become an alien concept at an organisation which was, at the time, hurtling towards the financial abyss.
Macari’s response to being metaphorically clapped in irons was to hatch a plan to bring the former Rangers striker, Robert Fleck, back from England, where his career was, at the time, at the bottom of a trough at Chelsea. Lou guessed that he would cost around £500,000 and hoped that, by agreeing the deal by his own efforts, he could, in effect, embarrass the board into finding the money.
Anyone reflecting on the episode now, armed with the knowledge of the depths of Celtic’s economic plunge, would recognise that Lou’s plot was doomed as an unrealisable fantasy.
Ten years on, Martin O’Neill was weaving his own web, putting a slightly sour note into the occasional press conference by hinting that his lofty ambitions for Celtic – embracing distinction in Europe as well as in Scotland – were being hindered by a board of directors who habitually used the word “prudence” as a shield against accusations of parsimony.
Had any fans during that period eavesdropped on my conversation with the then chairman, Brian Quinn, they would have discovered that, far from the growing resentment and potential acrimony that would have made captivating headlines, the manager’s relationship with his employers represented what passes for unremarkable normality in a largely eccentric business.
“Listen,” said an endlessly tolerant and understanding Quinn, “at any football club with the ambition we have, the manager has his job and the directors have theirs. As a matter of course, the interests of both parties will at times collide. This conflict is utterly unavoidable and woven into the very fabric of this kind of organisation.
“Now, Martin O’Neill is a clever man – that’s one of the reasons he is in the position he’s in – and we, as directors, would be very surprised indeed if he did not every now and then plant seeds in the media to see how they might grow. Martin knows precisely how the system works and how to maximise the effect he believes will advance his cause.
“But we are pretty good at what we do, too, and that’s why we’re in the job. We’re inevitably going to have these conflicts, but they’ll be resolved in a way that won’t damage the club. It’s all part of the process.”
The wildly varying (but curiously consistent) experiences of the two Celtic managers – one when times were bad, the other when they were infinitely better – resonated through the public musings of Ally McCoist this week, the Rangers manager dwelling on his misgivings over what could be called the atrophying of the Ibrox club’s financial muscle.
Both Macari and O’Neill, in starkly contrasting circumstances, encountered the priorities and imperatives of directors and, not for the first time, were reminded that they would more often than not be at odds with their own.
McCoist finds himself in the same straits as Macari and, clearly, would much prefer to have O’Neill’s “worries”. But he has been immersed long enough in the primordial soup that has been Rangers’ finances in recent years to realise that no amount of populism (despite his reverence among many of the club’s followers) will bring relief from the mess.
If anything, the annual meeting of shareholders nine days ago that brought the entrenchment of the current directors also virtually ensured that the manager’s prospects of strengthening his squad through a shopping expedition will dim to the point of invisibility. A few more foul-tasting truths have emerged since the conclusion of the agm, not least of them the unvarnished claim by chief executive Graham Wallace that substantial new investment will be required. And, much more tellingly, that it could take up to five years of streamlining and careful husbandry to prove to potential backers that Rangers are worth the risk.
The unmissable hint that the quality of the team is likely, if anything, to deteriorate during that period carries the unnerving possibility that widespread assumptions of an uninterrupted march from the fourth tier to the first in Scottish league football could be made to look ill-founded.
Speculation that McCoist will be forced to lose his best players during the January transfer window is sound enough on the grounds of reducing the wage bill. But, with Lee Wallace the only one so far reportedly interesting a possible buyer (“Nottingham Forest In £1 million Swoop For Wallace”), it is unlikely that sales will have the Ibrox counting house staff on overtime.
Forecasts of Rangers’ speedy transition from phoenix-like rebirth in the flames of liquidation to the perch at the summit of the SPFL Premiership and cutting a swathe through Europe may have to be modified to accommodate a more likely, considerably less rewarding prognosis.
Dissenters to this proposal would do well to recall that, even with the extraordinarily quick recovery of Celtic under Fergus McCann in 1994 – complete with an immensely increased annual turnover through season-ticket sales and merchandising and while remaining in the Scottish Premier League – it still took another four years to win the championship.