Graham Wallace says all the right things. There is no bluster to the man, no desire to trade insults with those who object to the performance of some on his board.
In all of this Rangers farrago he is the one person who has risen above the cheap shots and gone on with his business in a pretty dignified manner. Of course, Wallace has only been in the door five minutes. The temptation is to say ‘Just give him time’ and he’ll soon be scrapping like everybody else, but he seems more professional than that, more believable in the role of a redeemer.
The faith in Wallace is based on a proven track record in football and also on some of the things he has said in his few short weeks at Rangers. Clearly, he has resonated with institutional investors and ordinary supporters alike because his 85.5 per cent approval rating in the vote yesterday was the highest of anybody seeking election or re-election. In the door less than a month, though. That can’t be forgotten. So far, so good but so much yet to do.
Wallace made some promises yesterday. He said the club would start proper engagement with the fans and he’ll need to be true to his word or else he’ll quickly find that those who support him now will quickly tire of him. He said the vote at the agm gave the board a “clear mandate” but, in truth, it didn’t. The board received a mandate from the institutional investors not from the rank and file, not from the people who sit in the stadium every second week. There is a difference. A big difference.
He spoke of yesterday being a “watershed moment”. Again, he’ll need to prove himself on that one. He asked for all those with Rangers’ best interests at heart “to stand behind us, to support us, to engage us, to give us the opportunity to demonstrate that we can take the club back to where we all aspire it to be.”
That’s a leap of faith that many supporters won’t make just for the sake of it. They’ll need evidence it’s a leap worth making. Talk is cheap. The requisitioners found that out yesterday. All the talk in the world didn’t get them anywhere close to making a fight of it with the board. So when Wallace speaks of dialogue with the fans and an engagement process with “leading international organisations” that want to be associated with Rangers it all sounds very nice, but seeing is believing. Too many empty promises have been made for too long for too many people to swallow the vision of a bright new tomorrow.
To be fair to Wallace, there was more to his remarks than a mere rallying call. There was some substance and some honesty. Yesterday, for instance, he said something extremely interesting about the finances at the club and the way in which some of the numbers are unsustainable. The chief executive said that Rangers’ “cost structure is currently too high for the top division never mind the lower leagues.” That comment stood out because it was such an un-Rangers thing to say.
Not too long ago Walter Smith, speaking as a former chairman and a doyen of the club, said that financial freewheeling was part of the Rangers DNA, that the money they spent on players and a manager was part of what Rangers were and that even though it defied logic, that’s the way it has always been. The fatalistic attitude was delivered deadpan, as if there was nothing anybody at Rangers could do about the frightening cash-burn.
Not being a ‘Rangers man’ might help Wallace bring some fiscal normality to his beleaguered institution. He is not held hostage by its past. He sees a club that is living beyond its means and he’s not afraid to incur the anger of people in admitting it.
Of course, he could have extended his argument a little further. He could have pointed a finger at some of those people responsible for continuing this “cost structure”. One of them was sitting close by on the podium at the agm – Brian Stockbridge, the finance director. Stockbridge has overseen shocking waste in his own brief time at the club and yet he is made of Teflon. The supporters barrack him, the requisitioners shout about his position being untenable, there has been all manner of attacks on his integrity and his professionalism and yet he is still there.
Wallace could have sent a message to the disaffected supporters by sacking Stockbridge, the number one subject of the fans’ ire. He hasn’t done so, but his language was interesting when asked if he would.
“It would be grossly premature and inappropriate to be talking about dismissing anybody when I have been in the building less than a month,” he said.
“My style is to assess what we have got and what we need... I have no hesitation and no difficulty in making difficult decisions but I think those decisions need to be made on the basis of my assessment of the facts rather than somebody else’s view.”
No blind show of faith, no ringing endorsement, no circling of the wagons. Measured and non-committal. It portrays a person who will carry out his own audit and draw his own conclusions about the performance of people at the club. For Rangers’ sake you hope he is given full authority to do so.
There is a fear – and we won’t know the legitimacy of it for a while – that Wallace, in his attempt to bring real change and proper corporate governance, will find himself out-gunned by some of those around him on the board and some of the investors these board-members represent.
The fans are inclined to believe in him, the requisitioners were always glad to accept him, but what is the tag of unanimous respect if he is not given the freedom to do the job as he feels it needs to be done?
In the autumn, Dave King arrived into town and had meetings with key people at Rangers and it’s safe to say that he wasn’t bowled over by the enthusiasm of some of those in power at Ibrox.
This was pre-Wallace. King has many issues with his conviction in South Africa on tax charges and the hoops he would have to jump through with the SFA and the AIM in order to get the clearance he would need to take up a place on the Rangers board, but possibly the greatest problem he may face is not from the SFA (who would be virtually powerless to stop him getting on the plc board) or the AIM (who King says should not be an issue) but from factions on the Rangers board itself.
King would bring money that Wallace says the club needs, but he would want power and that is something that others might be wholly unwilling to give up. Such is the politics of Rangers. Wallace may find out about that soon enough. Will he have the autonomy to do what he says needs to be done or will he be stifled, as others were stifled before him? He will need business savvy and political cunning to do this job.
Watershed moment? It’s too early to be making such a definitive conclusion, but it’s the end of the requisitioners, that is for sure. Their motives were right but their execution was flawed, right from the start, and they got a real pasting yesterday. They continue to believe that the club is heading for the rocks in financial terms and they are not alone in that.
Stockbridge, himself, said that they may have just £1m left in the bank come April, by which time they will be making appeals to the support to buy their season tickets. If Stockbridge is one of the men doing the appealing – if – then it will be interesting to hear the fans’ response. They say time heals all. With Stockbridge and the Rangers supporters, you have to wonder.
There will surely be a period of calm now, maybe before a storm in the spring when money is needed and King returns bearing riches, albeit with conditions.
Wallace is a man that people can rally around if he’s as good as his word. A starting point would be to engage with the fans rather than antagonising them in the way that Jack Irvine, the communications man, has done for too long. Yesterday was the end of the requisitioners but not the end of the saga.
This has been no fairytale and only an innocent would believe that it is definitely going to have a happy ever after.
In Wallace, though, there is hope and expectation and a whole heap of pressure not just to build bridges with fans but to bring commonsense back to Ibrox where for too long the economics of the madman have been in place.
All he will need is fiscal brilliance, diplomatic genius and the persuasive powers of a master politician. Apart from that, the task of restoring Rangers should be easy.