Sorely-tried Rangers fans in the past couple of years will surely have formed an understanding of the anguish with which the American writer, Dorothy Parker, would react to the chiming of the doorbell or the shrill of the telephone in her New York hotel room: “What fresh hell is this?”.
For the famously acerbic Parker, the pain was merely the easily-remedied consequence of her own slovenliness in the business of meeting the deadlines imposed on her lucrative magazine commissions.
For followers of the Ibrox club, the distress derives from the immeasurably more complicated, questionable motives and actions of others, a series of would-be controllers who are quickly becoming too numerous to count – or even to know.
It will have surprised no-one, not even among those at the heart of the tumult, that the latest eruption of boardroom in-fighting should have prompted a warning from Andy Kerr, president of the Rangers Supporters Assembly, on the danger of alienating the members of his and similar organisations, thereby risking potentially serious damage from a dramatic fall in the sale of season tickets.
Even less of a shock would be registered by the readiness with which the recently-installed chief executive, Craig Mather, rushed into print to assure the club’s regularly alarmed fans that he is to be trusted to work exclusively for the good of the club and that renewing their subscriptions would be a sound move. This plea was a direct follow-up to the announcement that the cost of retaining their books would remain unchanged from last season.
It is not difficult, therefore, to imagine the grimness with which Mather would receive the news that the club’s former chairman, Alastair Johnston, had made public his view that “there is a cancer spreading through the club and it’s not going away”.
But, whatever picture may be formed when the various strands of the Rangers tapestry are eventually pulled together – these comprise mainly investigations and projected court proceedings of entirely uncertain outcomes – even a superficial review of the Ibrox situation at present confirms that the allegiance of the fans and the income it generates are utterly indispensable.
Anyone who recalls the great resurgence of Rangers in 1986, when the Lawrence construction company assumed control and appointed Graeme Souness as manager and David Holmes as chairman, will recognise the present circumstance as a betrayal of the ideals that were incorporated and began to be pursued 27 years ago.
The vibrancy and ambition of the club in those exciting days were articulated by its irrepressible commercial director, the late Freddie Fletcher. He caused rampant scepticism among the less enlightened guardians of the Scottish game (especially the Dickensian mindset of those at Celtic Park) by declaring that Rangers’ objective was to create an enterprise in which “gate money will represent a maximum of only thirty per cent of our revenue.”
A certain dismissiveness among the established order may have been understandable, since gate receipts had provided around 99 per cent of the clubs’ income for almost a century of the professional game and nobody knew anything else. Holmes and Fletcher created the model which Fergus McCann would replicate at Celtic eight years later, taking a potentially huge club that had been rendered virtually dormant and revitalising it with marketing skills and the promise of better times that were founded on sound business practices.
McCann’s legacy would be honoured, while Rangers would pass to the David Murray regime, which appeared for almost two decades to have a pronounced predilection for bravado and financial extravagance at the expense of even reasonable – that is, not necessarily even parsimonious – housekeeping.
Fletcher’s ideal nowadays seems further out of reach in Scotland than it was back in 1986, while the top clubs in England achieved the desired ratio a long time ago. Manchester United’s income from season ticket sales of 52,000, for example, represents only about 12 per cent of their annual turnover of around £350 million.
Rangers, of course, are not alone in their reliance on a large and active fan base. Ironically, however, they have been enjoying substantial attendances in the Third Division, their followers doubtless driven by the kind of rally-round-the-flag mentality that tends to manifest itself in times of adversity.
But it is their very status, with its built-in obligation to charge reduced, lower-division admissions, that necessitates their followers’ attendance in great numbers. The SPL clubs are also in need of a telling resurgence in crowds; the decline, however, is not attributable merely to Rangers’ expulsion, as the waning was evident some time before their present predicament.
Match attendances had been, in any case, impossibly artificial, a result of the aforementioned entrepreneurial skills of McCann and the natural rivalry between the big Glasgow clubs. No city with a population of around 600,000 is entitled to produce aggregate crowds for two football clubs of 110,000, with waiting lists for season tickets. Those heady days have been receding for at least the past four years, with, for instance, Celtic’s season ticket sales down from a high of 53,000 to about 43,000.
It was the success of those earlier campaigns which created the season-ticket culture which led to a reluctance among supporters to spend any more on football. The result has been mass kicking of the habit of attending away games.
Any pursuit that demands effort, commitment and financial outlay will always be vulnerable to competing distractions. Spending a lot of time travelling appreciable distances at considerable expense to watch mediocre football will be a prime target. All things considered (but, specifically, the number of years the playing standards have been putrid), the dwindling has been long overdue.