FOOTBALL has always attracted conmen and shysters, weirdos and whackos. The most entertaining have included the 2001 case of Stephen Brown, the “businessman” who was unveiled as Carlisle United’s new owner by UFO-loving owner Michael Knighton before almost immediately being unmasked as a penniless waiter who worked at a Peebles curry house, lived in sheltered housing and drove an H-reg Vauxhall Cavalier.
But as well as the entertaining, there have also been plenty of downright ugly characters who have inveigled their way into the beautiful game’s inner sanctums. My favourite football crook is former Doncaster Rovers owner Ken Richardson, who not only employed the former manager of Stockport County’s club shop as his club’s manager because he was cheap (Doncaster were relegated to the Conference with a goal difference of -83), but in 1995 paid a former SAS man turned private investigator to burn down the club’s Belle Vue stadium so he could collect the insurance money and sell the cleared site for development. The main stand duly went up like a Roman candle, but one of the arsonists left his mobile phone at the scene and Richardson – described by detectives as “the type that would trample a two-year-old to pick up a 2p bit” – got four years for his efforts.
But for the impact they had on Carlisle and Doncaster, neither of those jokers can hold a candle to Craig Whyte and the havoc he has wreaked on Rangers. Banned from Scottish football for life, chased through the courts by Ticketus, universally reviled by Rangers fans for his obscene carpetbagging, at least when Charles Green completed his takeover one of the few silver linings was that Scottish football thought it had finally waved goodbye to the charlatan forever.
Nothing is ever as easy as that when there’s a Croesus-sized pot of gold there for the taking. Both David Sullivan and Harry Redknapp have recently provided a sense of the violent lengths agents will go to make themselves part of a deal, with the QPR manager likening their methods to “gang warfare”. Lord knows what those two would make of Whyte who, despite having invested virtually none of his own money, seems determined to make himself part of the Rangers equation – as well he might, given Green’s needlessly provocative remark that he one day envisaged post-Big Tax Case Rangers being worth £1 billion.
This week’s news that the “delusional” Whyte (one of Green’s choicer words for his former business partner turned sparring partner) intends to launch a £50 million court case to reclaim the ownership of the Ibrox club from Green and his backers will have been read with a heavy heart by all Rangers fans. Yet until the charade is played out in open court most of us are willing to believe virtually any scenario, no matter how fantastical; the past two years seem to have had that sort of effect on our collective perspective.
The only thing that remains inarguable is that if there is to be a court case – and both men seem keen to start scrapping like snakes in a sack as soon as possible – then it will be an ugly affair that will bring yet more shame and dishonour on Rangers at a point where that had seemed difficult to imagine. Yet it is also a chance to draw a line under this whole sorry episode and, in the process, bring some welcome relief to the wider world of Scottish football. Whyte may have been the catalyst for Rangers’ final, messy implosion, but the seeds of this disaster were sown long ago. As far back as 1999, we hacks were all scratching our heads at Rangers’ profligacy and a signing policy that seemed hopelessly spendthrift. Indeed, even the most cursory inspection of their annual accounts back then revealed that they were only technically solvent because of a valuation of Ibrox that was so stratospheric as to defy belief. Seriously, how was a listed building in a post-industrial part of town with no shortage of brownfield sites ever valued at the thick end of £100m?
If we scribblers could see that this was a nonsense, and that Rangers were hurtling down a financially unsustainable path, then why couldn’t the SFA and the SPL? This, of course, must be the blazers’ worst nightmare: just when they thought the whole sorry Rangers spectacle had been finally put out of sight and mind, and that they had got away relatively unscathed, along comes a messy court case to remind us of their dithering and complicity.
And complicit they were. They may not have been giving Dick Advocaat staggering sums to spend in the full knowledge that they could never be recouped by winning the SPL, even had they done so 999 times in a row, but the financial madness was wrought on their watch. It was done so at exactly the same time that they were forcing clubs to build 10,000-seater stadia that many of them would never need: that bird has come home to roost this week in Dunfermline.
So now may be the right time to take stock, to look at doing things differently. It’s not difficult to see what needs to be done. We need one governing body for all of Scottish football, and one with enough gumption to use its powers and intervene early. As that’s easier said than done, how about every club being forced to turn its ground into a trust so that it can’t be used to facilitate financial recklessness, as happened with Rangers, and so that it can’t be razed and turned into a shopping centre, as could still happen in Gorgie? And while we’re at it, why not make it a condition of SPL membership that you can only spend, say, 50 per cent of turnover on wages (and yes, I know that UEFA’s financial fair play regulations come in next year, but they have so many loopholes as to render them useless)?
If this season – or, more precisely, the form of sides like financial minnows Inverness Caley Thistle, Ross County, Kilmarnock and St Johnstone – has taught us one thing, it’s that you don’t need to spend fortunes to produce exciting football that fans want to watch. Clubs living within their means hasn’t led to bargain basement football – the Scottish game has much to offer without flirting with the financial Armageddon which still engulfs Rangers.