If you were constructing a gallery of guilty men at Rangers then you’d want to make sure your walls are supported by reinforced steel, such is the weight of numbers you’d be hanging up there.
Walter Smith has pretty much stood alone as the good guy in all of this. ‘In Walter We Trust’ as some Rangers supporters might put it. It’s hard not to respect and like the former Ibrox manager given all that he has done in the game, but it’s possible to hold him in high esteem while at the same time pointing out the fallacy that he is blameless in the spectacular mess that his club has become.
In the deconstruction of the Rangers story you’d point the finger at plenty of guys before you’d have Smith in your sights, but the fact is that he has played his own part in the malaise. He possesses none of the spiv-ish nature of some of the chancers who have come and gone at Ibrox, but he still warrants criticism.
It didn’t come across in his interviews on Tuesday, but Smith is no innocent bystander in all of this. We go back to last summer and a tabloid headline that read ‘Walter’s Heartbreak’ above a story that told of Smith’s failed bid to take control of Rangers in June 2012. To talk of his heartbreak was a little kind given that the bid failed partly because, as Malcolm Murray subsequently pointed out, there was actually no formal bid – he called it empty posturing – and partly because even if there was a bid it was too little, too late. By the time Smith, Jim McColl and Douglas Park mounted their white steeds and galloped over the horizon in Govan, calling on Charles Green to “step aside” in the interests of Rangers, Green had already secured the business and assets for a song.
What took them so long? Where had they been? They made no secret of their concern about the motivation of Green and his group. They were spot-on there. So why wait until Green had done the deal before appearing on the scene? On these pages in the past I equated their action to somebody busting in on a funeral with a defibrillator.
Smith asked Green to step aside in the interests of Rangers. Appealing to his sense of fair play wasn’t going to change the course of events. The one thing that Green would have listened to was an offer. Money doesn’t talk to Green, it hollers like a banshee. Smith’s group had the financial clout to get the Yorkshireman off the scene and they didn’t deliver. They spoke openly of their serious reservations about Green’s mysterious group but didn’t do what needed to be done.
We could talk about Smith’s axis of excess with David Murray back in the day when Rangers thought they had money when in actual fact what they had was credit and iffy tax schemes, which eventually came back to trouble them and helped cause the spectacular implosion. More recent events show that the hubris of the 1990s and early 2000s hasn’t been fully purged.
Smith was right to be anxious about Green. For months, Green attempted to get him on board and was getting nowhere. Getting Ally McCoist’s imprimatur was incredibly valuable to Green and the chances are that his regime would not have got off the ground had McCoist stayed true to his own initial feelings about the Yorkshireman, but he didn’t.
The endorsement of McCoist helped shift season tickets and helped endear Green to the Ibrox faithful after an early and bitter stand-off with the supporters, featuring a death threat. Getting McCoist on side – publicly at any rate – was good, but getting Smith to join him was equally important given the IPO last December. In November, Walter jumped into bed with Green. They shook hands and smiled for the cameras. One big happy family again. Smith became a non-executive director.
The veneer of calmness was what Green was looking for and thanks to two Rangers icons, he got it. Both men would have been better advised to stick to their original positions on Green and his cohorts. By changing their minds, they played their own part in facilitating the embarrassment that followed. It can’t have been that much of a surprise, given how dubious they were about Green in the first place.
Smith became chairman last June, not because he wanted to but because he felt he had to in the wake of the in-fighting at Ibrox, the dysfunctionality of the board as he later described it. It was to his credit that he moved into a position that he had no experience of. He knew he lacked the tools but, equally, he vowed that he would be as hands-on as he could possibly be. “No-one should believe that I see my role as a passive one,” he said. “That hasn’t been my way in the past and it won’t be my way in the future.”
Encouraging words for the Rangers fans who craved authority and order at the top of the club, but it’s easy to see how Smith was virtually powerless in that bonkers regime of Green’s. You can’t blame him for walking away from the civil war. But some of the things he said on Tuesday jar a little all the same. His comments on the financial waste at Ibrox, under his watch in part, demanded explanation. “I knew they [Rangers] would make a loss [for the financial year ended 30 June] but I wasn’t sure exactly what it would be. It was quite a surprise when it came out to be such a large figure.”
Quite a surprise? Smith was chairman for the end of that period. Did he ask questions about the financial state of the club while he was there? Did he get answers? Were the answers truthful? If yes, why was he then surprised when the accounts revealed such a massive cash-burn? If no, then did he feel people inside the club had lied to him? Smith was chairman. He should have known, shouldn’t he? Having the business savvy to be able to do something about the obscene bonuses being dished out would have been a different matter entirely, but as chairman he should have known. Unless he was a passive chairman, which he said he wouldn’t be.
On the football side of it, it’s pretty clear that Smith had no issue with McCoist earning £825,000 a year. Also, he has said that giving a player a wage of £7,500 a week (Ian Black, for one) while in the Third Division was not such a big deal. Presumably he had no truck with other deals, like the one given to Fran Sandaza that would have seen the Spaniard’s salary rise to £10,000 a week in the final year of his contract.
The overall wage bill in the Third Division was £7.8 million. Smith said: “People come out and say ‘Ah, it’s not necessary for them to have those players in that division’. But it’s not just the division that matters at Rangers, it’s the fact that you have 45,000 people coming to watch something on a football pitch…They are still losing money. But when you make a decision to be involved at Rangers, there is no common sense to it. The financial bit of Rangers Football Club and common sense don’t often go together.”
That’s a remarkable statement when you think about it. What is wrong with Rangers attempting some common sense in their spending? Why be so accepting of a lack of common sense? It didn’t have to be that way. There is no law – apart from the law of hubris – that says Rangers have to lack common sense in their finances. This is the 2013 version of David Murray’s freakonomics. ‘We are Rangers and we’ll spend what we like’. Either through arrogance or stupidity – or both – that mindset hasn’t changed all that much despite the torment.
What would have been so wrong with offering Black £3,000 a week instead of £7,500? What would have been the problem had McCoist been put on £400,000 from the point of administration instead of continuing on £825,000? Why is the wage bill so eye-wateringly high for a club in the Third Division? Because there is no common sense at Rangers, says Smith. Instead of just accepting it, how about doing something about it? Incredibly, it wouldn’t appear that the penny has dropped yet.
The former manager deserves all the respect for what he achieved in the game, but in the on-going crisis at Ibrox, he is not blame-free. Rangers are still stuck in a financial time-warp. And many people have allowed it to happen.