Stuart Bathgate: Loss of fans is the hidden cost of keeping Rangers
UP UNTIL now, the debate over Rangers’ future has been presented as a clash between integrity and economics. Several officials of other clubs have tried to placate their supporters by saying yes, they agree in principle that Rangers should be punished but, in practice, they have to take the financial cost of expulsion into account.
The events of the past few days, however, have blurred the boundaries. There is no longer any clear contradiction between sticking to your principles and keeping body and soul together. Integrity and economics can go hand in hand.
The reason for that is the supporters themselves. Those people who many club officials would rather just shuffled along to their ground every other Saturday, coughed up as much dosh as they could, then shuffled off home again without doing anything so dangerously subversive as daring to hold an opinion. Well, more and more of those supporters are now offering an opinion, and it is not one that many clubs appear happy to hear. As a result, the financial consequences of Rangers’ removal from the top flight are not nearly so cut and dried.
Most clubs outwith the big two have long accepted, with varying degrees of reluctance, that Celtic and Rangers have a right to hold sway because of the size of their support. Do anything to displease Old Firm fans and you risk losing vital income if they retaliate by staying away from your grounds. Do anything to get rid of one half of the Old Firm, if only temporarily, and you risk a far bigger drop in income.
That’s true enough, and it’s obvious that the two Glasgow clubs have a far bigger support than any other team in the country. To that extent, it is correct to say that the loss of the Rangers support from the SPL would have a far bigger effect than the loss of, say, St Mirren’s or Ross County’s fanbase
But, if you add the supporters of St Mirren, Ross County and the other eight non-Old-Firm clubs together, you still come up with a sizeable number. And, when a large proportion of that number say they will not come back to football if Rangers are allowed to stay in the SPL, club chairmen everywhere have to sit up and pay attention.
That has been the difference over the past few days, since Charles Green’s CVA attempt failed and Rangers went into liquidation. We have known for some time that some fans want Rangers to be kicked out of the SPL but now we have a clearer idea of just how many want that course of action to be taken. In a poll on a Hearts fans’ website, for instance, 98 per cent said they wanted Rangers out.
Granted, of the tens of thousands who are threatening not to come back, some may relent. A few may admit that they were only threatening to boycott the game in the hope that Rangers would be punished, and a few more will find the lure of football irresistible. Once their anger has subsided, they’ll be back to support their team. But football’s administrators should not underestimate the depth of disaffection felt by the majority of supporters who want Rangers kicked out. Nor should they ignore the strength of hostility towards the Old Firm felt by nearly everyone else in Scottish football.
The principle of fair competition has long been compromised by the Old Firm’s financial might, which allows them to buy success, domestically at least. But allowing Rangers to use that monetary muscle off the park too, by using it as an argument for staying in the league, would see the game sink to a new low.
Green and his colleagues think they deserve a fresh start. As new chairman Malcolm Murray put it on Friday: “I think Rangers have had giant punishments already. . . for the good of Scottish football it’s much better that Rangers are in the SPL. For everyone’s sake we should forget the sins of a few people in the past and move on.”
But Green’s newco can’t have it both ways. If they want to avoid responsibility for what the old regime did, it is only right that they should forfeit its privileges too. Among those privileges, of course, being that place in the SPL.
In any case, it’s just not tenable any more to claim that keeping Rangers in the SPL would be “for everyone’s sake”. The supporters of every other club have now made that abundantly clear.
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