Alan Pattullo: Stripping Rangers' titles will achieve little

Examples of Ibrox chutzpah are legion. But it seems neatly illustrative to note how 20 years ago this summer Rangers made an audacious bid to sign the world's then '¨greatest player.
The gloom hanging over Ibrox has not been helped by the dismissal of Rangers appeal against HMRC. Picture: John Devlin.The gloom hanging over Ibrox has not been helped by the dismissal of Rangers appeal against HMRC. Picture: John Devlin.
The gloom hanging over Ibrox has not been helped by the dismissal of Rangers appeal against HMRC. Picture: John Devlin.

That’s 20 summers before they fell at the very first hurdle of Europe’s secondary knock-out competition against the fourth best side in 

Twenty years ago Ronaldo, the hottest talent in the game, then at Barcelona, almost signed for 

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Let that sink in as fans of the Ibrox club continue to sift through the wreckage of a ruinous 24 hours, when a decisive 2-0 defeat by FC Progres Niederkorn was followed soon afterwards by another, somewhat more profound, result going against Rangers.

But other than reminding a lot of football fans why they grew to have such strong views about the club, the so-called “big tax case” finding will likely prove less consequential in terms of footballing impact than the result in Luxembourg.

The anti-Rangers lobby formed long ago. But it has been reinforced by the seeming chicanery of the EBT years, which now lies exposed by the fixed judgement of Lord Hodge, who has dismissed the Ibrox club’s appeal against HMRC.

Former owner Sir David Murray’s reaction to date hasn’t amounted to more than a tight-lipped “very disappointing”.

It is very different to May 1997, when Murray defiantly reacted to news that Ronaldo had chosen to join Internazionale rather than head to Scotland.

“For years people have thought I have been talking rubbish about where this club was going, but this shows we are now talking about existing on a completely different plane,” he thundered.

“This was no publicity stunt. In fact we wanted it to be kept confidential. But it shows that Rangers can compete with THE biggest clubs in the world.

“It shows exactly what we are capable of doing, though we have lost out in this case.”

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Murray was talking to Natasha Woods in a piece for this newspaper detailing how Rangers had been frustrated in their attempt to beat the world transfer record with a £40 million bid, at the same time making Ronaldo the highest-paid player.

The Brazilian striker did become that, of course. Just not at Rangers.

But such elated rattle, from Murray and others at Ibrox, was spouted throughout the years that followed. Everyone will have their own favourite memorable declaration, from “moonbeams of success” to Murray’s promise to spend a tenner for every fiver paid out by Celtic.

Fans of other clubs had to get used to talk of Rangers having out-grown Scotland. It certainly wasn’t for Scottish football’s benefit that Murray was trying to sign Ronaldo.

Remarkably, Rangers were apparently prepared to let him off playing Scottish league games to preserve him for tough Champions League fixtures, a competition Rangers had ambitions to win.

Such a strident approach is why schadenfreude is widely felt in the Scottish football community when a result such as in Luxembourg is followed by the one delivered in the Supreme Court on Wednesday. How could it be otherwise? Distaste at how Rangers operated, the anger from some quarters, is very real.

The Ibrox club brought it all on themselves, putting into practice an elaborate financial scheme by which they relied on advice from former tax solicitor Paul Baxendale-Walker, a dubious character with sideline business interests in the porn industry.

More than a whiff of dubiety will forever cling to the titles won by Rangers between 2001 and 2010, the period under investigation. There is barely need for an asterisk to identify them in the history books. They will be judged differently in any case. Rangers supporters know it, Celtic fans know it.

Fans of every other club know it.

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So does this really need to be officially rubber-stamped? Is there legal recourse for this to happen? Are there even strict sporting integrity grounds on which to have them expunged?

Can a Lance Armstrong/Tour de France-like voiding of victories apply? Armstrong’s seven victories between 1999 and 2005 were effectively declared null and void by the UCI, world cycling’s governing body, for sustained doping offences. The cyclist has so far resisted paying back his winnings.

The Scottish Football Association, perhaps understandably, are shying away from such an extreme measure as title stripping, on legal advice they claim. The Scottish Professional Football League are still digesting the verdict – with a large measure of Gaviscon one imagines.

Chris Sutton has already had his say. An unlikely apologist for Rangers, the former Celtic striker has already insisted he doesn’t “give a shit” how their players were paid. They won their titles fairly and squarely on the pitch. Celtic, him included, came up short in his view.

Sutton moved on from all this long ago. He would probably advise others to do similar.

It was also an era of widespread financial doping. Hearts, for example, won a Scottish Cup in 2006 when hurtling toward financial turmoil. Gretna, the runners-up at Hampden, should not have got there nor shot through the league system. They, too, were operating on the never, never.

The 2003 Scottish Cup final has been dubbed the “fraudulent final” since it was contested by two teams – Rangers and Dundee – who were both creaking under the weight of their enormous debt at the time.

So it was a far from savoury period for several clubs, and for Scottish football in general. Even Celtic admitted they had investigated using EBT-based incentives to attract players.

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Many clubs were trying everything to gain a competitive advantage while staying just the right side of what they thought was the law – at the time. Rangers received legal reassurance that their sub-trust method of payment was legitimate. Tax avoidance rather than evasion.

Of course this won’t wash with a huge number of people, for whom the desire to see the Ibrox club burned at the stake extinguishes all other arguments. For some, it’s a fight to the death.

But it is surely reasonable to wonder what good more legal wrangling will achieve – there are still appeals on-going in Italy after the stripping of titles won a decade ago from Juventus following a more compelling case of cheating involving bribing of referees and match fixing.

The damage has already been done to Rangers’ reputation. The club will likely go on reaping a bleak harvest from seeds sown so long ago amid large mounds of hubris.