Craig Whyte, the chairman and owner of Rangers Football Club, is also the secured creditor, which means he could scrap the old club and create a new one in its place, while holding onto Ibrox
When the news arrived it was akin to hearing of the death of an elderly and sick relative; inevitable but still a shock.
Rangers are not quite in administration, but they’re surely heading there. There is no surprise in that. A few weeks ago in Scotland on Sunday, Craig Whyte warned the supporters of the club to brace themselves for the roughest fortnight in the club’s history. At the time, he wasn’t talking about their up-coming games against Dundee United in the Scottish Cup and against Dunfermline in the SPL but rather a match against a seemingly unbeatable rival; HMRC.
The announcement itself was expected at some point, but some of the detail in the statement was revelatory. Whyte outlines that there is no scenario in the business with HMRC that could possibly result in anything resembling a victory for Rangers. For Whyte, it’s a case of if they lose, they lose and if they win, they still lose. Not even if the club were found to have no case to answer would there be stability ahead. In that event, HMRC have made it clear that they would appeal, appeal and appeal again. Rangers would choke to death on years of uncertainty.
The starkest element came with the probability that Rangers are going to lose the tax case. Whyte has given up all hope of a dream scenario. There isn’t one. There are just degrees of awfulness. He stated that an HMRC victory would mean that Rangers would then be looking at a potential liability of “substantially” more than the £50m we all thought was the bottom line.
That £50m was already a figure that made Rangers’ hearts bleed. And here was the really interesting thing. For the first time Whyte acknowledged the possibility that Rangers could disappear as a football club if HMRC continue to play hardball.
Since his first days at Ibrox, Whyte has discounted this theory, utterly rejecting it at every turn. Rangers will carry on, he has said, without hesitation. Now he says that, in the £50m+ scenario, “further investment in the club from any source would be impossible, as the threat of winding-up by HMRC cannot be removed”.
What is going on here?
There is no question but that Whyte is trying to broker a deal. Call it what you will – defiance or an act of pleading to HMRC’s better nature, a previously unseen quality – but he is attempting to stave off administration by playing a game of poker.
He seems to be saying this: “Okay HMRC, we’re putting an offer on the table here and it’s the best we can do, the most we can come up with. If you take it, then we carry on as a club, put our house in order and leave this nightmare behind us. If you refuse then many people will lose their jobs, many creditors will suffer and you will get nothing because I, as the secured creditor, own the stadium and I own the training ground and I will sink this club and re-float it as New Rangers FC and you can whistle for your money.”
Some might say that the latter has been Whyte’s strategy all along. After all, he knew from the get-go what he was facing with HMRC, he knew the scale of the potential bill and the probability that the case would go against Rangers. None of what has happened can have come as a surprise to him. He had lawyers and accountants crawling all over this stuff since spring 2011. From the moment he signed on the dotted line and took ownership of Rangers he was steeling himself for the club having to go into administration – call it hiding – to avoid the horrors of HMRC and their demand for money the club don’t have.
There is nothing in HMRC’s make-up that suggests they are vulnerable to such a tactic by Whyte. These people are not pussycats. They don’t tend to respond to pleas for clemency from football clubs nor to what they might perceive to be some kind of Whyte ultimatum. The next few weeks will tell the truth of all that, but it’s not hard to imagine that Whyte has already become resigned to the doomsday option, the reinvention of Rangers as a new company.
Back in October, I interviewed Whyte and put that scenario to him. I said that it would be a disgrace to the history of the club if it was reinvented in order to escape the tax man. His response was matter of fact and it spoke to the ruthlessness that lies behind that boyish face. He said that other than a regrettable event in the story of Rangers, it wouldn’t be all that bad. He remarked that the history of the club would always remain. “That stays,” he said, no matter what they might be known as.
That’s not true, though. If there’s a new Rangers, then they start with a trophy haul of precisely zero. They will have been found guilty of financial doping. They will have been forced to scurry away and reform themselves with a mortifying haste. The dignity would be stripped away from them. The collapse of a great institution like Rangers would be a scar on the memory of all those who had anything to do with it.
Whyte got booed outside Ibrox yesterday when making his brief statement. Rangers supporters have every right to be suspicious of him given some of the things that have emerged in recent months. When Whyte went on STV in October and said, categorically, that he had nothing to hide in his business affairs only to be outed as a disqualified director only half an hour later on a BBC documentary, he has since fought fire after fire on the subject of his credibility. And still the fires burn. Week after week there are new ones.
It should be remembered, though, that the HMRC calamity is an inherited problem. It’s not his creation. But it’s his to sort out. Where in all of this is Sir David Murray, the architect of the seemingly ruinous employee benefit trust? Where is he? He has said nothing on public record and yet it was on Murray’s watch that these schemes flourished at Ibrox, these schemes that have brought Rangers to this pitiful place.
Murray’s legacy at Ibrox is important to him. Hugely important. The hubris years ended some time ago but he would no doubt argue that nothing can take away the glory days of his reign and all the trophies and talents it brought to the club. Well, where stands Murray’s legacy in the event of administration? In the gutter? I asked that very question of Alastair Johnston last night on BBC Radio Scotland and the former chairman said that legacy would be tarnished for all time unless Murray came out now and spoke. Maybe he will. He has much to explain.
Rangers are a financial basket case in so many different areas that it’s hard to predict its future. Austerity FC might be a good place to start if they find themselves reforming as a new entity.
Whatever lies ahead after the tax man and the VAT man and the Ticketus man are all dealt with is anybody’s guess. Whatever they end up looking like, they won’t be Rangers. Not as we have known them. They have a secretive and controversial owner about whom many will have doubts and they are now going on a financial mystery tour that will scare the wits out of their support. The club is about to change profoundly and historically, no matter what name they happen to have over the door at the end of all of this.