Stuart Bathgate: Shoehorn Rangers in and all credibility is lost

IT MAY be hard to believe at the moment, but some good can still come out of the Rangers saga.

IT MAY be hard to believe at the moment, but some good can still come out of the Rangers saga.

And it can start this week, at the meetings of the Scottish Football League tomorrow and the Scottish Premier League on Wednesday, if the people who run the game show they can be trusted by the people who pay their wages.

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Because trust – or rather the lack of it – is the central issue in this crisis now. It began with the financial plight of one club, and might have ended there if football’s administrators had had a transparent set of rules on how to deal with the situation, and applied those rules openly and honestly. Instead, at least some of them have shied away from anything close to transparency in the misguided belief that saving Rangers at all costs had to be their overriding objective.

Students of history or politics will be familiar with the process. Whenever there is a real threat to those in authority, be they rulers of large states or administrators of national sports in small countries like our own, they tend to react in the same way.

They use scare tactics to try and convince us that the reforms most of us want would harm us financially; they try to ensure that the existing laws work very much in their favour; then if that doesn’t work, they start thinking of how the laws could be bent so that they will get the outcome they want. They resist reform at every step of the way, hoping we take fright or lose interest.

Still, before we get carried away, we should remind ourselves that this is just a squabble over sport, not a national liberation movement. And many of the people in positions of power in Scottish football do eventually listen to their customers long before there is unrest on the streets.

Indeed, that is something good that has already come out of the implosion at Ibrox: the decision by many SPL clubs to go along with the wishes of the vast majority of their supporters and vote against allowing Charles Green’s newco into the SPL. There can’t be many industries which take their customers for granted in the way that football does, so hopefully this greater willingness to listen to the fans will set a precedent – one which the SPL and SFL will follow this week.

So far, the SPL board in particular has done its best to resist fan power, and has implicitly argued that keeping Rangers in the top flight is more important than seeing fair play to be done. Now that move has almost certainly failed, the latest fallback position, which appears to be shared by leading SPL and SFL officials, is to find a place for the Ibrox club in the First Division.

That position was first mooted in Sunday newspapers two weeks ago after an off-the-record briefing, and it remains one which some of those officials believe can be won. Never mind the fact that, until now, it had been universally accepted that any new applicants to the Scottish Football League had to join at the bottom, in the Third Division. The governing bodies feel that if they can get far enough down the road to reunification over the next couple of weeks, they might just get away with a cobbled-together deal which includes letting the new Rangers into the First Division.

If they do, it will prove a costly mistake. Perhaps not economically, but certainly in terms of their already badly damaged credibility.

There is broad backing throughout the game for the reforms proposed by former First Minister Henry McLeish. More or less everyone agrees that Scottish football should have fewer governing bodies and become less bureaucratic and more transparent.

But if the authorities, while supposedly carrying out those reforms, slip in a subclause to allow Rangers into the First Division, they will have undermined the entire process. Because, far from becoming more open and honest, they will have indulged in a sleight-of-hand action which goes against the wishes of the vast majority.

And if they do that, the mess that has been left by the collapse of Rangers could get a whole lot worse. That’s the threat which this week’s meetings carry.

On the other hand, they could decide not to go through with that shabbiest of compromises, and instead stick to a set of rules which are there to be applied equally to every member club. If they do that – if the SPL and SFL together say that Rangers can reapply to join the Third Division – they will have begun to repair the damage which has been done to the game over the past four and a half months.