When the then relatively unknown David Murray took over Rangers thirty years ago today, it was described as “business as usual”.
It was anything but. How often, for example, does a football manager take time out from taking training to join forces with an entrepreneur to buy a football club?
This is what happened at Rangers. Graeme Souness, then just 35-years-old, alerted Murray, 37, that owner Lawrence Marlborough was on the look out for a buyer.
Talks started around the time Rangers defeated Aberdeen 3-2 in an epic Skol Cup final in October 1988. Within weeks the £6m deal was done. Souness took a seat on the board along with a ten per cent shareholding – estimated to have cost him £500,000. He was now occupying a unique role in British football: player-manager-director.
Campbell Ogilvie, the Ibrox secretary at the time, can’t recall having to register Souness in this new tri-role.
Unlikely though it seems in today’s climate, the sale negotiations took place in secret. “What I do remember is David being in occasionally at the club but I didn’t know what the connection was at the time,” says Ogilvie.
There was barely a hint of speculation Marlborough was preparing to sell up. But someone did get wind: Daily Mirror owner Robert Maxwell, who had just bought Derby County. He phoned Murray up and told him he wanted to buy Rangers and Celtic.
The price at which Murray seized control was viewed as surprisingly low for one of the biggest clubs in Britain – if not the biggest. Within a few months of Murray’s arrival, Rangers had recruited their first high profile Roman Catholic player. Mo Johnston joined in the summer of 1989 having reneged on a promise to re-join Celtic. The Ibrox club also embarked on a mission to win the European Cup.
But the revolution had begun during Marlborough’s tenure. Although when the sale went through he had two children at Loretto School in Musselburgh, Marlborough was spending an increasing amount of time in the United States. He had tasked David Holmes with running the day-to-day affairs at the club. Holmes recruited Souness in an audacious move more than two years earlier with almost instant success.
Rangers won the league title in 1986-87 but watched Celtic become champions the following year. The pressure was on to wrestle the title back again.
Murray’s arrival marked the end of the Lawrence family’s long association with the Ibrox club, stretching back decades. Marlborough is the grandson of John Lawrence, the Glasgow building tycoon who joined the Ibrox board in the late 1940s and became chairman in 1963.
Murray was pictured alongside Marlborough at a press conference to announce the deal. It wasn’t the first time they had appeared in the same photo, having attended prep school – Cambusdoon in Ayrshire – together.
Now here they were shaking hands on a deal that stunned British football. According to Souness, “the club could not have gone to a better man”.
The Murray era began inauspiciously. A 1-0 win over Aberdeen was followed by two defeats, to Dundee United and Hearts, where Rangers failed to score a goal. It didn’t help convince fans this upstart businessman, now based in Edinburgh, was the answer.
Although Murray was already making waves as an industrialist, he was known, if at all, by football fans for a failed bid to buy Ayr United earlier that same year.
“Most fans will be disappointed,” said one Rangers supporter interviewed in a bar on STV on the day the story broke. “No one has ever heard of this chap Murray. He tried to take over Ayr United Football Club and he failed to take over Ayr United and suddenly he is good enough to take over a club as vast as Rangers?”
Murray promised investment “at least as big as had gone before”. What had gone before was helping change British football’s landscape.
Investment triggered by Marlborough combined with a ban on English clubs competing in Europe following the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985 meant Rangers were able to reverse the established practice of the best Scottish players heading to the English league. They attracted top English talent north. Among these signings included England skipper Terry Butcher and goalkeeper Chris Woods, left.
“Lawrence Marlborough and myself set out a course for Rangers in 1985 and lifted the club to a different plateau in the context of Scottish football, but now my loyalty is to Mr Murray,” said Holmes. The chairman lasted only another few months before taking over similar roles at Falkirk and then Dundee.
Little has been heard of Marlborough since he sold Rangers. Now 76, he remains based in the States. His last known return to Ibrox was for the first game of the 2011-12 season, when then owner Craig Whyte unfurled the title flag before a 1-1 draw with Hearts. The club was just months away from complete financial meltdown.
Liquidation, while it occurred on Whyte’s watch, is largely viewed as the result of extravagance combined with a ruinous Employment Benefit Tax scheme pursued in the Murray years.
But his on-field legacy is 35 trophies – including the longed for nine titles in a row between 1989 and 1997 to equal Celtic’s run.
The debate about whether many of these honours are tainted due to the tax issue – players were paid through side contracts – will run into the next century, probably beyond.
Marlborough has remained almost entirely silent on the running down of Rangers. But, in an interview with Rangers Monthly in August 2011, trailed as his first in 30 years, and his last to date, he explained that he viewed ten years as an appropriate shelf life for an owner of a football club. Murray ended a 23-year association with Rangers when he sold the club to Whyte in May 2011 – for a pound.
“I ..believe there is a certain length of time where you can be a football club owner,” said Marlborough. “I think that period is 10 years. That’s enough for anybody. If you haven’t done what you hoped to do in 10 years it’s time to move on.
“Anyone who owns a club comes in and says they never want to leave but once the novelty wears off, it becomes very hard work – a grind even.
“David did very well in the beginning but then after a period you could tell that it wasn’t working. The magic wears off.”