FROM Day One of the season, anyone aiming to assess Rangers’ hopes of winning promotion from the Championship had to take into account two major questions: Will Ally McCoist stay on as manager throughout the campaign? And will the club remain financially solvent?
Last night we got the answer to the first of those questions, with the news that McCoist is now officially on gardening leave. Today, when the annual general meeting is held at Ibrox, we should at least get the beginning of an answer to the second one.
Long before McCoist handed in his notice to quit ten days ago, it was at the very least arguable that a more able coach would get better performances out of the squad. It may be impossible to put a points total on any improvement that a new man could be expected to make, but it is fair to say that, as things stood, McCoist’s shortcomings were playing a major role in Rangers’ failure to close the gap on Hearts at the top of the table. That is not to exonerate the players for a series of substandard performances, but it is reasonable to predict – and for the club to demand – that a different coach would get more out of players such as Nicky Law, Ian Black and Kris Boyd, to name just three.
It remains to be seen whether Kenny McDowall is that more able coach. McCoist’s assistant, who was last night named by the club as the man to take over for the rest of the season, is certainly not the new broom that many thought would be needed. And it has to be open to question whether he will be able to get significantly improved performances out of a radically underachieving squad.
As things stand, of course, the lack of money at the club is a far greater threat than the former manager’s in- ability to forge a coherent team getting consistently good results. Even after a string of on-field disappointments, Rangers are still in the semi-finals of the League Cup and the fifth round of the Scottish Cup, and – more relevantly – are still well in the running for the play-off places in the Championship.
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The fact they are trailing Hearts by nine points – and it could be 12 by tomorrow night, when the Tynecastle team play their game in hand at Cowdenbeath – has attracted a lot of attention. Nonetheless, they have a seven-point lead over Hibernian and Queen of the South, the clubs in third and fourth, and an 11-point advantage over fifth-placed Falkirk.
Even had McCoist stayed at the helm, Rangers should easily have muddled through to the play-offs. A modest improvement under McDowell and they will at least put daylight between themselves and the chasing pack. But, if they go into administration, all bets are off: the points penalty for suffering an insolvency event would in itself threaten their ability to be in the top four at the end of the season, while the probable loss of some of their leading players would further weaken them. Rangers do not have the cash at present to pay off McCoist’s contract – hence his being placed on gardening leave – and they are estimated to need more than £8million merely to get through the season in one piece. Enter Mike Ashley.
The Newcastle United owner has already loaned £3m to Rangers, and last week his right-hand man Derek Llambias was appointed chief executive at Ibrox. Today’s agm is expected to agree a share issue to raise the working funds required by the club, and Ashley is expected to underwrite that issue – if nothing else, to protect the investment he has made thus far and to heighten his chances of getting his money back at some stage.
The Sports Direct owner faces Scottish Football Association charges over an alleged breach of their rules about dual interests in clubs, but his crucial intervention in Rangers’ fortunes – should he choose to make it – will come long before the governing body’s hearing is scheduled to take place at the end of next month.
It was almost certainly Ashley, albeit via Llambias, who last night provided an answer to the first of the two questions with which we began. And it is Ashley, alone of those with influence at boardroom level, who has the financial clout to answer the second question and fork out enough cash to keep Rangers afloat. Of course, if the agm does agree a cash injection, it will only do so after some very hostile questioning from shareholders whose disgruntlement can only have been deepened by the departure of McCoist, who for all his failings has done far more for Rangers than any of the current board. Many individual supporters, and umbrella bodies such as the Union of Fans, will rightly rage against the incompetent way in which their club is being run, and against the contempt which the board have for the people who ultimately pay their wages.
Even if such objections receive a proper airing today, the board are sure to get their way. Expressed as a football result, the outcome of the meeting will be Rangers 1, Ragers 0.
But, while the board may end the meeting pleased that they have seen off their critics, they would do well not to dwell on what is likely to be no more than a very fleeting success. Ashley may provide them with the money they need to stay afloat, and McDowall may improve the results, but there will need to be a considerable and sustained improvement – both on the field and in terms of the relationship between the fans and the board – before attendances start rising to respectable levels.
Which brings us to a third question about Rangers, one which has implications well beyond this current campaign. At what point does supporters’ temporary disaffection with their club become a disenchantment so deep-seated that they no longer even think of themselves as supporters?
Speaking on Friday, McCoist insisted that the missing tens of thousands of fans would come back to Ibrox, although not necessarily in the short term. But people who lose old habits quite often acquire new ones, and many of those who once spent time and money at Ibrox every second Saturday may well have found other, more satisfying pursuits.
Once newco Rangers were admitted into the old Third Division, many of us thought it would be only a matter of time before they were back at or close to the top of the Scottish game. But the farcical mismanagement of the club has gone on for so long now that a complete recovery has to be in doubt.
It will be easy for a man of Ashley’s clout to bankroll the rest of the season. Acquiring the credibility required to have capacity crowds returning to Ibrox will be an altogether harder task – one that has been made all the harder by the unseemly manner in which McCoist’s protracted departure has been handled.
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