Aidan Smith: If we have to start paying for Rangers players to speak to us, will they say something interesting?

Earlier this year, after the third or fourth stunning team goal in almost as many weeks, I wrote a column in praise of Rangers, asking the question: were Steven Gerrard’s side playing the best football of any to come out of Govan in recent memory?

A sometimes tricky relationship between Rangers and the football media may be about to get more difficult

Here are some of the things I said: “Virtually every game now, a move of impressive invention and fine fluidity … Vibrant midfield … Silky, beautiful … Intelligence and verve … Almost balletic.”

Now, I did not anticipate too many warm words back from the Gers faithful. I didn’t pen the piece hoping to have praise for a generosity of spirit heaped on me - your correspondent has been doing this job far too long to expect anything like that. But my opinion was honestly and genuinely expressed.

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Here, though, is a sample of what I got in return: “One of the most insulting articles I’ve read this year … Steaming pile of s**** … Absolute nonsense … Bitter and twisted … Patronising horses*** … Condescending p*** … Complete drivel … Utter c***.”

There will be better examples of the difficult relationship which exists between Rangers and the traditional Scottish media but that’s mine. It seemed I could not say nice things about the team without some supporters uncovering a sub-sub-sub-text of grudgefulness. Simply by not mentioning Davie Cooper I was somehow insulting his memory. (Fantastic player, just not relevant for this discussion). Some of the biteback even appeared to misquote me: “Rangers are actually a good team … We all have to face up to this.” I did not use these words, and I stress: last season they were a terrific team.

Now that relationship has got even more strained. Rangers are proposing that newspapers pay to report on their progress. For £25,000, a paper would have one reporter and one photographer at pre-match conferences and the games themselves. Over and above, they would get five exclusive interviews and a sit-down briefing with the manager. A cheaper package brings match access and one interview.

Fan media like the Heart and Hand podcast think this is a great idea and have signed up. “Any suggestions from outside actors about our right to be there are over,” they argue. Actors? I’m not sure about traditional media - no word yet of a stampede along the Copland Road to secure packages. Newspapers may be wondering what happens if they don’t - are we to be completely shut out? - and will be hoping the club’s planned new way of working won’t fly.

In one sense - that of not knowing how Rangers prefer to operate, namely a near-permanent war footing - this will seem a strange move. If the club had been the recipients of unflattering headlines all through last season, you could maybe imagine a scenario of fees being introduced, prompting grumbles about “spite”. But the club’s title romp brought them their best press for ages.

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Why do it? There’s the issue of control and Rangers are not alone here. All football clubs have in-house media departments, many burgeoning and some empire-building as they manage the flow of information. Under the scheme, would Rangers control which players would be put up for interview, and when, the same with the Gerrard chat? Given that newspapers have stumped up for the privilege, sports editors would most certainly hope not. A club in firm charge of the narrative may want to paint everything in the garden as being rosy.

The press will not tolerate this, especially at those moments when it’s anything but. And what exactly would these exclusive interviews be like? Would they be an upgrade on what’s gone before, casting off media training to be more candid, less anodyne? Again, for the price, they should be.

Judging by social media reaction to the pay-to-report idea, Rangers fans approve. Or they don’t mind it irking newspapers. Anything which does this seems to be to their liking. They’re not much taken with the traditional written press, possibly forgetting that the club plucked Willie Waddell from the Scottish Daily Express and he would mastermind their greatest night. They think their favourites get a raw deal from newspapers, which regarding scale of coverage, is a source of great hilarity for fans of all other teams outwith the Old Firm. And, as I’ve pointed out, they seem unwilling to accept compliments. Chill out, guys – you’re the champs!

The other reason for such a scheme is, of course, to make money. Rangers’ financial situation was well-documented before Covid and can hardly have improved. Lots of businesses are being forced to look at alternative methods of monetising. Marble Arch Mount, a new London folly, charges £6 for views which are free elsewhere. Soon you might have to pay estate agents £30 to show you round prospective homes. So why can’t the Big Hoose charge journos?

Well, these journos have provided Rangers - and any other club contemplating copying them - with loads of free publicity down the years and don’t see why they should have to pay for providing it now. These journos are accused of all sorts of bias by supporters - who claim AI intuitiveness for such calumnies, either that or a top-of-the-range dog whistle - but newspapers steadfastly believe their reporting to be diligent and fair and of proper value to fans. When the proverbial hits the fan at your club where should supporters turn for the truth?

A slippery customer, truth - not least in Scottish football. But even the partial, such as Rangers News, acknowledge the importance of impartiality. Their club, they stress, “are no more immune to criticism and investigation than any other major institution in daily life and a closed shop may introduce fears of a lack of transparency with fans.” Clearly, as we champions of the free press like to say, this one will run and run …

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