Empty Rangers

With their big-spending years over and Champions League place under threat, Rangers' future looks grim, says Neil Forsyth

Well at least we now know what was behind Rangers’ most recent insistence that they will soon leave the SPL behind, seeking greater riches in England or the ludicrous proposition of an Atlantic League (a strange set-up involving clubs from “second tier” nations such as Portugal and the Netherlands). No sooner had any observers still paying attention wearily worked through statements such as Rangers chief executive Martin Bain’s declaration that Rangers would be out of Scottish football “within ten years”, then the real motivation for this latest attempt to escape to a bigger TV deal became clear.

Rangers are completely, spectacularly, broke. There have been rumours for over a year that the club were effectively being run by their main creditor, Lloyds Bank, and it is certainly common knowledge that a representative of the bank was appointed to the board. However, it was from the surprising source of manager Walter Smith that clear confirmation came of just how perilous Rangers’ finances are. Speaking in the aftermath of a home draw with Hibs, Smith chose his words carefully.

His comments – that the club were indeed being run by the bank and the entire first team squad was effectively for sale – were prefaced by remarks such as “every­body knows” but Smith surely knew what he was doing. He may only have been clarifying the critical status of Rangers’ balance sheet but he was the first person from Ibrox to do so and he therefore provoked days of media speculation about the possibilities of administration.

There was a strange sequence of events. Fans groups threatened an orchestrated boycott of Lloyds and the bank itself must have been involved with the statements that appeared on Rangers’ website and appeared to contradict Smith. The club remains in control of its own destiny was the party line, with Lloyds offering support in “difficult times”.

In truth, it seems highly unlikely that Lloyds would want to be the public scapegoat of Rangers moving into administration and such a move would only make attracting a new owner more difficult. This, essentially, is what Rangers need and they need it badly. Sir David Murray is gone from the boardroom but remains the majority shareholder and no credible new investor has made their presence known. Murray, it’s said, spent £100m on Rangers over the years but that in itself is part of the problem.

From the Murray-Souness era onwards Rangers spent money that Scottish football had never seen before. It was done with panache, Murray infamously commenting: “For every five pounds Celtic spend, we’ll spend ten.” As the Celtic chairman, former government minister John Reid, caustically remarked at his club’s AGM in late October that policy was in reality: “For every fiver they borrow we’ll borrow a tenner.”

Smith has trimmed the Rangers squad to the stage he has three senior centre-halves at the club, and that includes the injury-prone Lee McCulloch and the 39-year-old Davie Weir. They haven’t signed a player for 18 months and the stagnation has spread to the stands with falling gates and swathes of blue seats at recent European games. When those matches include a 4-1 home defeat to the Romanians Unirea Urziceni, you can’t blame the fans for
drifting away.

Probably the only thing stopping outright insurrection at Rangers is how poorly Celtic are are performing, where Tony Mowbray has suffered the worst start of any Celtic manager for 63 years. As long as Rangers limp along within touching distance of the top of the league then any new investor will perhaps recognise the value of an asset that could, with a bit of investment, be playing in the Champions League group stages next year.

The upper reaches of the SPL currently sport an unfamiliar look – that of closeness – with several sides looking capable of putting together a run that could split the Old Firm and cost one of them their Champions League place. If that team should be Rangers and a new financial saviour fails to emerge, they really could be in trouble.

From WSC 274 December 2009