Guestpost: the demise of Rangers offers chance to restructure and save our game

As the Scottish Football League meets to save or possibly, hasten the demise of our national game, I’m pleased to welcome a timely guest post from David Hill.  His post considers the problems facing Scottish football and usefully, offers a radical solution:

The problems of Scottish football are many but we should not be overly critical.

There is no other country of Scotland’s size supporting such professional leagues.  However, the prestige of the cash-laden English league now tends to overshadow our game and inflict unrealistic expectations on it.  Of concern is the steady diminishing of our status, though having two of our clubs as finalists in a European competition in recent years is an indicator that we can still do well.

A major problem is attendances at Scottish football matches.  Although English and Scottish football have enjoyed similar levels of attendance in the lifetime of many fans, there has been a drift away from live match attendance, but not for all clubs.  Rangers and Celtic appear to have increased their attendances in comparison to thirty years ago, but other teams enjoy a fraction of their support.  On the face of it, Old Firm success has been at the expense of the rest but it is probably more complicated than that.

Decline is not however necessarily because the product is poor. In fact, the product is better than it is usually perceived and the First Division is a highly competitive spectacle. But it is a matter of a growing perception that the product is inferior and there are at least three reasons for this:

–        Celtic and Rangers dominate;

–        our best players go elsewhere for better wages and conditions; and

–        our national game is continuously undermined by our national broadcaster.

I know of no other country in the world in which prime time television coverage is given over to the football being played in another country accompanied by the implication that this is better – and better for us.

It would be interesting to establish how much money the BBC pours in to English football compared to the proportion it gives to the Scottish product. English football inhabits a false world in which vast media cash, not attendances, provides its major  revenue.

While I understand the football authorities sold our game to commercial bidders for a better deal, I believe our national broadcaster should have been prepared to match those offers.  The result of the present arrangement – several hours of English football beamed prime time into Scottish homes several times weekly with the Scottish games relegated to mid week late night slots  – has been to seriously diminish the reputation of our own game with a resultant drop in interest.  This is another compelling reason for the devolving of broadcasting to Scotland.

It has to be said also, that promotion of our game by those who own and run it leaves a lot to be desired.  Merchandising plays too small a part: getting more people into the stadia and selling a variety of goods and service to spectators should be a bigger part of what is offered. Times have changed and a whole range of entertaining extra reasons to go to the match should be provided.

The bottom line, however, is that Scotland has a small population and so, needs a framework for the national game that is viable. There was a time when around 5% of Scotland’s total population was at the “the match” on a Saturday afternoon.  No longer.

In particular, the sight of more than half empty stadiums at televised matches is destructive.  As the home club is receiving a substantial cash benefit from TV would it not be sensible to give all season ticket holders extra free tickets for them to distribute for these matches?  And while the needs of TV have determined that matches be held at a variety of times, I suspect that the breaking of the Saturday afternoon habit hasn’t helped greatly.

Moreover, the fact that Rangers or Celtic are likely to win everything – or that perception pervades – is damaging to the health of the game.  The parasitic attitude to these two huge clubs by the other bigger clubs is destructive and has to be halted and reversed or it will eventually destroy the whole league –  including Celtic and Rangers.

Yet, paradoxically, attendances are firmer and in less decline in the First Division, because of its intensely competitive nature.  And the key to solving our footballing ills is competition.

Nearly every season, for much of the season, the SPL becomes a procession led by Celtic and Rangers with the rest a distance behind. While there may be fierce competition to get the European places and to avoid relegation, which provides a high degree of interest from committed supporters, the lack of a competitive element to win the league has resulted in the shedding of support for most of our top flight teams.

The perception that only the Old Firm can deliver sustainable success is at the root of this.  The vicious circle this produces has resulted in the stripping of local support from other teams, giving the Old Firm still more of a cash stranglehold:  perception has become reality.  And the rest of Scottish football reacts by trying to access Old Firm money by playing them or selling players to them.  This is destructive and ultimately probably fatal.

A long term effort has to be made to make these clubs better supported and self-sustaining.  And some recent highly-attended matches provide a clue to the solution:  Kilmarnock v Ayr United cup matches drew over 10,000 spectators; the Dundee United/Ross County Cup final almost filled Hampden; the Hearts v Hibs Scottish Cup Final readily filled Hampden.

Given the right circumstances and the prospect of interesting or fierce competition, supporters flock, demonstrating that our game is still viable and attractive.

Some have mooted getting rid of the Old Firm, but I do not believe that Rangers and/or Celtic going into the English leagues is the answer.  It would be bad for our domestic game and quite likely be less than productive for Rangers and Celtic who could just as easily end up like Swansea Town and might never sample European football again.

Surely the long term solution is a genuine all-European League structure accessed by all senior teams across the continent.  Admittedly, Celtic and Rangers might start in about League 5 with an opportunity to move up or down.  This Euro-League could be regionalised at the lower levels, similar to what happens in the US, where in some sports, teams play in both state leagues and national leagues.

The more immediate problem is to find ways of making our league structure more competitive, so that it provides more intense local rivalry and greater opportunity for more teams to win something, thus getting more people through the turnstiles.  Also important is the need to prevent relegation from the top division resulting in permanent irreparable damage to any team (which is a growing likelihood at the moment).

A completely different and more diverse structure is now required:  here is my plan for a regionalised Scottish league:

West

Rangers, St Mirren, Morton, Kilmarnock, Ayr United, Stranraer, Partick Thistle, Queen of the South, Annan, Queens Park, A N Other

Central

Celtic, Clyde, Motherwell, Hamilton, Airdrie, Falkirk, Stirling Albion, Albion Rovers, East Stirling, Dumbarton, A N Other

East

Hearts, Hibs, Livingston, Berwick Rangers, East Fife, Dunfermline, Alloa,  Cowdenbeath, Raith Rovers, Stenhousemuir, Forfar Athletic

North

Dundee, Dundee United, Aberdeen, St Johnstone, Inverness, Ross County, Peterhead, Elgin, Montrose, Brechin, Arbroath

These four leagues play home and away at the start of the season and the top two (or top three) in each then become the Premier League after the New Year.  The remaining clubs form into four leagues again (or any other groupings) to provide another eight teams to join the eight Premier teams in an enhanced Scottish Cup or League Cup or similar competitions. Other competitions can easily be devised to keep them active and playing.

Such a structure would provide:

·         many local derbies and highly competitive contests in the early part of the season;

·         an enhanced number of “winners”;

·         a better distribution of gate money;

·         huge interest in the Premier League as it starts each New Year with real expectation that there might be a serious challenge to the Old Firm; and

·         on opportunity every year for a number of teams to make it into the top league without the threat of potentially destructive relegation.

Fiddling about with variations on a structure which no longer works will not halt accelerating decline.  Ironically, the present disaster at Ibrox presents an opportunity to effect radical change which can save Scottish football.

This change might intially be painful but renewal is impossible without it.

 

 

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Today is D-Day for Scottish football – time to do or die

I’ve given up trying to make sense of the Rangers saga.  Suffice to say, it’s beyond mess.  Schadenfreude is in plentiful supply, but so too is sympathy.  Fellow fans recognise that for those individuals and families who have passed the mantle of supporting Rangers down through the generations, the pain is visceral and tangible.

But a view from the sidelines.  Duff and Phelps might well go down in history as the worst administators ever:  even an insolvency novice like me can sense that lots of things don’t add up in their handling of this affair.   Craig Whyte might have been the catalyst but the rotten, tax-avoiding practices were well embedded in the club’s operating culture long before he arrived.   Charles Green is not quite what he appears to be and far too many loose ends exist in his model for any fan to find anything but cold comfort.

Anyone who has played a role either as a Director or a senior employee in the club since the turn of the century does not have clean hands.  Indeed, it’s almost worse for most of them – and that includes you, Gordon Smith, with your wide-eyed protestations of innocence – to claim that they knew nothing of what was going on.  That suggests incompetence and the lot of them should be drummed out of Scottish football for good.

And then there’s the rest of Scottish football – the clubs and the governing bodies.  Some of us warned, some time ago, that failure to grasp the mettle and deal decisively with Rangers might result in the downfall of other clubs and the whole precarious edifice.  And lo, it has very nearly come to pass.

For months, dithering has been the order of the day, in the hope that somehow a miracle would transpire and clubs and authorities would not have to take the crucial decisions.  Here we are, months on and only now is an end in sight.  Yet, even though few hiding places remain, still they dither.

The SFL and SPL – the sum of football’s constituent parts, one month exactly from the start of the new season – are now contriving to pass the parcel.  The SFL met yesterday to consider whether or not to allow a New Rangers entry to Division 1 rather than Division 3 – a grubby compromise no one appears to want but everyone feels obliged to accept – blethered a while and came away with a commitment to meet again on 12 July.

Today, it’s the SPL’s turn and the wires suggest that it is minded to agree nothing until the SFL has met again on the 12th and reached its decision.  This ain’t no magic roundabout.

Now, it is not clubs, nor money men, nor key officials driving us to the denouement.  Thank goodness for the fans.  People power has at least focused the minds of chairmen and chief executives across the land and will hopefully force their hand.  Good on us.

Clubs have been pushed into doing the unthinkable in recent weeks and consulted their supporter bases.  Supporters have given their clubs their steer – No to Newco – and yet, the clubs still feel unable to act and compelled to dither.

Fans have not reached these decisions lightly.  They are well aware of the financial consequences of burying Rangers deep in Division three and they are mindful of their role as custodians of their institutions.  But it is exactly that sense of responsibility which has driven their opinion-forming.  Even if those running the game in Scotland still cling to hope that somehow, a solution will fall out of the sky, supporters have reached the inevitable conclusion that the gemme is indeed a bogey.

The only way to sort the morass, of which Rangers is the prime messy suspect but not the only one, is to start afresh.  Kicking Rangers into touch might well cause other clubs to go to the wall but a fresh start all round might be what is needed.

My own club, Kilmarnock, is one such standing at the precipice.  The wee chicklet is a Killie shareholder, courtesy of an inheritance from his late and very great Uncle Danny.  And on account of acting in proxy, me and the wee man took the last minute consultation launched last week very seriously indeed.  In trying to explain to him what the club was asking of fans and what the decision might mean for the club and for Scottish football, I found myself wondering what Danny would do.

A pragmatist, he would have been uneasy at the thought of voting potentially for his beloved club’s demise and he would have been very mindful of the economic consequences of voting No to the Newco.  But he would also have believed – as so many of us do – that fans would rally round.  Kilmarnock might face a shortfall of £300,000 in income this year if a new version of Rangers is not in the SPL, and it might require an additional 1000 season tickets to be sold to come close to plugging the gap but the Chairman has to hear his core supporters and trust in their judgement that making the right decision for the right reasons will cause the community to rally to the club’s aid.

Ultimately, Danny, like the rest of us, would opt for integrity, for the rules to be followed, for justice to be applied.  He was that kind of a man.

As so many other fans and supporters of clubs have proven to be.  Indeed, it has been life-affirming to see supporters take charge of this rudderless ship and lead the clubs where they do not want to go.  One rule for all is the core premise and by standing together, we have a chance to clean up Scottish football and put it on a footing that gives it a future.  It might not be a comfortable future but none of us is afraid of hard work.  In any event, living beyond our means – collectively and individually – has long since been unsustainable, on an emotional and a practical level.

So the fans have decided that Rangers must be allowed to die and rise again, if the club can, from the ashes of the third division.  Today, their clubs must decide;  there can be no more dithering.  They must follow their fans’ lead.  Today, it is time to do or die.

Rangers: never mind the club, what about the tax?

So, Rangers.  Sorted then huh?

A take over by Charles Green, the former Chief Executive of Sheffield United, who left that club in less than rude health in the 90s, leading a global consortium of 20 wealthy and so far, nameless individuals.  What could possibly go wrong?

Meanwhile, those nice chairmen at the SPL have postponed their meeting to decide if the club gets to stay in the wee-est, biggest, most important league in the world.  So that, they can, even though they shouldn’t, but what are rules if not to be broken.

And the SFA has somehow managed to achieve the impossible:  an early date for the appeal hearing against the punishment of a transfer ban and six figure sum fine.  Conspiracy theorists:  prepare to have a field day.

The only ones crying are the entirety of the Scottish media who now have to find something else to report.  And that’s only the front page journos.  The boys from the back pages will witter away throughout the summer about the club and its prospects whatever happens.  But then they’d do that anyway.

And maybe now, me and Ian Smart won’t get bumped from the Sunday Politics Show.  Unless of course, news breaks next Sunday that it was all a hoax.

So, we can all get back to normal, now our footballing world is guaranteed to continue revolving on its axis of self-interest.

Actually, no.

For there’s the small matter of monies owed to the bank of you and I.  Or the taxman as he/she is more commonly known.

Ever since the possible demise of Rangers began dominating our news schedules, we’ve been treated to speculation as to how HMRC might proceed.  Precedents for breathtakingly outrageous knock-downs of tax owed have been cited.  Portsmouth for one, Leeds United for another.  Heck, even wee Airdrie United has been mentioned in dispatches.

Apparently, the optimists have been misreading the signals, for the HMRC has been getting tough on clubs which fail to pay their tax bills.  It’s how Rangers got itself into this mess in the first place with the taxman calling time and I should think so too.

For in these straitened times, the lolly that the likes of Rangers owes the common people could pay for a lot of libraries.  Or school teachers.  Or road repairs.

The issue which does appear to have faded from view, however, is that of the tax avoided by Rangers players through the Employee Benefit Trusts or EBTs.  It is suggested that Rangers had been offering this wheeze to players for up to ten years before HMRC caught up with the club.  And while legal, HMRC decided it wasn’t on: the £49m sought by the taxman represents tax underpaid and penalties applied.   Of course, Rangers wasn’t the only club at it – up to eight current or former Premiership clubs were/are also being investigated by HMRC for its use of EBTs.

I can’t pretend to have a scooby about any of this.  Particularly not whether the Green deal involves a NewCo and Rangers rising like a phoenix from the ashes, leaving behind a trail of debt and destruction.

But I do know this.

Those players should pay the tax they avoided.  And this, all along, should have been the focus of everyone’s attention, instead of being the matter that has been ignored while a lather was being worked up over the future of the club.

Whoever they are – and isn’t it time they were named and roundly shamed – one supposes that they lived for at least some of the time, in our ain wee best country in the world.  They’ll have had houses.  With street lighting, pavements and tarmac’d roads.  Some of them might have had bairns that went to nursery and school.  They’ll have had bins emptied.  A few might even have had a cooncil uplift and not recoiled from recycling the empty Cristal bottles.

Some will have availed themselves of art galleries, museums and Christmas festivals.  Others – perhaps all too frequently – will have visited licensed premises.  A fair few might have been among those Rangers’ players who have benefited (sic) from the attentions of our police forces and court systems.  Some will even have got their breakfast in the morning.

Water was on tap.  Gritters will have visited their cul de sacs.  Hospitals might have attended to their families’ needs.  Dear god, some of them might even have been entitled to vote, and done so.

All of which is paid for by tax in some form or another.  Tax which we pay and which they did not.  Money that we, in the universal sense, need more than they do.

Bad enough that we have had to put up with them on our pitches, golf clubs and telly screens all these years.  Worse, that most other players were taking pay cuts or having to move down the leagues, as squads were reduced when our ain clubs started having to live within their means, while this lot were still demanding and getting big money and allowing Rangers to effectively cheat its way to trophies and titles by helping everyone to avoid paying their fair share of tax.

Worse still that we were effectively keeping these players in the style to which they became accustomed.

It’s time they paid up.  And it will be a disgrace if they get away with it.