Fragile optimism springs from torrid Rangers affair
Scottish football could emerge stronger from this sorry mess, writes Kevin McKenna
PERHAPS football isn't the most corrupt sport on the planet after all. Last week it was revealed that the former FIFA president Joao Havelange and executive committee member Ricardo Teixeira had pocketed "commissions" worth millions. Neither of them, though, will face criminal charges because of another obscene backroom deal in world football's equivalent of Tammany Hall.
Two days later, on Friday the 13th, a young Scottish football administrator called David Longmuir stepped reluctantly into the spotlight, licked his lips nervously and began the task of giving the game back its soul.
Longmuir is chief executive of the Scottish Football League and a few minutes earlier his members -- the bakers and candlestick-makers who run Scotland's lower-league clubs -- had decided by a 25-5 majority to put 'newco' Rangers into the Scottish third division. Longmuir duly stepped forward, delivered the clubs' verdict and spoke eloquently about integrity and sporting fairness being the cornerstones of Scottish football's creaking edifice.
"The balancing act was the cash value of sporting fairness versus the cash value of the sporting economy. I think you can recover from financial failure, but it is very difficult when you start hindering the process of fairness," he said.
Thus Rangers, winners of more domestic league titles than any other club in world football, will kick off the new season on July 28 in the Ramsdens Cup, against Brechin City. As this is an away tie for Rangers, they will be visiting a ground, Glebe Park, that holds 3,960 souls and has a nice wee hedge running around part of its perimeter.
It will be the start of at least a three-year spell in purgatory for Rangers, in which they will have an opportunity to purify themselves of a decade of financial doping during which they stand accused of breaking every significant rule in the Scottish FA's articles of association. The evidence against them has yet to be examined by the appropriate authorities. What happened to them on Friday was not a punishment; it was simply a consequence of them having been liquidated.
In a rare outbreak of biblical exegesis, words such as 'Armageddon' and 'Apocalypse' were being deployed indiscriminately in the Scottish press to describe what might happen to the game north of the border if Rangers were banished to the bottom tier. Numbers were materialising from some of Scotland's more febrile imaginations suggesting Scottish football would be driven to bankruptcy if the SPL was to be deprived of Rangers for more than one season. Sky and its Scottish football broadcasting partners, ESPN, were on the brink of pulling the plug on their TV deals because of the prolonged absence of a Celtic v Rangers fixture on the schedules. This, we were told, could result in several heavily indebted SPL clubs going to the wall.
The message to the chairmen of the lower-league clubs ahead of Friday's meeting was clear: if you vote Rangers into the third division rather than the first, you'll wreak a terrible financial pestilence upon our game. The people who run these clubs, however, are men and women who know what it is like to cajole a local business through straitened financial circumstances. So they ignored the predictions of fiscal meltdown and voted with their consciences. Thus far there have been no sightings of a man on a pale horse.
The only official responses from Sky and ESPN have been prudent and statesmanlike. Neither of them would be walking away and each intended to be a long-term partner of Scottish football.
It would be foolish not to acknowledge that some downward recalibration of existing broadcasting contracts will occur. After all, for three years at least there will be no Old Firm league meetings, the fixture that adds the zeros to the deals. But the Scottish Cup and League Cup will provide ample opportunity for everyone to receive their Old Firm fix. Celtic and Rangers have met on 12 occasions in various cup encounters since 2000.
Is it beyond the scope of the dealmakers' imaginations to find a way of reviving the old Glasgow Cup as a means of ensuring the Old Firm battle of the ages continues uninterrupted? This could take the form of an annual pre-season tournament, bolstered by a couple of major continental clubs, and act as a sweetener to the main broadcast deal.
Scotland, a nation of 5.5 million, has four senior football leagues comprising 42 clubs. England has 10 times Scotland's population but barely twice the number of clubs. The unpalatable truth is that Scotland is carrying a lot of ballast and some of it can easily be off-loaded. At least four SPL clubs are carrying crippling debt burdens. Administration and liquidation, followed by a few years contemplating their financial incontinence, will not be the worst thing to hit Scottish football.
Rangers' demise may also allow Scottish football to breathe a little more by providing opportunities to native young talent. Celtic, free from the need to be ahead of Rangers, will have the opportunity to blood many more of the players emerging from its Lennoxtown academy, which has become Scotland's de facto national centre of excellence. A cursory glance at the player rosters of most of Scotland's main clubs reveals at least one player that Celtic have reared. Rangers will simply have to field more home-grown talent.
In total, 36 of Scotland's 42 clubs listened to their fans and acted against their own instincts. It is probably the first time in modern football history that the game's grassroots have felt their concerns were heard and duly acted upon. There is a new, if fragile, sense of optimism abroad.
There will, of course, be attempts this weekend by a rump of the SPL's most badly run and indebted clubs to obliterate this by engineering SPL2 and accommodate newco Rangers in it. Such a move would damage Scottish football much more than the mere absence of Rangers or Celtic. For once trust is lost, it is lost forever.
Sunday Indo Sport