Saturday 20 January 2018

Integrity still worth its place

John O'Brien

It's hard to imagine that anything positive could emerge from the sordid and increasingly stratospheric GUBU-fest that has been the unravelling of Rangers Football Club from charges of tax evasion to administration and, finally, to howls of anguish in the south-west of Glasgow, into the bitter clutches of liquidation. But, to paraphrase Victor Hugo, even the darkest nights come to an end. The sun always rises.

And so after a seismic five-hour gathering at Hampden Park on Wednesday, 10 out of 12 clubs rejected the 'newco' Rangers application to join the Scottish Premier League. Why the newco itself was allowed a vote on its own future was utterly perplexing but entirely in keeping with a farce one reporter likened to The Thick of It with more spin doctors spinning than Malcolm Tucker himself could shake a stick at.

Forget the complexities surrounding Rangers' fall from grace for a moment and think of the magnitude of what is happening here. For the first time in its 122-year history, the Scottish League will resume without Rangers at the top table. The Old Firm hegemony has been smashed (for a year at least anyway). The city will be blessed with four extra days of normality during the next football season. All that was missing on Wednesday was the Glasgow sky caving in.

Who do we credit for this slice of important history? Do we celebrate the brave and honourable club chairmen -- pride and tradition dictated Celtic's stance -- who defied all manner of external pressure and scaremongering about their financial future to do the right thing and ensure the disgraced club was not allowed to purge its sins and slouch back to the main table?

Don't be such a mug(gle). This story is more Trainspotting than Harry Potter, more gritty Scottish drama than fairytale with wizard hats and fractional train platforms. As the grisly spectacle has unfolded, you could count the number of Scottish football officials who have acted decisively and without hidden agendas comfortably on the fingers of one hand. The impetus to seek the morally righteous path came from one source alone: the fans.

That's the story here: the power of supporters from rival clubs to form loose arrangements and use their collective voice to shame those who run their clubs into doing the right thing where otherwise, either through naked self-interest or sheer cowardice, they would have happily welcomed Rangers back into the fold. For ordinary Scottish football fans, Wednesday was a sort of Arab Spring, the day they realised how much of a say they could have in the running of their football club.

Not convinced? You think this is overstating it? Consider that two months ago reports were widely circulating in the Scottish press that the SPL was on the verge of cutting a deal that would allow the club to remain in the top division. No mention of what Scottish football fans might view of such a prospect. As if they didn't even exist. Spurred on by decades-old arrogance, those in charge figured they could do what they liked and fans had no choice but to grin and bear it.

Except they couldn't. Not this time. Around April, the first little snowball of opposition to newco Rangers began to develop and quickly gathered momentum as it rolled downhill towards those whose agenda was to smother the club with clemency. A series of online polls hinted at what was to come. In Aberdeen, 97 per cent of those polls wanted Rangers out of the SPL. In Hibernian, the figure was 99 per cent. Even in Hearts, traditionally Rangers' staunchest allies, the level of opposition was 98 per cent.

Intriguingly, in a poll of Rangers fans, 80 per cent were in favour of the new club joining the Scottish third division, but there's a subtle agenda at work here. Clearly, a large proportion of Rangers supporters would like this to happen as a sort of two-fingered gesture to the rest of Scottish football, borne of the arrogant assumption that the game would be irreparably impoverished without their box-office appeal. 'See how you cope without us' is effectively their anguished cry.

But that is precisely what the fans are willing to try. Sick of listening to craven officials sounding dire warnings of commercial meltdown in Rangers' absence, tired of fact-light stories about endangered sponsorship and TV money, they clung steadfastly to their aim of not making Scottish football any more of a laughing stock than it already was. If the choice lay between cash and integrity, their position was clear. Overwhelmingly, they were for integrity.

From the beginning they went about it in the right way. Around April, a 'Say no to Newco' Facebook page was launched but it came adorned with a Celtic crest and, for that reason, it didn't catch on. Whatever this was about, it wasn't about revelling in Rangers' misfortune. A new page was established that was inclusive and non-partisan. The snowball rolled faster and got bigger.

But no. For once, this wasn't an Old Firm issue. It was about the wider game in Scotland and the need for clubs to find ways of standing on their own two feet. And if chairmen weren't willing to take that message on board, the fans were prepared to hit them where it hurt: they threatened to withhold their season-ticket money. That was their trump card. "Aberdeen is a business based on fans," said Dons supporter Gordon Duncan last month. "They have to listen to them."

That message took hold and spread. From Aberdeen to Dundee United and from St Johnstone to Kilmarnock. At a meeting last week Kilmarnock fans warned club chairman Michael Johnson that they would refuse to purchase season tickets if he refused to take a firm line on Rangers during Wednesday's vote. Johnson hardly mollified them when he could only force his conscience into abstaining. The chairman's position now looks hugely precarious.

That's good news, though, and there's still hope for a happy ending, or one that isn't unspeakably grim anyway. The buck passes now to the Football League and on Friday the clubs will vote on whether to accept Rangers into the SFL. There's no moral reason why they shouldn't, though whether they can find the nerve to banish Rangers into the third division where they belong is another matter entirely.

By Friday, reports were circulating of half-baked compromises and shadowy plots to ensure Rangers are ushered into Division One and,

thus, shepherded safely back to the familiar ground of the SPL within a year. A scenario in which, once again, the voice of ordinary fans is pushed to the margins and discarded. Typical of the myopia that reigns among those in power, stubbornly and recklessly refusing to heed the lessons from events of a mere four days ago. Whatever happens now, though, a force for good has been unleashed that, if properly harnessed, won't be easily stopped. That alone is something worth cherishing. Particularly in a week when we saw the Glazers at their grubby best in New York, putting another stain on the soul of what was once a truly great and proud football club. And a week when Robin van Persie all but quit Arsenal, insisting the lure of Arab or Russian silver wasn't his primary motive.

Ach, let's not go there. Too depressing. Better to linger in Scotland awhile, where a shard of light shone through the gloom last week and reminded us that old-fashioned integrity can still carry the day against money. All thanks to a group of determined supporters who insisted their voices were heard and provided the dignity and backbone so grievously lacking among those entrusted to serve them.

ssport@independent.ie

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