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Ibrox stadium, August 25 2011: Rangers FC, the Scottish club that is one of the most famous names in world football, are 15 minutes away from being knocked out of Europe by the champions of Slovenia. The team needs one more goal to take the game into extra time. This is the moment that, traditionally, a home team would be rallied by its fans bellowing, baying, singing a rousing song. Instead, the Glasgow crowd strikes up a weary chorus of the British national anthem, “God Save the Queen”. Rangers fail to score.
Soon, the whole club is in need of divine intervention. Without the funds from lucrative European cup competition, years of hubris and inept leadership catch up with Rangers. In February 2012, it enters administration. Four months later, it is liquidated. Following votes by other clubs, a new incarnation of the club that has been champions a record 54 times starts the 2012/13 season in Scottish football’s fourth tier.
Three years on, the sense of crisis persists. Administration left a void in the boardroom, through which has passed a procession of businessmen, many claiming to be “Rangers men”. No one is in full control of the club, which remains in desperate, monthly need of cash to pay its high wage bill. According to Harry Reid, an author of books on Scottish football and religion, “Rangers has become a magnet for every chancer in town.”
Many football fans like to think that their team is “more than a club”. In Rangers’ case, the claim is true. For much of its 143-year history, its successes were a source of pride for fans throughout Scotland, if not for supporters of Celtic, Glasgow’s other big club. “Rangers were the unofficial sporting champions of a different Scotland,” says Alasdair McKillop, the co-editor of Born Under a Union Flag, an anthology about the club’s place in the UK.
The club, like the nation, had a comfortable dual identity as both Scottish and British. At its most famous game, the 1972 European Cup Winners’ Cup victory over FC Dynamo Moscow, fans sporting kilts and Robert Burns T-shirts waved the Union Jack alongside the Lion Rampant, Scotland’s royal flag. “There was then an unquestioning acceptance of a strong Scotland within an overarching Britishness,” says Graham Walker, a renowned historian of politics in Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as a life-long Rangers fan.
Off the pitch, Rangers was run in unspectacular fashion. It exemplified traditional Scottish Protestant virtues such as “strength, solidity, pride, decency and probity”, says Harry Reid. “This has now been turned on its head.”
For many fans, it was that European game against NK Maribor which foreshadowed the subsequent decline. Only three years previously, Rangers had reached the final of the same competition, but it wasn’t just the bad result that stayed in people’s minds.
Rangers draws much of its support from working-class fans in Glasgow and the west of Scotland, many of whom identify themselves as Protestant unionists. Graham Walker, who saw the game that night, says: “It seemed to me that too many fans are more concerned about defending Britishness than supporting Rangers.”
Today Rangers is a faded emblem of a faltering belief in the UK: a Scottish institution in Britain and a British institution in Scotland. Its rise and fall reflects not only how a football club lost sense of financial reality but much of its identity, too. Its story represents an imperfect microcosm of contemporary Scottish and British history.
The modern transformation of Rangers was dominated by two men. The first was Graeme Souness, the cocksure, mustachioed Scottish football legend who was appointed player-manager in 1986 after the club had gone eight years without a league title. The second was Sir David Murray, an industrialist who in 1988, encouraged by Souness, bought a controlling stake in the club for £6m.
Rangers — and Scottish football — would never be the same again. Murray’s money bought star players on high wages, including the England midfielder Paul Gascoigne and Mo Johnston, the first openly Roman Catholic player signed by Rangers since the end of the first world war. Between 1989 and 1997, Rangers won nine league titles in a row.
Sustained success on the pitch set the club apart, and the arrogance that accompanies serial winning undoubtedly alienated other football fans in Scotland. But changes in society also threatened the sense of a dual Scottish and British identity that Rangers represented. Memories of the British empire and the second world war — both of which encouraged a pro-union sentiment — were growing distant. And falling church attendances, especially Protestant, spoke of Scotland’s rising secularism. According to the historian Sir Tom Devine, the “centralising drive of Margaret Thatcher eroded Scotland’s distinctiveness”, too, and provoked today’s leftwing Scottish nationalism.
Partly in response, a growing minority of Rangers fans displayed a more “defiant type of Britishness”, believes Walker. Religious sectarianism runs through the club’s fierce rivalry with its city neighbours Celtic, formed by an Irish Catholic priest in 1887. But, influenced by the deepening “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, fans sung “Rule Britannia” alongside rejoicing in the deaths of popes. “The strident unionism that Rangers fans display is anomalous,” Walker says. “It’s not that Britishness is dead . . . but the kind of flag-waving unionism that some Rangers fans stand for is a minority taste in contemporary Scotland, and it robbed [the club] of a lot of sympathy in the country.”
Yet the ordinary Rangers fan has been deserving of sympathy over the past decade. “Rangers has suffered from every financial calamity imaginable,” says Henry McLeish, Scotland’s former first minister, who in 2009 conducted a review into the state of the country’s football. “It is the longest running business saga in football history.”
Despite its footballing success, spending on star players in the absence of stellar revenues meant that, by 2002, Rangers were £80m in debt. Murray appeared to have adopted the right strategy in the wrong country. Satellite television had turned the English Premier League into a big business but Rangers had become overleveraged within the smaller market of Scottish football.
By 2006, Murray was ready to sell. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, his company, Murray International Holdings (MIH), suffered severe losses to its property portfolio. For Alan Bissett, a novelist and playwright whose work features the club he supports, it is “striking how closely the rise and fall of Rangers mirrors that of the UK economy”.
Rangers had indeed spent beyond its means in a time of easy credit — and fans paid the price. “As far as I’m concerned, the bank is running Rangers,” Walter Smith, then the club’s manager, said in 2009. Two years later it was revealed that Rangers had used Employee Benefit Trusts, a tax avoidance vehicle, to reward staff. HMRC launched an investigation (a tribunal found no unlawful conduct but HMRC plans to appeal). In May 2011, Murray sold Rangers to Craig Whyte, another Scottish businessman, for the sum of £1.
At first, Whyte appeared to be like Murray but with even more money. Yet promises of investment proved hollow and worse was to follow. Whyte failed to comply with tax obligations, ran the club without proper reference to the board, and caused the club to effectively fund the purchase of its own shares, according to a UK court verdict in 2014.
Under Whyte’s ownership, the club ran up a tax bill of £9m. This was the direct cause of Rangers entering administration in February 2012. Four months later, the club’s creditors, owed £124m, voted to liquidate the old company.
That same day in June 2012, a consortium bought Rangers’ remaining assets for £5.5m. But this new incarnation of the club has, says Henry McLeish, “been unable to attract stable finance backed by stable personalities”. In April 2013, the consortium leader Charles Green resigned as chief executive; the two men that followed him lasted only a combined total of 18 months.
The most recent power struggle has featured Mike Ashley, a retail billionaire who owns English Premier League club Newcastle United, as well as a 9 per cent shareholding in Rangers. In 2012, the enigmatic sportswear mogul entered a joint venture to sell the team’s merchandise. It is a deal that has since led to a boycott of official gear by some fans, who claim that the club only receives 75p from every £10 spent on kit. Ashley wields power disproportionate to his holding by acting as Rangers’s short-term creditor. This week he reportedly offered the club a further £10m loan, in exchange for taking Ibrox and Rangers’ training ground as security. The Scottish FA has so far prevented him from increasing his stake in the club, citing rules on dual ownership, but a hearing is set for later this month.
Ashley is not the only power broker at Rangers. Sandy Easdale, a businessman who was convicted of non-payment of VAT in 1997, controls 26 per cent of the shares in Rangers, mostly via the proxies of mysterious institutional investors. In December he loaned the club £500,000 to avoid a winding-up order by HMRC, an amount repaid earlier this month after Rangers sold its best player to an English Championship club. Dougie Wright of the website Rangers Media forum, puts it this way: “Twenty years ago we were buying players from Barcelona, now we’re selling them to Brentford!”
At the start of this year, several groups emerged as potential opponents to the combined control of Ashley and Easdale. These include Dave King, a businessman who has pleaded guilty to contravening South African tax law; Robert Sarver, an Arizona billionaire who also owns the Phoenix Suns basketball team; and a trio of rich Rangers fans who go by the name of the “Three Bears” (one of Rangers’ nicknames is the “Teddy Bears”).
Yet, whoever emerges with the ball after this corporate goalmouth scramble, a question will remain for many Rangers fans: why are we still in crisis?
Reid believes the failure of Rangers fans to take control of their club reveals how its identity has changed since the late 1980s. Contrasting the situation with that at Heart of Midlothian, an Edinburgh-based club that entered administration in 2013 and whose fans have subsequently established a supporter-ownership model, he says: “The decent Rangers-supporting middle class of Glasgow could have mobilised but they vanished off the face of the earth.”
As Colin Docherty, who last year helped found the community interest company Rangers First, admits, “there was a vacuum.” It is one that Rangers First, which bought its first Rangers shares last July, is belatedly trying to fill. According to Docherty, there is a “silent majority” of Rangers fans who care for neither boardroom chicanery nor sectarianism.
His choice of words is notable. During last year’s independence referendum campaign in Scotland “silent majority” was used to describe the pragmatic types who cared little for romantic Britishness but ultimately saved the union, which was preserved by a 55 to 45 per cent vote. Dougie Wright believes there are parallels between the vote and the club’s state of angst. “We are a confused support and a lot of that stems from the independence referendum,” he says.
During the referendum campaign, some Rangers fans would sing, “You can shove your independence up your arse.” But Glasgow was one of the few Scottish cities where a majority voted “Yes”; some Rangers fans must have done so. Given the class divide in votes (the poor were more likely to vote “Yes”), pollsters say it would be surprising if an institution in Govan, a large working-class area, did not reflect that in some way.
“Like Scotland itself, Rangers fans have had it difficult in recent times finding a happy balance between British and Scottish influences,” says McKillop. Perhaps it was no surprise that when crisis struck, it had less of a footing in Scotland than it once did, and a fractured fan base has made it easier for a succession of businessmen to present themselves as the true representatives of supporters’ interests.
After two dramatic years, in the independence referendum, Scots eventually affirmed the union. But it is a different sort of unionism to that of previous generations. A quieter, contingent belief in the UK has replaced the default Britishness of the past.
Belatedly, it seems that some Rangers fans are trying to embrace a new future, too. The supporters’ trusts believe they are reclaiming control of their club — and its identity. They are forming alliances: George Taylor, one of the Three Bears, has a lifetime membership in Rangers First. His consortium has offered to match Ashley’s £10m loan — without taking the stadium as collateral. For the first time in a long time, Rangers fans are daring to be optimistic. The question is whether their silent majority can, like Scotland’s, make itself heard.
John McDermott is an FT commentator
Photographs: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/ Getty Images; Stewart Fraser/ Colorsport; Getty Images
This article has been amended since publication to clarify how the new incarnation of Rangers ended up playing in the fourth tier of Scottish football in 2012/13