A Knight Mare on Edmiston Drive: The real story behind Rangers’ demise

by Iain Swan

A world famous Scottish institution is led to brink of extinction by the ego fuelled megalomania of a titled owner. Sadly for the millions of supporters around the world, this is not R.B.S. but R.F.C. 

Unlike Sir, now plain, Fred Goodwin, who lead The Royal Bank of Scotland during an ill-fated decade of debt fuelled expansion  there are no calls as yet for Sir David Murray to be stripped of his knighthood for the wanton vandalism of the Rangers Football Club during the 23 years of  er, ill-fated debt fuelled folly.

But then Murray has always had willing cronies in the media ready to be summoned, wide eyed to Sir’s office in Charlotte Square, Edinburgh, to swallow the latest gospel according to David.

Who can forget the excrutiating interviews with hapless Chick Young on Friday Sportscene when Murray was in his pomp? Another sermon delivered on a sport in which Murray had shown little interest, before attempting to buy Ayr United in the 1980s and one about which he lacks proper knowledge. That would not prevent him from helpfully mapping out the future of Scottish and European football for the naïve and accepting masses.

When he bought Rangers in 1988, amid claims never substantiated that the  notorious tycoon Robert Maxwell was preparing  a takeover bid, the club was re-establishing itself after decline in the early 80s. It was his good fortune that there was a modern stadium in place which would only need minor re-modification when the post-Hillsborough ruling on all seat stadia became law.

While his rivals in the Scottish Premier League, most notably Celtic, spent the next decade diverting money into upgrading their stadia to meet these new requirements, Murray was able to use the increased revenue of a resurgent Rangers to exert an unhealthy dominance on Scottish football.

Unhealthy, but lucrative, for it guaranteed Champions League football  every year and with it the fortunes that this new tournament offered. In the first season of the new incarnation, Rangers were within a whisker of reaching the final. Murray’s head was turned by the riches and glamour, the hobknobbing with the wealthy industrialists and businessmen who owned Europe’s top clubs, the Berlusconi’s (Milan) Agnellis (Juventus) and Tapies (Marseille).

The more mundane domestic scene paled in comparison and with the advent of the English Premiership, awash with satellite television money that Murray could only dream of, it diminished in his  eyes still further. Stung by the departure of his club’s manager and friend Graeme Souness for Liverpool and the Premiership in the Spring of 1991,  Murray spent a Scottish record fee of £2million on Ukranian midfielder Alexei Michailichenko to reassert himself and Rangers as major players in British football. It was to be the first in a string of eyebrow raising purchases of established foreign stars as the seed of Rangers’ downfall began to be sown.

The following year, in the highpoint of the early years of his reign, Rangers eliminated the English champions Leeds United from the European Cup and embarked on that inaugural Champions League campaign that almost brought them an appearance in the Final. Twelve months later, Rangers again beat Leeds, this time to the signature of  young Scottish star Duncan Ferguson. The £4million pound fee was a British record, the fact that Rangers spent their entire transfer budget that summer on a player they did not require, when other parts of the team needed strengthening was lost in the publicity that outbidding the Premiership giants generated.

This goes to the crux of the problem of David Murray’s ownership of the club. He used Rangers as a publicity vehicle for David Murray, to boost his profile  and that of the rest of his business empire and to satisfy his vast ego.

Within three months of Ferguson signing for Rangers and Murray proclaiming his club to be the biggest in Britain, uncelebrated Bulgarians Lokomotiv Sofia went to Ibrox and bundled Rangers out of the European Cup before the lucrative group stages.

Rangers were never again close to reaching the finals of the Champions League despite the huge transfer fees and wages spent luring players of the quality of Brian Laudrup, Paul Gascoigne and Basile Boli to play in the veritable backwater of the European game that was Scotland.

Murray’s great dream of equalling the feat of rivals Celtic and leading Rangers to European glory was never fulfilled. But  another achievement of Jock Stein’s legendary Celtic side began to exercise the Murray ego.

Laudrup, Gascoigne and co. were not good enough to bring the European Cup to Ibrox, but they were a class above anything Rangers’ domestic rivals could muster and so the dangerous obsession with  beating Celtic’s haul of nine consecutive league titles began to dominate thinking in Govan.

Rangers eventually reached the nine titles in a row mark but were unable to go one better. Manager Walter Smith’s team had grown old  and thanks to the short term planning at Rangers the youth team had been thouroughly neglected and was unable to produce adequate replacements needed to sustain Rangers’ challenge.

Cue another Murray spending spree  as he flew around Europe in his private jet signing a new team. With the exception of Swedish national team captain Jonas Thern these were of inferior quality to the Laudrup and Gasgoignes. Expensively acquired “Carlos Kickaballs”, to use former Spurs chairman Alan Sugar’s phrase describing foreign journeymen commanding inflated wages and transfer fees, because they appeared to offer an exotic alternative to their more prosaic Britsh teammates.

Thern spent most of his Ranger career injured, starting a worrying trend in the signing of injured or injury prone players and the rest of that disparate bunch surrender the title to Celtic.

Manager Walter Smith left Ibrox at the end of that season 1997-98 along with most of the heroes of the nine in a row years. It was thought that he left due to poor performances in Europe and because his team had grown old together. But I cannot help think that David Murray’s increased involvement in the signing of players may also have been a contributing factor. I did not get the impression that Smith had had much say in the players so expensively recruited the previous summer and may have decided to call it a day because the team was not his anymore. But that is merely conjecture.

As we will see tomorrow, THE Murray ego remained intact despite this setback as Rangers embarked on the insane journey to ruin.

The writer is a Ranger season ticket holder and shareholder.

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