Rangers are live on the telly at lunch-time this Saturday. The illusion of normality will quickly disappear, however, when the Sky cameras show the first stray shot piling into the tarmac walkways and Portaloos which comprise Peterhead’s Balmoor Stadium.
New Club, old club or something in-between, Rangers are now a Scottish Third Division club. There will be plenty of novelty this season – can you name another football nation with two 50,000-capacity, UEFA-approved stadiums in its fourth tier? – but Scotland’s traditional pecking order remains worryingly familiar.
On Guy Fawkes’ night last season, driving back from a routine home win over Dundee United, I listened to radio reports of Albion Rovers’ 7-2 defeat of local neighbours Airdrie. The financial clouds were already gathering over Ibrox but, four months before Rangers entered administration, the score from Cliftonhill offered the grimmest portent. After decades of living with Motherwell or, at a push, Hamilton as their derby rivals, the Diamonds would never have felt less Airdrieonians and more Airdrie United than they did that day. A club only previously close to you geographically is suddenly turning you over in the greatest day of their lives, the lowest of yours:
This season’s Glasgow derby is Rangers versus Queens Park. The Spiders’ chances are reduced as much by their amateur status as by Rangers currently buying half of last season’s SPL players. Before a 12 month transfer embargo kicks in, Ally McCoist is building a squad capable of attacking the Scottish and League Cups, as well as winning the Challenge Cup. This won’t compensate for a lack of SPL or European football but it might stretch the Ibrox squad enough to let some Iron Bru Third Division sides turn over what is clearly, already, Scotland’s second-biggest club.
That Rangers are also Scotland’s youngest club gets harder to believe as the freak show nature of the newco increases daily. Their Challenge Cup tie in July was an understandable sell-out at 4,100-capacity Glebe Park, Brechin. It was the newco’s debut outing and a first chance for displays of loyalty. Tuesday night’s League Cup win over East Fife was its first Ibrox outing – kick-off was delayed as 38,000 turned up for a match which, had there been no liquidation at Rangers, would have been watched by far fewer punters. I watched Rangers through the early to mid-eighties when they were never out of the top half of the top tier, always in domestic cup finals and regularly playing in Europe – Ibrox was rarely sold-out and usually more than half empty.
The problem in those days was Rangers never properly challenged for the league title and media coverage of football was nowhere near as blanket. Queens Park, Elgin, Montrose and a few other perennial bottom tier sides will find themselves on live TV this season. A friend of a friend plays for Stranraer – he’s gutted they went up to the Second Division because he’s missing out on the chance of four games against Rangers. The continually advertised brand seems more glamorous than those which have quietly stood the test of time.
Scottish TV news gives details of Celtic’s European preparations then a new Rangers signing. Between the reigning national champions and the newest members of the Third Division there were 40 other Scottish clubs to talk about. In the running order of one routine sports news bulletin, every single one of those clubs is dismissed. Having been precariously top-heavy for a century, Scottish football now resembles an inexorably closing vice. You have to wonder what’d happen if the media decided to ignore Rangers and move all coverage to, say, East Stirling. You suspect the Shire would be Celtic’s biggest rivals by the end of the decade.
While I decide if this new Rangers can replace the old Rangers in my affections, I’ll also be keeping a watchful eye on the machinations of the SFA, SFL and SPL. These bodies would clearly have allowed the newco into the top tier in a heartbeat. Only fan power dissuaded them. One wonders if the high wages being offered to Ian Black, Dean Shiels, Kevin Kyle and co came with an assurance about imminent league reconstruction.
Current owner Charles Green is desperate to sell the newco for a quick profit. Mike Ashley is rumoured to be interested and the fans will soon be asked to buy shares. Francisco Sandaza didn’t just leave SPL St Johnstone, he knocked back interest from second tier Spanish clubs to play in the Scottish Third Division. Some players might happily give a minimum of three years of their career to lower league football just to play for Rangers – but Spaniards? Rangers 2012 are too big too quickly and too fast for their surroundings – something Scottish is going to be bankrupt again pretty soon.