However, finding Rangers innocent of gaining any unfair competitive advantage from 2000-2011 whilst simultaneously guilty of contravening disclosure rules on player payments has allowed everyone to continue being angry; Rangers that any investigation had to take place at all, everyone else that the club weren’t stripped of five SPL titles won within that period. The £250,000 fine levied against a company liquidated in June of last year was the least of the potent symbolism inherent in this decision.
The most recent trending acronym after a Twitter hashtag is LNS. It emerged late on Wednesday that the Lord Nimmo Smith-chaired enquiry would present its verdict at noon the next day. The on-line Scottish football community prepared itself, demonstrating that, whatever the findings “outrage” would be the one guaranteed result. After a delayed, month-long investigation by the three-man commission of legal experts, following a year of public and private deliberation about whether or not Scotland’s biggest club had cheated for most of the 21st Century, an announcement about an announcement finally pushed the tension beyond the merely “mounting”.
BBC pundit Billy Dodds, who played for Rangers during the period under investigation, had been one of many ex-pros declaring his team had won their trophies through “pure effort and endeavour” and that, “for someone to take it away … would be bordering on the crazy”. Non-Rangers fans insisted that the “side-letter” payments in question had surreptitiously brought a better class of effort and endeavour to the Ibrox pitch.
Rafa Benitez’s rants may have been all the rage down south but Sky’s continual breaking pre-lunch stories – Hearts sacking John McGlynn, Ben Foster’s international career – were a long, rolling tease. It finally delivered just before 11am: Whatever the sanctions announced at noon, Rangers would not be stripped of titles. This was enough for most Rangers fans. The enquiry’s subsequent declaration that the side payments had indeed contravened SPL rules was enough for everyone else.
The judgement is clear enough: The level of non-disclosure was large enough to warrant a serious fine but led to no unfair advantage on the field of play. In other words, such administrative malpractice is unacceptable but no football medals need be returned. That it’s not 100% black and white renders the verdict more credible, speaks of a decision made in the real world. But, like November’s caveat-filled tax tribunal finding in favour of Rangers against Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, it also leaves plenty room for partisan re-interpretation.
Accordingly, much of the reaction has been schizophrenic. Those gladdened by Rangers’ liquidation are angry that a non-existent club are not being stripped of titles, while simultaneously declaring that fining the Rangers Oldco is pointless. There’s also a general assumption that every payment ever made by every other Scottish club would withstand such intense legal scrutiny. Likewise, Rangers fans are claiming vindication while singularly forgetting that Sir David Murray – Rangers owner for 22 years up til May 2011 – would still have been in place, and liquidation avoided, if so many of them hadn’t attacked his tenure during the very period for which he’s just been found innocent. No-one at Ibrox, then or now, wanted an investigation. Murray last night called the commission a “retrospective witch-hunt” and a waste of time and money. But if there was nothing to hide why fear the enquiry?
For most Rangers fans, the story of their club’s financial collapse and re-birth won’t end until they’re national champions again, playing in Europe. For once, a Charles Green pronouncement actually makes sense: It is indeed time to move on. But, as with so many of the public comments made by the current Rangers Chief Executive, there’s little chance of it bearing fruit anytime soon. HMRC are currently appealling that tax tribunal ruling; Green himself claims he was initially offered SFA membership for his newco last summer on the proviso he accepted title-stripping. The Scottish football authorities have questions to answer. Heads may roll. And no amount of verdicts will convince Rangers fans or Rangers haters that their particular club hasn’t been persecuted one way or another.
The notion that everything is fixed, with Rangers as the establishment club and everyone else – especially Celtic – mere pawns in a mason-led SFA conspiracy, is as preposterous as ever. Her Majesty was central to running Rangers into the ground, their reincarnation currently resides in Division Three. But the Big Bad Rangers narrative is the one most Scottish fans – Rangers included – were raised with. After a year of life-changing upheaval, you can’t really grudge us snuggling under the warm blanket of familiarity.