Scottish football isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and Rangers – one half of the politically-charged Glasgow rivalry that traditionally enjoys a duopoly on the Caledonian game, along with their antagonistic neighbours Celtic – are hardly the darlings of the round-ball code.
So when years of chronic financial mismanagement resulted in administration and liquidation earlier this year, plenty of fans rushed to dance on the Bluenoses’ grave.
Owing more than £100 million to creditors, the Scottish FA terminated Rangers’ registration before a white-knight consortium bought the club’s assets for 5 million quid.
The problem for Rangers? Their fellow clubs voted the ‘newco’ into Division Three – the fourth tier of Scottish football – to punish their spendthrift recklessness, and uphold the sporting integrity of the Football League.
The enormity of the club’s collapse can’t be overstated. This is a club with a larger average attendance than every single Ligue 1 outfit, Premiership heavyweights Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs, and the grand old lady of Italian football, Juventus. Five years ago Rangers rubbed shoulders with the high rollers of European football on Deloitte’s rich list. With 54 championships and 60 domestic cups glistening in the Ibrox trophy cabinet, they are probably the ‘winningest’ team on the planet.
This month they start life in a competition that makes the A-League look like the Bundesliga. The reigning Division Three champs, Alloa Athletic, hail from a town with half the population of Lismore. In 2010, Rangers went to Old Trafford for a Champions League date with Manchester United. In 2012, those same fans will be booking trips to Links Park, Montrose – a sleepy coastal town of 10,000, roughly one fifth the capacity of Rangers’ home ground.
The broad financial cost of this swift fall from grace is yet to be felt. With one of the two Glasgow giants missing from the Scots Premier League for at least three seasons, media deals will lose value and streams of sponsorship revenue will dry up. TV audiences will shrink without the four Glasgow derbies that fill the SPL coffers. If Sky walk away from their broadcasting contract, several clubs face a precarious economic future.
The money situation is an acute concern for a league that already runs on a shoestring budget – a dilemma lost on the Celtic supporters toasting their old foes’ long-overdue comeuppance for decades of daredevil book-keeping. But a more serious positive could emerge from the Rangers saga if their prolonged absence from the top flight re-energises Scottish football.
No club has wrested the championship trophy from Celtic and Rangers’ vice-like grip since Alex Ferguson steered Aberdeen to the title in 1985. While that’s unlikely to change (if anything, Celtic’s dominance will be entrenched by a roster lined with the best Scottish talent and foreigners keen to taste European competition, which is virtually secured with Rangers out of the picture), some much-needed attention will be paid to clubs previously stuck in shadows of Glasgow’s big two.
The likes of Dundee United, Motherwell and Hearts, with more clout in the transfer market and a whiff of European qualification, will assume greater relevance within the SPL. The media will refocus their attention on the smaller clubs, and with renewed competitiveness throughout the league, attendance figures should receive a shot in the arm.
Life without Rangers’ revenue presents a serious challenge to the Scottish professional game. But perhaps it will prompt the SFA and SPL to aggressively pursue strategies – specifically, the controversial ‘SPL2′, a two-tiered top flight – to shore up finances.
In any case, an optimist hopes that the legacy of Rangers’ spectacular meltdown is a more vibrantly competitive and fiscally responsible SPL, where column inches are dedicated to the ‘wee’ clubs rather than just the Glasgow duopoly.