22 January 2015

Rangers Fan Ownership - A Pipe Dream No More

by Alan Clark | Deputy Editor

When the dark clouds of insolvency fell upon Ibrox in February 2012, some commentators believed it was the Rangers supporters' best chance to save their Club.

Whether you agree with that belief or not doesn't really matter - there can be no doubt that a chance was missed to rally the support into a fan ownership scheme, even if it didn't end up with the scenario of fans bringing the Club out of administration.

There were many reasons around that frantic period as to why that didn't happen, but that is firmly in the past. We are in the present and looking towards the future. This is where the Rangers Supporters Trust and Rangers First come in to play.

In years gone by, supporters of the Gers will recall conversations with their fellow fans on fan ownership. It has grown quite considerably in the last few years - with the issue of supporters having a substantial stake in their football clubs growing across other leagues - as well as Rangers' financial troubles.

I'm sure many fans reading this will nod their head when they think about the amount of times someone had the view that fan ownership, specifically at Rangers, was a pipe dream. A non-starter because "we are too big", "we have too many fans", "nobody will ever agree" or simply that "we'd be better off with someone that has money".

That is not the case now. There will be many that are still sceptical or indeed opposed to the idea of Rangers fans holding a major stake in the Club and having a say in the boardroom activities. But, put simply, enough is enough.

The support put their trust in Craig Whyte when he took over from David Murray in May 2011. He failed them.

The support put their trust in Charles Green when his consortium bought the assets of the old company and moved them to a new company to exit administration in June 2012. He failed them.

Various chief executives, directors, finance directors and consultants have come and gone on the board since then, and guess what? They've all failed them.

The utter incompetence, mismanagement and selfish acts of those who are supposed to be custodians of a 143-year-old institution has staggered many - and now the supporters are mobilising.

Membership of the RST and sign-ups to its BuyRangers direct debit scheme were extremely low a few months ago - and it was the same with Rangers First. But recently, there has been an almighty spike in fans signing up to do their bit for fan ownership.

There have been a few reasons for this, all interlinking to provide a 'perfect storm' for both groups and their shared vision of a Rangers owned by the people that matter the most - the fans. Firstly Douglas Park, George Letham and George Taylor combined as the Three Bears to buy out the shareholding of Laxey Partners - a significant purchase that got people's attention.

They have been in discussions ever since about providing a loan to the Club to solve the impending financial crisis - as a standard loan or as a debt-for-equity arrangement which would see them participating in a new share issue, thus increasing their stake further. As we know, they haven't been successful yet and it looks like Mike Ashley may be about to provide another loan.

Which takes us to the second reason - the fact legal documents have been lodged to give Ashley security over Ibrox and Murray Park. Fans rightfully reacted in absolute anger at this. Ibrox Stadium should never be sold, leased or used as security in a loan (especially to someone like Ashley). There was a protest before and after the abandoned game with Hearts last Friday night, which was incredibly well attended and showed that at last, the support has unified. They want this board gone, Ashley's influential tentacles gone...and the stadium properly protected.

Thirdly, there has been an unprecedented surge in sign-ups to both fan ownership vehicles from former players. The likes of Jorg Albertz, Davie Weir, Claudio Reyna, Richard Gough, Tony Vidmar and Nacho Novo have joined one group or both groups. As has prospective director Paul Murray, former requisitioner Scott Murdoch and even runner Lynsey Sharp. This obviously created a lot of press coverage and interest - with the likes of Sky Sports News now regularly mentioning the two.

There was even - for the first time ever - a dedicated slot on television for fan ownership discussion at Rangers last night. STV Glasgow aired a show with our very own Chris Graham of the RST, Richard Atkinson representing Rangers First and Stephen Morrow of Stirling University. All this exposure adds up.

Today, Rangers First's contributor stands at 5,300. It might not seem much to people racking their brains about how big a support Rangers have - but when you consider it was under 1,500 only four or five months ago - and how quick it has grown in the last few weeks, it is significant. The same goes for the RST's membership and sign-ups for BuyRangers. Membership is around 4,300, with sign-ups to BuyRangers at a similar level.

Combine both groups' figures and consider the praise that the Foundation of Hearts' figures receive for their fan ownership quest (they have around 8,000) and you begin to see something emerging. The Twitter following for the RST stands at a whopping 37,200, whilst Rangers First have an impressive 25,900. Of course, many users will follow both accounts, but nevertheless it shows the interest even just on that one social media location. The key is turning these followers into contributors, reaching the passive online users and in particular the offline supporters - the high-profile additions mentioned above are exactly what will attract these fans.

Both groups are over the one per cent barrier in their shareholding of Rangers International Football Club plc and this could be vital at the upcoming Extraordinary General Meeting. A combined two per cent is good base to build from and will likely increase should the momentum keep going. It's striking to see what impact a former player backing a scheme with their money can do to fans sitting on the fence - and same goes for more negative actions or words, like Charles Green's bizarre bedside chat with Jim White.

Owning five per cent of the company gives the right to call an EGM and the power a shareholder possesses only increases as their percentage of shares grows - there is more at ten per cent, 25 per cent and the golden 51 per cent, for example.

It doesn't have to be 100 per cent fan ownership - in any case both the RST and Rangers First have never stated their desire for that. That is an important point to make when stating the case for fan ownership. Credible business people with significant wealth will be needed to make this work, but as a team with the fan ownership groups, not either/or.

The EGM vote will be an extremely tight call going by current calculations and assumptions of both sides of the boardroom battle. The numbers held by these groups may not seem high, but they could prove crucial in getting the motions over the line and finally ridding the Club of the incumbent board of directors.

If it proves the case that the voting rights held by these two groups was pivotal in the outcome of the motions (don't forget all the individual fan shareholders who bought in at the IPO and since then too) then it will show that fan ownership (or fan influence, if you prefer) is truly on its way.

Don't be fooled by there being two separate groups. They may have different methods towards getting their aims but those goals are shared - a voice for the Rangers support and an element of decision-making via a substantial shareholding in the Club.

The wheels are firmly in motion on this matter and perhaps if there is ever to be a silver lining in this whole complete mess that the supporters have had to go through for several long years - it's that a strong appetite for fan ownership emerged and ensured that never again will Rangers Football Club be abused in the way it has.

Because the fans will have the power to stop it.

You can sign up for the RST and its BuyRangers scheme here and for the Rangers First scheme visit here.

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Keep it civil, lads.