20 January 2013

The SPL: Oxymorons and Tainted Titles

by Dr Jeffrey Stephen | CRO Guest Writer

2012 was a momentous year for Glasgow Rangers Football Club. Administration and liquidation followed by resurrection. The club found itself playing in Division Three of the SFL, the fourth tier of Scottish football. The club and fans have embraced the division; they have embraced the ‘journey’ the club will take from the bottom tier to the top over the forthcoming seasons. Indeed, during the troubled summer months when the club was engulfed in a maelstrom of malevolence and uncertainty, many Rangers fans were actively promoting the idea that the club should go to the bottom and work its way back. 

However, the Third Division was not the destination of choice for the club and its new owners. Charles Green was clear, Rangers belonged in the SPL and following liquidation an application for membership was duly made as per the rules, and promptly rejected. Club chairmen, with the exception of Michael Johnston of Kilmarnock, hid behind the protective barricade of fan power. The more loquacious among observers even likened Scottish footballing fans finally finding their voice, to the Arab Spring! Club chairmen, fans groups, fans forums, bloggers, pundits and journalists of a distinctive affiliation were united in opposition to, ‘Newco’ Rangers as it was termed, being admitted to the SPL. If the club should go anywhere, it should be banished to the third division, which is what happened, despite the worst efforts of the Regan led cabal that included the SPL, to parachute the club into Division One. 

The golden thread that bound these disparate groups together was the term ‘sporting integrity’. Hibernian Chairman Rod Petrie insisted that sporting integrity was ‘beyond purchase.’ The Prophet Petrie’s pronouncements came to be regarded by many in the game as the footballing equivalent of the Sermon on the Mount. During the summer the phrase was repeated ad nauseum, like a religious mantra and it became Scottish football’s zeitgeist. 

The post First Tier Tribunal revisionists notwithstanding, we all know what they meant back in the summer by sporting integrity. It was never about Craig Whyte’s brief and all too destructive tenure at the club. Whyte placed the club in administration to pre-empt a similar move by HMRC because of his failure to pay the tax and national insurance contributions of his Ibrox employees. Both Whyte and the club were subsequently charged and punished by the SFA. However, while not wishing to diminish the seriousness of Whyte’s failure to pay HMRC, his misdemeanour was a sideshow, a not insignificant sideshow but a sideshow nonetheless when compared to the main event, which was commonly known as ‘The Big Tax Case’. This case centred on a perfectly legal Employee Benefit Trust scheme run by former owner David Murray but against which HMRC was demanding an estimated £49 million pounds in unpaid tax, interest and penalties. The First Tier Tribunal had just begun considering the evidence presented by Rangers in its appeal when the club went into administration.

Rather, sporting integrity came to be regarded as the antithesis of all things Rangers and it is important to emphasise at this point that with few exceptions those involved in Scottish football, from the highest level to the lowest, worked on the premise that Rangers were guilty and they continued to do so with increasing certainty and conviction right up until the FTT announced its decision in favour of the club. When it did, the flabbergasted pundits, who had never been short of an opinion on Rangers tax issues were lost for words. Let’s face it, from their perspective, how could Rangers not be guilty? Everything they had seen, heard and read had pointed irrefutably to Rangers’ guilt. Had not the BBC conclusively proved it in their award winning documentary? When it came BBC Scotland’s reporting on the Rangers story, the footballing masses in the country were unable or unwilling to differentiate between fact and fiction. Each report and breaking story was regarded as something akin to an ex cathedra pronouncement. However, as the outcome of the FTT demonstrated, it was clearly a case of the blind leading the blind. 

Likewise, had not those well known bloggers on all things Rangers and Revenue demonstrated the club’s guilt through the judicious use of leaked confidential documents? How could Rangers not be guilty when their own administrators released a final total of debt that was well in excess of £100 million of which over £70 million was claimed by HMRC? The fact that the club failed to emerge from administration but was liquidated when HMRC rejected the CVA merely confirmed the guilt. HMRC’s decision was not based solely upon issues relating to Whyte’s tenure but encompassed that of David Murray and their own assumption that the club had abused the EBT scheme. On the day the decision was announced, one texter to the BBC expressed the views of the majority of fans not affiliated to Rangers, that the club had been guilty of a ‘decade of cheating’. Even Craig Whyte was convinced the club was guilty. He did not pay tax because, well, what the hell, the club was going under anyway when the FTT finally got round to its inevitable guilty verdict.

It was this assumption of guilt that gave birth to the phrase sporting integrity, at least in its then Scottish incarnation. It was confidently asserted that Rangers were guilty of tax evasion on a grand, even industrial scale. This evasion had given the club an unfair, unsporting advantage over its competitors by allowing it to pay for quality players that it could not otherwise afford. Terms like financial doping and match fixing were used. Rangers had effectively cheated its way to a series of titles and cups and the clamour for the club to be stripped of those grew. The assumption of guilt was nowhere better illustrated than when the SPL and SFA wanted Rangers to accept the stripping of titles and Scottish cups in return for being parachuted into division one. The consensus was that Rangers’ predicament was self inflicted; years of living beyond its means, years of cheating that is, had brought it to its knees and for that it had to pay. Regardless of the financial cost to the game in Scotland and to their clubs, SPL chairmen piously lined up one after the other to let the world and his dog know that sporting integrity had to take precedence over financial gain. It was more important than money; it was ‘beyond purchase’. Ah!! The Corinthian spirit is alive and well in the SPL!! 

Yet the reactions and actions of Scotland’s football authorities, its literati, cognoscente and the baying mobs that inhabit its coliseums, pre-empted the actual judgment of the FTT. If only they had waited; but they would not wait, they could not wait, they rushed to judgement like an angry lynch mob, trampling underfoot that fundamental principle of Scottish, of British justice that the accused is innocent until proven guilty. Those who accused, judged and condemned Rangers, who vilified Rangers and voted to reject the club’s application to the SPL, lacked the very principle they claimed was sacred and beyond purchase, a principle they claimed they were acting to uphold – Integrity. 

Let us return to Mr Petrie’s interview with the BBC. He was quoted as saying, ‘It is important to us that the integrity of the competition we take part [in] is maintained to the highest standards.’ The competition he referred to was the SPL but paradoxically Mr Petrie and his followers have in fact destroyed what they sought to protect and maintain. The essence of sport is competition. The OED defines sport as, ‘competitive activity’. Some would have us believe that even without Rangers competition is alive and kicking in the current SPL campaign. Reacting to claims made in the summer that the game faced Armageddon without the club in the top tier, the early months of the season have been replete with claims that crowds were up, excitement was up, goals were up and that the SPL was as competitive as ever. The teams were all bunched together, could beat each other and little separated top from bottom. For some dewy eyed Dundonians it was the footballing equivalent of Equality, Egalite and Fraternity.

Now, I am not going to claim that there is no excitement in the SPL, of course there are exciting games but the SPL is not unique. You can get exciting games watching your local junior side, goals too. But the SPL also provides more than its fair share of howlers, instantly forgettable games; ‘it wasn’t pretty’, is the common footballing euphemism for, awful. Nor would I claim that the current SPL campaign entirely lacks competition. Every time two teams take to the field there is competition of sorts. Even champions elect Celtic have faced stiff competition in individual games but if they and all the rest were honest, Celtic’s only real competitor is complacency. There is always competition for league places, after all you get a little bit more prize money if you finish eighth than you do if you are ninth or 10th. There is usually competition between some clubs to make it into the top six, pre-split and often there is competition for European places and to avoid the drop. That kind of competition takes place every year (maybe not this year as far as relegation goes); in that sense this season is not unique. However, something important is missing this year and in this the SPL is unique indeed. There is no competition for the title. 

Let’s look at the statistics. Since its inception, the SPL has been won by just two clubs, Rangers and Celtic. Apart from the old firm, no other club has won a title since the mid 80s. In the SPL Heart of Midlothian are the only club to have split the Old Firm, and only once. Every other year, the also-rans finished the points equivalent of, miles behind. This season’s title race was a dead rubber from the start. In fact since the start of the season, the emphasis has really been upon who will come second to Celtic. Is there any other European country in which its premier football league has no competition for the title from the start of the season to the end and where the destination of the title is a 100%, cast iron, foregone conclusion? In every league there is competition between at least two or three of the major clubs, except in Scotland. Can there be any more damning indictment of the SPL? If the SPL is not embarrassed, it should be. For a sporting organisation to have any integrity there must be competition for its major prize. The current SPL lacks integrity because it has no competition on the issue that is of the first importance; the competition for the title. The SPL is a competition that lacks title competition. A famous Vulcan might have put it thus, it’s sport Jim, but not as we know it. 

Now, there will be some out there who would argue that there is no competition in the third division either. I would agree; despite a sticky start Rangers are romping it. However, there is a significant difference. Rangers are in the third division as a consequence of the unfortunate and premature decisions of other clubs, not by choice. The club was manoeuvred into the third division against its will.

The absence of competition for the SPL title is the consequence of a deliberate and conscious choice of 10 of its current members. Imagine for a moment the reaction of the monopolies and mergers commission if, in any other form of commercial business one of the leading players successfully excluded its only competitive rival for the top spot from the commercial sector in question. Where is the sporting integrity in effectively fixing the destination of the title for the next three years?  Let’s face it, if Celtic were really interested in the integrity of the competition they would at least have made a case for keeping their only rival in the SPL, yet they did not. Celtic voted along with all the others to reject Rangers’ application to join the SPL upon a false premise of guilt, and in doing so voted to exclude its only, and I repeat, only rival for the title in the full knowledge that with Rangers out of the SPL there would be only one winner. 

The vote ensured a sporting monopoly; a rival free zone that guaranteed Celtic at least three more titles. Rangers were subject to the footballing equivalent of a constructive dismissal by various vested interests in the SPL and of those vested interests, Celtic had the most to gain. Sporting integrity was the Trojan horse used to bring down as low as possible a Scottish institution; sporting integrity was never beyond purchase: its purveyors sold it for 30 pieces of silver.