From Lord Nimmo Smith to William: Strange Takes on the SPL Commission
- 04 March 2013
Ten years ago when I started a Postgraduate Diploma in Journalism Studies, one of the first skills we worked on was spotting the story amongst pages of information. Given there were 45 eager young journalists in the room, it was a pretty straightforward exercise, but one we had to pass if we had any ambitions of following our chosen career.
This journalistic skill didn't come under too much pressure when reading reports relating to the SPL-tribunal with Rangers. The story, poorly hidden, amidst all the information we were being thrown was very, very obvious: it was suggested Rangers ‘cheated’ and could see honours removed as a punishment. This is why it was strange to see so many media outlets abandon that angle in the immediate aftermath of Lord Nimmo Smith's decision.
The BBC was first in line, proclaiming on the lunchtime news that Rangers had been ‘found guilty of fielding ineligible players.’ Not only was this headline factually incorrect, it also completely missed the point. This angle continued throughout the day as suddenly the suggestion that Rangers had cheated was pushed to the very back queue. We had been found guilty of something, just not what everyone was expecting.
This led to another line of thought that started to develop, one that was pushed by Graham Spiers on STV that evening - Rangers fans actually had nothing to celebrate, this was, after all, a guilty verdict. Well I beg to differ.
When the result of the Big Tax Case was announced I felt a strange mix of relief and anger. It was the very definition of pyrrhic victory in my eyes. This one was different though, this felt almost as sweet as winning each of those five championships they wanted to take from us. In the aftermath of the decision, many who had been most vocal in their criticism of Rangers pounced on the fact we had done ‘something’ wrong. It didn't matter what it was, but we were guilty of something, anything.
But everyone knows the real truth here. This was never about irregularities in paperwork or not filing accounts properly. Rangers were in the dock for cheating, and the only thing that mattered to Rangers fans is we were cleared of that, which we were, completely. There was no fudging the issue, we gained no unfair advantage and that should be the end of it.
We were forced to endure pot shots, innuendo and mistruths ever since the notion of ‘double contracts’ came to light. Neil Lennon spoke of ‘financial doping’, Radio Clyde, showing a quite staggering ignorance, tried to equate EBTs with match-fixing or bribery. We've all seen Graham Spiers' tweet where he said EBT's were a form of cheating and Hugh Keevins’ outrageous article from July has resurfaced. It begins with the sentence: ‘An independent commission will decide which titles Rangers will lose over the dual contracts system that gave them an unfair advantage over opponents.’ Hugh clearly made his mind up a long time ago.
In footballing terms, Lord Nimmo Smith's report was the equivalent of Rangers going to Werder Bremen almost exactly five years ago and losing 1-0 having won the first leg 2-0. The headlines weren't about a Rangers loss, instead they rightly focussed on Rangers getting through a tough tie against a very handy side. Here too, the headlines should have been about Lord Nimmo Smith's verdict that we didn't cheat our way to five league titles, that was the bigger picture, but throughout Thursday most chose to focus on something else, something that, frankly, wasn't as good a story.
One journalist who said he had his interest piqued by the prospect of the cheating story was Alex Thomson, who, along with Graham Spiers, appeared on STV that evening. They were joined by Chris Graham and Tom English. Chris does not need me fighting his corner so I will just say he was once again excellent, speaking well despite the best efforts of others to trip him up. English too, in my opinion, gave a decent account of the situation. He could see the real result, no cheating and no trophies removed while acknowledging the guilty verdict.
Not so Spiers and Thomson. Spiers talked about Lord Nimmo Smith's report being a damning one for Rangers directors, savaging the way they went about club business during the 'EBT-years'. To him, this was what we should focus on. But I'm afraid he's wrong. Ultimately, regardless of how the directors operated, the players were not ineligible. That is the end of it. No argument, no comeback. When the ludicrous attempt to blackmail Rangers into handing over honours in exchange for maintaining our membership of the SFA was raised, Spiers casually threw in the fact that Charles Green was prepared to give them up. So what? Why does that change the alleged actions of the football authorities? Green was an outsider coming in with no idea about the intricacies of the situation. The real question is why it was so important for the SFA and SPL to take those honours from us? Who decided this and, crucially, who stood to benefit?
Thomson also failed to cover himself in glory, spouting the tired line that Rangers ‘bought players they couldn't afford,’ due to EBTs. I've heard this line so often it's actually lost all meaning, yet not one person has actually explained how it allowed Rangers to sign players they couldn't afford. Tore Andre Flo still cost £12million. Is it because it helped us attract players with the promise of more money? After all, EBTs were set up to benefit employees (the clue is in the name) not the business. I now have this image, which I'm fairly convinced is wide of the mark, of Christian Nerlinger stalling on the deal until the carrot of an EBT is dangled in front of him. Does Alex Thomson know for sure that an EBT was the clinching factor in any deal concluded by Rangers during that period? Does he know of any player who wouldn't have come to Ibrox without an EBT?
As things stand right now, EBTs were not side contracts, they did not make player ineligible and, crucially, they were not against the law. The result of the FTTT concluded that Rangers had administered the vast majority of EBTs correctly and every Celtic blogger's obsession with the appeal won't change that. Nor will the odd obsession with the '2-1' verdict. It doesn't matter if it wasn't a majority decision, it's the result that matters.
The EBT period was one in which Rangers carried a heavy amount of debt, but spending while in debt is hardly cheating let along newsworthy. The debt towards the end of the decade was coming down and more than manageable. So, I ask again how did EBTs let Rangers buy players they couldn't afford? This is a question I'm honestly prepared to be proved wrong on, because I really don't know the answer and, so far, people have just said it without explaining it. As for the ‘moral’ argument, take that up with the Government of the time who allowed such a loophole to exist. The fact people turn their anger on Rangers shows what agenda they are following, and it's got nothing to do with ‘hospitals not being built.’
On the eve of the announcement, many observers noted that no matter the result, everyone had to accept it. But with the result still to really sink in, it has become painfully obvious that forces in Scottish football had Rangers guilty of cheating before the information had even been released. Opposition fans went into meltdown, proclaiming they were finished with Scottish football. It is an odd thing a fan who will turn his or her back on their own club - who for the most part have absolutely nothing to do with this - because Rangers aren't being hung, drawn and quartered. One might suggest they hate Rangers more than they love their own team. The watch-word became ‘Spartans’, who were thrown out of the Scottish Cup in 2011 for fielding in ineligible player. Obvious reading isn't these people's strong point or they would have known no Rangers player was ineligible. They also ignore the fact Livingston avoided a points deduction despite fielding an ineligible player several times in 2005. Lord Nimmo Smith, on Wednesday considered a fine and fair legal mind, became a ‘Rangers fan’ according to one Celtic supporter on STV and a lot worse on social media. His first name also crept in. Now this might be completely innocent but one can't quite shake the belief that something more sinister was going on. William, known as Billy to you and me, has certainly upset a fair few folk.
If Scottish football is to move on this sort of blind hatred of all things Rangers has to cease, but I won't hold my breath. In fact, Ronnie Esplin actually said a little less ‘triumphalism’ was needed from Rangers fans about the whole thing. I'm sorry Ronnie, but after all we've been through I'm sure we can be forgiven a wee celebratory drink, because no matter how some sections of Scottish society try to paint it, this was an emphatic Rangers victory.
You'd think people would be used to that by now.
Douglas Dickie has been a regional journalist for the past eight years. He is a season ticket holder and travels to away games on the Toryglen True Blues supporters bus.