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Understanding the sad stories of Tom English


Tom English has an opinion piece in today’s Scotsman. His objective is to challenge some Rangers fans who he claims are alleging differences in the way Hearts and Rangers have been treated as each set of supporters endures the uncertainty of an insolvency event. Clearly there are a number of differences, however, a few significant ones were omitted in Tom’s overview. There are also similarities: suffering fans, egotistical and largely unaccountable individuals driving football clubs into desperate situations and plenty of media interest.

To be clear from the outset, I take no pleasure from the events unfolding at Tynecastle. I know too many good Hearts fans and consideration for what they are going through outweighs the ranting of any number of anonymous idiots on Jambos Kickback. I would be happy if Rangers were to accept an invitation to take part in a fundraising friendly. If it were to happen, I hope such a gesture would be appreciated by the Hearts fans who rushed to condemnation last year. This argument has been made on this site in the past and elsewhere more recently. Others, possibly the majority, would no doubt disagree and that is understandable. The truth is the Hearts situation will provoke a diverse range of responses from Rangers fans, something Tom English did an unsatisfactory job of explaining. Even the partial explanation he offered suffered from omissions and distortions.    

This was not so much an exercise in destroying a strawman as using a nuclear bomb to clear a field of scarecrows. Tom simplified a complex situation and gathered together what he understands to be the grievances of Rangers fans by focusing almost exclusively on the findings of the SFA judicial panel. Discussing the £160,000 fine and illegal transfer embargo ‘Rangers’ incurred for bringing the game into disrepute, he began by pointing out ‘Rangers’ were ‘found guilty of not disclosing the fact that Craig Whyte had been disqualified from being a company director.’ Was Broxi bear meant to disclose this? Ticketus, with whom Whyte signed a multi-million pound deal to finance the acquisition of Murray International Holdings’ shares, in the absence of any real capital of his own, didn’t know about this disqualification. This is the reason the High Court has ordered Whyte to pay eye-watering damages.

Tom then proceeded to reel off a number of other things ‘Rangers’ were guilty of. He dismissed the idea that Whyte was solely responsible for the crimes that made up the disrepute charge (who else was not remitting the VAT and payroll taxes?), citing the judicial panel report that ‘collared many of the directors at Ibrox’, while being happy to overlook the resignations of John Grieg and John McClelland and the concerns raised by Paul Murray and Alastair Johnston.  Contrary to what Tom argued, we know they were suspicious because they made it clear they were suspicious, albeit most were not in a position to know the full extent of Whyte’s misbehaviour. Ironically, the governing bodies probably had a better sense of what was going on. The allegation that the football authorities knew this was happening months before administration is strangely overlooked-perhaps they too should have ‘collared’? I hope Tom would agree that this might be the basis of a legitimate grievance. Of course there are others, not the least of which was the attempt to impose title stripping based on prejudgement of guilt during the five-way negotiations last July.

Many Rangers fans were unhappy with the punishments Tom focuses on. It is difficult to argue otherwise when an estimated 10,000 marched to Hampden to protest against them. Transfer embargoes and fines on a company in administration seem uniquely unsuitable punishments. The latter might be viewed as particularly prejudicial to the resolution of an insolvency process because it is a serious complication for potential new owners. On the other hand, the football authorities had to punish someone or something for the rule breaches and crimes that occurred. For our benefit we are reminded us of the SFA tribunal’s opinion ‘that only match-fixing could constitute a more serious offence than the collective violations of the Whyte era.’ This was ridiculous hyperbole which only served to nourish those with an unhealthy interest in all things Rangers and probably distorted the impression of the situation held by those with only a limited interested in the story. It isn’t to Tom’s credit that he is repeating it and sounding like Alex Thomson in the process.

Saying the people who operated Rangers and Hearts are guilty of different things-this seems to be the crux of Tom’s argument- is hardly revelatory, in fact it’s rather basic and obvious. Moreover, just because Whyte and a couple of accomplices were guilty of things doesn’t mean Romanov and co. are guilty of nothing. Again, a fairly basic point put to Tom on Twitter by Rangers Standard contributor Professor David Kinnon (no reply at the time of writing). The SFA might yet hand down severe punishments for actions that have already occurred and further difficulties would be encountered in the event of liquidation. But the actions of the football authorities are just one, and arguably not the most important, reason why some might be claiming differences in the responses to the two situations.

Let’s take a few examples from last Thursday’s Sportsound broadcast. Bryan Jackson, BDO’s man in Tynecastle, essentially admitted administration should have happened months ago. One possible explanation for the delay is that it allowed Hearts to stay in the Scottish Premier League by postponing the points dedication which is applied in these situations. This issue was returned to later in the programme:

Tom English: ‘Is he [Jackson] saying they were insolvent a couple of months ago? In that case why didn’t they go into administration? He seemed to be saying this club would be much better off in administration quite some time ago.’

Richard Gordon: ‘Bottom line is they managed to get to the end of the season without going bust so therefore...’

Tom English: ‘Yes...so let’s...let’s...yeah, yeah they did...’

Robust stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree, but this rather serious point wasn’t mentioned in today’s Scotsman article. That the delay cost Dundee a place in the SPL next season wasn’t subject to much discussion but just a year ago this the sort of thing that would have had the sporting integrity brigade pushing each out of the way as they clambered up onto the soapbox. Here is another exchange:

Jim Spence: ‘I don’t think we should compare this with the Rangers situation because Rangers of course went into liquidation. But one of the points that has to be made, and I’m quite happy to make it, particularly from the safety of the east coast, is that the Hearts fans are not blaming anyone else for their plight...

Tom English: ‘That’s right.’

Jim Spence: ‘They’re taking it on the chin absolutely as you said and I think the Hearts fans, the vast majority, have taken this with a great deal of dignity and a great deal of forbearance.’

Classic Spencyian logic aside (‘you can’t compare the two situations but I can in order to criticise Rangers fans’), this all part of a narrative which contends ‘Rangers fans feel there should have been no punishments but since we were punished others should be punished too’. Close associates have included ‘Rangers fans haven’t shown enough contrition’, ‘Rangers fans are acting out of defiance of others’ and ‘Rangers fans blame everyone else for their misfortune’. It is worth making it clear that Rangers fans are capable of distinguishing between those who got them into an awful situation and those who attempted to make it worse or actually did so through incompetence and time wasting. Hearts fans should consider themselves fortunate that they aren’t being subjected to such nonsense on a daily basis from people who should know better.   

Later in the same programme, Tom agreed with John Robertson who, in response to a listener claiming to have no sympathy for Hearts, said: ‘Does he not think that every Hearts fan knew Vladimir Romanov was paying too much in wages? Does he not know that the debt was huge? Does he not know that the wage bill was huge? But nobody could stop him, it was his club. He was paying it so what can you do?’ Tom then went on to offer a definition of ‘Hearts’ that clearly differentiated it from the actions of one individual, a courtesy he can seem unwilling to extended to Rangers if today’s offering is anything to go by. We also had this exchange:

Richard Gordon: ‘What you can’t have sympathy for neither here at Hearts nor at Rangers is those people who actually operated the clubs and drove both into the...

Tom English:  ‘Well twelve months ago, or whatever it was, February last year, there was contempt for the people who drove Rangers into the state they were in. Similarly there is contempt for Romanov and all his foot soldiers...’

I would say this is fairly blatant revisionism and I don’t think Tom would find too many Rangers fans to support his suggestion that there was a clear distinction between the actions of Whyte and Rangers. Even if this was the case, Tom himself seems to have lost the ability to distinguish between the actions of an individual and a club.

This website has taken issue with his writing in the past while accepting that much of his contribution over the past year or so has been largely balanced and reasonable. Not all criticism of Rangers, those who run the club or even the fans is unjustified. It isn’t healthy for fans to subscribe to this view but neither is it acceptable to contemptuously dismiss different points of view as an inability to accept criticism. Back in February, John DC Gow responded to an uncharacteristically petulant (‘The Rising? It’s a little too early to say don’t you think?’) article  by Tom which coincided with the anniversary of administration. It was short lecture that nevertheless did a good job of reflecting the moral posturing that continues to be a massive part of the Rangers story. John argued in response: ‘Like Graham Spiers’ use of ‘cheats’ or sins when describing Rangers, there are unspoken assumptions about the club that you won’t find elsewhere. Even when Tom was challenged on twitter he resorted to talking about “shame”. Terms like shame, disgrace and humiliation totally out of context with what happened or who was to blame.’ It is worth noting that Craig Whyte wasn’t mentioned once in the article John was responding to. So much for ‘contempt for the people who drove Rangers into the state they were in.’

There are other differences too. Where are the blogs and websites churning out little more than anti-Hearts propaganda? Where are the equivalents of Mac Giolla Bhain, McConville, RTC (which Tom criticised when others where saluting) and Bella Caledonia? Where is the morally charged language of ‘sporting integrity’, ‘cheating’, ‘tax avoidance’, ‘shame’ and ’disgrace’? This was fuelled by the blogs above and enthusiastically spread by their acolytes but it also, on too many occasions, came from some of his colleagues in the media and even, as was the case with the article referred to above, from Tom himself. It will always be worth remembering that much of this occurred before the likes of the First Tier Tax Tribunal and Lord Nimmo Smith had ‘pulled up the bonnet’, as Tom put it today, and delivered their verdict. Plenty were willing to look at the make of the car and tell anyone who would listen that it had failed its MOT in spectacular style. Here is a final exchange from Sportsound:

Richard Gordon: ‘There are mixed views out there. There are people who will take some degree of satisfaction from what is happening right here. There is certainly no question that the Hearts fans of course they lapped up the good times, all of us as football fans would lap up the good times. When they saw their team going to Hampden and winning the Scottish Cup on two separate occasions, of course on moments like that you’re not going to look too far behind the headlines.’

Tom, in fairness and probably accurately, said most Hearts fans did both. They enjoyed the cup successes when they came but they also had a strong sense of unease about where Romanov was ultimately leading their club. But he then added:

‘You could batter Hearts. You could say “they had it coming”, “they had it coming”...I think it’s really harsh.’

There are certainly some things in Scottish football that are ‘really harsh’ and Tom English is, at times, one of those things. There are naturally differences and similarities in the responses to the Rangers and Hearts situations. If Rangers fans have been given reasons (crucially there is more than one) to think there is inconsistency then Tom English would be better reflecting on how his own contributions might have, at times, led to this state of affairs.