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The Fog on the Clyde

It’s been another fascinating week on the southern banks of the famous river which dissects Glasgow. Not one, not two but three separate offers of financial assistance made to the club; two key board member resignations; various rumours with regard to their replacements and media suggestions manager Ally McCoist may well be next for the chop. None of the above is new to the Rangers farce of course but it’s more interesting this time as it appears that Mike Ashley – the man whose £2m loan offer was ultimately accepted – is now calling the shots at Rangers.

The reaction to this from the fans has been equally interesting. Yes, the key backers of Dave King’s failed efforts are unhappy and repeating their calls for protest but many other fans are left somewhat undecided at the weekend’s events. Do we concede that Ashley – by way of his incredibly successful Sports Direct business – brings the kind of net worth and expertise that could secure and stabilise the club or are we more concerned at his efforts to bully the board into the kind of onerous contracts that will cost us millions going forward irrespective of the owner? In simple terms are Ashley’s intentions honourable or is he just another vulture circling a club that seems to be heading for new dangers every other week?

Unfortunately, for the average Rangers fan that question is impossible to answer. For one thing, Ashley has never been the most transparent of people – either when it comes to his sporting goods empire or his ongoing ownership of Newcastle United. Not only does he actively shirk from media interviews but he leaves the engagement of shareholders and fans to other staff. For example, in February 2013, when Charles Green was ruminating publicly about stadium sponsorship by Sports Direct, it wasn’t Ashley that spoke to fans in a crowded Ibrox Suite but Derek Llambias – a long term business associate and today linked with replacing the departed Graham Wallace as our latest Chief Executive. Such apparent coincidences aside, quite simply our fans won’t ever get to directly speak with Ashley so our newly constituted fan board won’t be invited onto helicopters for meetings in England any time soon. As a quick aside, it’s disappointing to note the minutes from the first fan board meeting are already eight days overdue so it’s debatable whether this initiative will ever move on past its inaugural early October meeting.

We can make a guess at what Ashley is intending though. Without severely cutting costs his secured £2million loan for working capital won’t last long – perhaps until January at the latest. This means the oft-talked about and largely inevitable new share issue should happen at the earliest opportunity. Before that however, we need accounts from Deloitte and an AGM to ratify any board appointments and further resolutions related to any share offer. The former were previously far from guaranteed without auditor qualification but with Ashley’s billions now involved in the decision-making process (alongside two distinct fingers raised to Stewart Regan and Peter Lawwell vis-à-vis SFA rules) it must be pretty much a certainty that a share issue cements Ashley’s place as de facto Rangers owner. Consequently, it’s just a matter of to what scale – both in time and money – Ashley wants to stay in that position.

For example, does he see this as a long term advancement of his interests: i.e. taking Rangers back into the Scottish Premiership and European football to aid with the continental exposure of Sports Direct? Or perhaps this is a short-term measure to secure his contractual interests, consolidate various share-holdings and sell at an inflated price to people like Dave King, Brian Kennedy or others who remain keen to buy the club. There are other funding solutions of course – say a long term renaming deal of the stadium or a sale and leaseback of key assets. However, these would be unpopular or unlikely to raise substantial funds so a share issue appears unavoidable.

Meanwhile, what of his ownership of Newcastle? In recent years, Ashley himself has banned newspapers from making various claims about the club and has said that it won’t be sold before the summer of 2016. To that end, commentators in the north east of England remain unsure about exactly why he’s so keen on associating himself strongly with Rangers. Indeed, one or two suspect other factors are in play with regard to this but are reluctant to expand when pressed. I’ll let the reader speculate!

All guessing aside, despite the already glaring media spin on Ashley’s behalf, Rangers supporters are no further forward in having the club’s future clarified. He could be the good guy or just another villain but we have no way of knowing. In any event, Ashley has made his move and it seems no-one – not King, not Kennedy and not even the Rangers board – can stop his plans. Will the shareholders be able (or even want) to at the AGM? Will Ashley attend said meeting? What effect will planned protests have upon his investment? Will 15,000+ disenfranchised Rangers fans return to Ibrox as the Ashley era begins? Will this be aided by moonbeams or genuine change implemented by his men on another ‘new’ board at the club?

For all the positives that Ashley may well bring to the club, it could be argued Rangers fans want transparency more than anything. We want to be shown (and take part in) a clear future but despite the strong October winds in Glasgow, the fog on the Clyde remains in the south side of the city and continues to tumble its way around the Bill Struth Stand on Edmiston Drive. Unfortunately, there’s no immediate sign of it dissipating and as long as the club contributes to the uncertainty, concerned and frustrated fans will stay away. With that in mind, a probable attendance of just 10,000 at Ibrox tonight for a quarter final in the League Cup is a far cry from an excited, capacity crowd in the Champions League. Rangers fans should never stop asking questions until these nights return and the likes of Mike Ashley should do the honourable thing and answer them. If not, he’s just another ‘crooked coffin-maker undertaking to be our friend’.