Why I Dislike Rangers

It’s not particularly academic to begin an article by referencing one’s general perception of internet messageboards, but that’s what I’m about to do.  If any Rangers fan spends any significant amount of time on the fan forums of other SPL sides, I would suspect that they would discover a world of ambivalence over the future of their side.

Cards on the table: I’m not a Rangers fan.  I’m two and a half decades into my term as a Hearts fan and, frankly, I don’t even really like Rangers.  It’s nothing personal; I don’t like any other SPL sides and I’m indifferent at best towards just about every other team in Scotland.  I’ve certainly never bought into this idea, often mooted by Celtic fans, that Hearts are in some way a “mini-Rangers” which is frankly insulting, even if a few moronic fans at Tynecastle have tried, at times, to emulate the worst elements of the Ibrox support.

I use the word “ambivalence” above, but the reality is that there are many football fans who would actively support the demise of Rangers.  The Naismith-Whittaker statements have seemingly been the source of great mirth on the part of non-Rangers supporters.  Of course, it’s very easy, particularly in the radical-for-the-sake-of-it online communities, to take an extreme position on something when you’re not actually involved in it.

What I’m going to try and put forward in this piece is what I think is the most significant reason for such feelings of ill-will towards Rangers.  You might disagree with what I say and of course these are only my views, but I would hope that this might at least provide some fuel for debate and discussion.

Firstly, I don’t buy into the “success breeds contempt” argument.  It’s true that any club in the world would cast envious eyes at the fifty-four championships in the Rangers trophy room.  At Tynecastle we’ve gone half a century since our last title win.  Even many Aberdeen fans will not remember their team’s success, the last non-Old Firm success, in 1985.

The truth of the matter is that Rangers and Celtic have always dominated the Scottish league: since 1900 only fifteen titles have even left Glasgow.  They play in the largest city and attract the most fans.  Basic economies of scale come into play, admittedly alongside the “Old Firm” argument, when it comes to discussions over their persistent successes on and off the pitch (with the obvious exception of the current situation at Ibrox).

We will also quickly discard the unlikeable fans argument.  I know plenty of Rangers fans, indeed I would even own up to actually liking a few of you.  There are plenty of Hearts fans, on the other hand, whom I wouldn’t even urinate on if they were on fire.  It’s a truism to say that every club has their problem fans.

I don’t think it’s anything to do with sectarianism either.  Personally, I find myself agreeing with Professor Steve Bruce’s arguments that the “sectarian” issue in Scotland actually has very little to do with religion whatsoever.  There are clearly many people, even (very disappointingly) academics who are trying to make a career for themselves by overstating the “problem” of sectarianism in Scotland.  The word “fenian” also features in fan songs, whether we like it or not, with monotonous regularity at Tynecastle.

In my view, the major factor behind rival supporters’ contempt for Rangers is a result of the perceived “thieving” of the best players from other clubs.  I use the provocative word “thieving” deliberately and will qualify it.

I don’t think it’s rational to argue that the Old Firm (and we’ll not forget all the players who have ended up at Celtic from other SPL sides) have really been stealing players from other SPL sides.  Football is, despite everything, a business and transfer fees were indeed paid for said players. 

It never made much sense to many Hearts fans and fans of other SPL teams that players would seek to further their careers by moving to a club in the same league.  Of course, the logic of being able to continue to play in a league competition where one is relatively comfortable whilst enjoying annual European competitions is easier to understand.  Then again, perhaps it was this attitude that ultimately undermined so many careers that went to Ibrox post-Tynecastle.

For the vast majority of my time as a Hearts fan, losing our best players to Rangers and Celtic was a part of life.  By and large, the best Hearts players didn’t tend to end up at Celtic Park.  Mike Galloway, Tosh McKinley and, much more recently, Steven Pressley and Paul Hartley have all made that move.  Of course, the latter two did so under rather more unusual circumstances than their predecessors.

For one reason or another, the best Hearts players who did leave Tynecastle after 1990 seemed to be drawn to Govan.  According to the Hearts encyclopedia that is the londonhearts.com website, the first player who made the move from Tynecastle to Ibrox during this period was Dave McPherson.  McPherson had made 205 appearances for Rangers up until the onset of the Souness era when he found himself surplus to requirements, but was bought back in 1992 after becoming a Scottish international.  Obviously the start of the Souness era coincided with the ban on English clubs in European competition and Rangers were able to construct a fine side, despite what many people may or may not know about how that team was constructed.

Indeed – quick digression – the type of players that Rangers brought in, even if they were in what many now view as controversial circumstances, significantly raised the standard and profile of Scottish football.  Would we have ever had the pleasure of watching Brian Laudrup or Paul Gascoigne otherwise?

The Hearts sides of the mid-late 1990s often saw their stars depart for Ibrox.  Alan McLaren and Neil McCann were probably the two players that moved with the most dignity in the eyes of Hearts fans.  McLaren would see his career stutter because of injury and ultimately only made seventy-eight appearances for Rangers in roughly five years.  McCann’s time at Rangers was ended by financial struggles back in 2003, but it was as a ‘ger that his career peaked.  Additionally, we received £1.25m plus McPherson for McLaren and £2m for McCann.

The eventual appearances of Paul Ritchie and Allan Johnston, on the other hand, fuelled conspiracy theories, even though, in Johnston’s case at least, his move to Ibrox took place a full four years after he had left Tynecastle on a Bosman transfer to Rennes.  Ritchie’s move was far more contentious, the defender spending a year at Bolton before a short time at Ibrox which ended when Dick Advocaat sold him to Manchester City.  The perception, clearly with envy at its core, grew that these guys were trying to engineer moves to Rangers.

Of course, it is also fair to say that Hearts also acquired many players from Rangers who achieved great success at Tynecastle. One of my all-time favourite Jambos is Antti Niemi.  This guy was a goalkeeper of such outstanding brilliance that Hearts fans could scarcely believe that he not only ended up at Hearts, but that he stayed for three seasons.  Niemi began his career at Rangers during the 1997-98 season as back-up to Andy Goram.  After Goram’s release in May 1998, as that great Rangers squad was broken up and reassembled by new manager Dick Advocaat, Niemi was unfortunate in that he quickly found himself competing with new signing Lionel Charbonnier for the No 1 shirt.  His Christmas present from Advocaat was the signing of German goalkeeper Stefan Klos.  The Daily Record, in May, reported that Klos was being paid as much as David Beckham during his stint at Ibrox, a fact which goes some way towards explaining why a guy on the fringes of the German squad would move to Scotland.  However it occurred, we ended up with Niemi and he ended up becoming arguably Hearts’ greatest modern goalkeeper.

The arrival of Vladimir Romanov at Tynecastle seemed to have put an end to players moving west along the M8 to Ibrox.  Romanov’s logic was sound; you can’t expect to compete in a domestic league if you sell your best players to your rivals.  The perception has been, among opposition fans, that Rangers and Celtic have adopted a deliberate policy of signing players from other Scottish sides in order to weaken them and consequently strengthen their own hold over Scottish football.  Hibs fans lament Derek Riordan’s 24 game stint at Celtic, Dundee fans could cite Gavin Rae’s 28 game Rangers career.  “They weren’t up to the job” I hear you say?  I think many would grant you that point, but the perception has formed among rival fans that moves to Rangers and Celtic have been to the detriment of (a) their club and (b) their former players’ careers.  Hence, and I realise this has been a rather lengthy qualification of the term, “thieving”.

When it comes to Hearts fans, I believe that the real antipathy towards Rangers can be partially explained by the Andy Webster and Lee Wallace situations.  The two are admittedly dramatically different.

A few days ago, Vladimir Romanov issued one of his famous statements which has undoubtedly gone down like the proverbial lead balloon with Rangers fans.  In it, he talks of “poaching [of players] via third parties”.  There is little doubt that he had Andy Webster in mind when he wrote this particular part of his statement.

While Webster clearly had his head turned by the prospect of moving to Rangers, the way his move went down left a very bitter taste in the mouths of Hearts fans, and clearly in the mind of Romanov.

Webster invoked a little-known FIFA rule (which had many Hearts fans thinking “is this an actual rule?”) to cancel his Hearts contract before a seemingly-staged period at Wigan (not helped by the Rangers-JJB merchandising exclusivity rights which was agreed at around the same time in mid-2006).  Hearts were aggrieved at losing out on what would likely have been a significant transfer fee for an international player, with compensation (due from Webster personally) dropping from £625,000 to a mere £150,000 after an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Of course I don’t need to tell any Rangers fans how disastrous Webster’s time at Ibrox was.

Far more relevant to the current situation at Rangers is the Lee Wallace transfer.  It surprised many that Romanov was prepared to let his star left-back leave for another SPL side but, after a classic game of transfer haggling, where Rangers’ offer was increased from a “derisory” £300,000 to an eventually agreed £1.5 million, he moved in July 2011.

Wallace commented that “I’m ambitious and I’ve come here to try to progress my career.”  Fair enough.  Clearly a small progression, but he would be on a slightly more prominent stage and enjoying regular competition at a European level, something that eludes Hearts despite the desires of supporters and successive managers.

As we all know, the now-infamous list of Rangers’ creditors features five SPL sides: Celtic, Dundee United, Dunfermline, Inverness, and Hearts.  For the most part, these debts are in the five-figure range.  All, that is, except the £800,000 that is owed to Hearts for the transfer of Lee Wallace.

This figure, according to a quick scan of said list, makes Hearts Rangers’ third biggest creditor after Ticketus and HMRC.  Fourth, if you include all debenture holders as a single unit. The fact remains, however, that the bulk of the transfer fee is outstanding and this creates problems for all Hearts fans.

In February, it was suggested that Hearts could lose out on the majority of or perhaps the entire balance of the money owed; which takes the form of £500k due this month and £300k in June 2013.  Reports emerged that Duff and Phelps would offer Hearts around 8-9% of the money and if this were rejected, they risked receiving nothing.

Hearts may be in a relatively financially stable position, or at least a superficially stable financial position, but there is simply no way that the club can afford to lose out on £800,000, particularly when the most simple solution for many of the online Jambo community would be a straightforward return of the player to Tynecastle, or else the enforced sale of the player to a third party, with Hearts recouping their money from the fee acquired.

I can say with certainty that it would be extremely galling for all Jambos if Wallace was to continue to feature for whatever Rangers side exists – and, admirably, he has pledged to stay - next season, or if his sale were to generate money for said Rangers side, and Hearts saw none of the outstanding £800,000.

Some Hearts fans are speculating that Wallace remaining at Ibrox is a sign that his sale to Wolves (it always seems to be Wolves) is imminent.  What sort of fee will Rangers be able to command for a guy who is still an international left back, capable of combining the wing-back/third centre-half duties that often befall a modern no.3, and how much, if any, will make its way to Ukio Bankas?

A PwC report suggested that Hearts’ turnover for the 2010-2011 season was £7.9 million.  Of course, the same report indicated that Hearts were the only SPL side to have a wages/turnover ratio of greater than 100%.  Hearts may have benefitted from a £7.9m forgiveness of debt by the club’s main shareholder (Romanov), but Romanov’s indifference to the club, which grew over the course of last season, has meant that the club can no longer operate as it has done over the past six years.  It is obvious that all Scottish sides need to scale back their expectations of what sort of wages they can pay their playing staff.  As this scaling back proceeds, a figure the size of that owed by Rangers to Hearts becomes ever more significant.

In his piece “We’re Still Here”, John DC Gow cited Middlesbrough owner, Steve Gibson: ‘my own view is if the SPL allow rangers to stay in the top flight nobody will notice any difference…’  Well, perhaps, from a playing perspective, he is right.  The reality, however, is that Hearts and Rangers’ other creditors will very much notice.  They will notice that a new organisation which is practically identical to that which owed them significant amounts of money seems to have been allowed to simply forget about moneys owed to them.

It has been argued by some that Scottish football needs a healthy Rangers.  That argument holds no water whatsoever if Rangers are forgiven their debts to other SPL sides.  Scottish football is not in a particularly healthy state and we need every club pulling together to improve all aspects of the game.

The Romanov statement and reactions to it are evidence that deep rifts exist between Scottish clubs.  There’s no reason for us to all be the best of friends on a footballing level, but there are serious flaws in the Scottish football system which can only be addressed with a combined top-down, bottom-up approach where the biggest and best clubs work together alongside grass-root development officers to bring together the footballing community in a manner which contributes to the national game in a positive manner.

One step at a time.

Andrew Sanders is a Research Fellow at University College Dublin. He is the author of ‘Inside the IRA: Dissident Republicans and the War for Legitimacy’ and co-author of ‘Times of Troubles: Britain’s War in Northern Ireland’. 

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