A suitable epitaph for EBTs

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The cries of outrage that have greeted the SPFL announcement regarding legal powers over historical EBTs can’t have come as a surprise to anyone who has had even a passing interest in Scottish football in recent times.

Just a cursory reading of the document suggests the SPFL really did try to find any avenue open, whether through a preference to actually further penalise Rangers or simply to placate the more vocal elements of other club’s support we’ll probably never know. While some supporters clearly have a desire to keep this as a live issue recent comments from directors of other SPFL clubs suggest there is little enthusiasm to pursue this any further.

We might, finally, be reaching the end of this whole sorry saga.

As a Rangers fan, despite what some of the more hysterical elements of social media might claim, no one has been more affected by the EBT saga than my fellow supporters and me. Whatever enjoyment, or indeed ‘benefit’, the use of EBTs might or might not have assisted with has been more than balanced out by the utter turmoil their use created. I don’t know any Rangers fan who doesn’t wish they’d never heard of EBTs and that they’d never been used by anyone associated with our club.

History is important in Scottish football, looking back is a national past-time and we’re all guilty of it to a greater or lesser extent. So much of the narrative around Rangers and EBTs has been about explaining their use or demanding retrospective punishment for them. Yet in amongst this hurricane of challenge and counter challenge, allegation and rebuttal I’ve listened for the voice saying ‘how do we stop this happening again in the future’?

As such, I was especially interested in the second heading on the SPFL document “SPFL Supports Calls For Independent Review Into Scottish Football’s Actions And Processes”. I’m not naïve, I assume again this is largely about placating sub-sections of supporters, and possibly some club directors, who are angry Rangers can’t be punished again. What I’m hoping for though, is that someone, somewhere, might also look at putting in some measures so that this can’t ever happen to another football club in Scotland.

The clamour to ‘punish’ someone who gets into financial difficulties can, to an extent, be understood. While football clubs are run as businesses they do operate in a different sphere than most ‘normal’ businesses. I don’t need to explain how supporters rarely consider themselves ‘customers’, if you’re reading this you almost certainly already understand that. Had Rangers closed for good back then I wouldn’t have suddenly become a Partick Thistle fan and neither would my sons. I’d have been lost to Scottish football, and I dare say the vast majority of Rangers supporters would have been too. That’s not in anyone’s interests.

Thus, whilst I understand the logic to apply punishments as an incentive for clubs to avoid financial mismanagement I’m of the opinion that very few club directors are thinking along those lines when mismanagement is taking place. My experience is it’s either deliberate for some other nefarious reason, reckless when the perpetrator gambles and backs themselves to win, but then doesn’t, or it’s accidental and caused by unseen and unexpected events or simple mismanagement by people perhaps not qualified to hold the positions they do.

Ergo, when Hearts and Dunfermline and Livingston and of course Rangers were deducted points this was really about appeasing the other clubs in the league, and I can understand the basic logic in that. However, when are we going to start talking about how we prevent clubs getting into financial difficulties in the first place? When are fans going to start demanding that of the sport’s administrators? After all, at least one media publication claimed that the SFA knew of Rangers' (small) tax (case) difficulties under Craig Whyte yet did nothing. Why?

Further, why are there not demands for a salary cap in Scottish football? Where are the calls for a correlation between squad costs and turnover? Where is the backing for complete transparency over club debt? How much debt should any club be allowed to carry at any one time? Why is no one ensuring club directors pay bonds to the governing body to ensure all HMRC and other debtors are paid? Where is the goodwill that clubs must break even every year?

Now, I’m not demanding the introduction of communism into Scottish football but if we’re agreed that in many ways normal business rules don’t apply to our support of our football clubs then we can demand that normal business rules don’t apply to how it is run. Salary caps work in that last bastion of Marist thought, the NFL, after all.

OK, maybe salary caps or director bonds or full transparency wouldn’t have made any difference to what happened to Rangers. But anything that tempers recklessness must surely be considered. People did speak out about how Rangers were being run early in the second half of David Murray’s reign, but they were in the minority and indeed largely derided as ingrates. In the end I don’t really expect anyone to take any notice of this, I’m just a supporter after all, one small voice, powerless and impotent in the grand scheme of things. I doubt the current owners of Scottish football clubs will be very enthusiastic about bonds or salary caps and it’s unlikely to fill an evening’s phone-in so I’m not expecting a clamour from the media either.

Let me say this though, if it can happen to Rangers it can happen to your club. You might have a great board of directors just now; honest, prudent, well connected and with the club at their heart. But directors change, boards change and people change but your love for your club won’t.

Despite the clamour you can’t change the past. What’s done is done, no amount of reviews or retrospective punishment can change what’s already happened. It’s a waste of energy and time. If just some of that time and energy was directed into ensuring all clubs are properly managed and financially sound none of us might ever have to go through this again. That might not be the worst epitaph this sorry affair could have.

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