Making marginal gains

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The concept of marginal gains was made fashionable by the Sky cycling team and much of their recent success has been attributed to it. It had its roots in a revolution in British cycling about 20 years ago with a view to winning Olympic medals on the track. The theory was simple, to look at an event and break it down into every possible element that could influence the outcome, then improve them. Many of the improvements may seem insignificant, or arduous, but sum them together and by the end of the exercise you have a measurable and hopefully insurmountable advantage.

The principle is nothing new as refinement and ingenuity form part of everything in the world around you. The difference was the systematic thoroughness of it. Cycling was a very conservative sport at that time and was relatively ripe pickings for that type of programme.

It would be hard to argue that others haven’t been making marginal gains in the environment around Rangers FC in recent years. Whether by design and planning or by fortunate opportunism is inconsequential once that gain has been realised. New tactics been have adopted which Rangers have yet to counter and perhaps many that haven’t even fully recognised.

One notable gain from last season appears to be the decision to cut the Celtic allocation at Ibrox. The previous agreement had been in place for as long as most can remember and from a time when both clubs would benefit from the arrangement (and were on talking terms). This was from a time when any negatives were outweighed by the positives and perhaps when Rangers were strong enough that any disadvantages were negligible or surmountable. Over the years, positions, people and attitudes changed and it had been formed into something else. As PR and marketing become more and more cynical, especially in the Scottish media landscape, then so the imbalance in the arrangement came to mean something more. An entire Broomloan stand of Celtic fans had a greater prominence in its placement than its return counterpart - closer to the pitch and better positioned to affect the acoustics of the stadium, it was tangible to the support, it would be tangible to the players. Furthermore, it was used as a media tool to focus and highlight that support and the feeling was this was never reciprocated - and couldn’t be even if they’d wanted to due to the positioning of the away support at Celtic Park. On top of which, the behaviour of the Celtic support (and team) had started to make it a bone of contention amongst fans for several years. Perhaps it was because the Rangers teams were limited in ability and results not as good as demanded, but then with that lower level (and even longer odds) the need to seek out any advantage multiplies.

The reaction to the news of the allocation cut told its own story. Many in our press were upset and, with hindsight, it seems they knew a good thing was coming to an end. Rangers were accused of all sorts but ultimately the position of looking after our own best interests was paramount and justified. The sample size is small but two home wins against them this season suggests it may have been a quantifiable factor, it certainly hasn’t hurt. Perhaps through unsettling Celtic and perhaps through inspiring and re-invigorating Rangers, either way, a gain appears to have been realised. For minimum cost and effort.

A rather obvious fact about Team GBs innovations, or any step change in sport, is that they don’t stay secret for long. First the technology is imagined, then tried and tested, then practised and trained, and finally at the competition it’s revealed to the world. You gain advantage in the arms race, but only until your opponent’s figure out what has happened and then develop their own tools or an effective counter. At that moment of revelation, it’s too late for competitors to react but if they want to compete next time around then they had better start learning – to not do that is to knowingly hand your opponent the same advantage.

And this is where an obligation comes back to the club and the stakeholders. If we know an opponent is deriving an advantage through a tactic then its negligent to fail to recognise that or allow it to continue without attempting to neutralise it or adopt it yourself.

This week has seen several items of direct interest to Rangers. The SFA announcing Rod Petrie, Hibs chairman, as the new president of the SFA, with Alloa chairmen Mike Mulraney, as the vice-president. Rangers supporters will be rightfully wary of these names from their performance and comments regarding us and our troubles in recent years.

Fast on the back of this, the SFA chief executive Ian Maxwell brought us news on an ongoing investigation into Rangers UEFA license from 2011. He also declared the existing disciplinary system to be fit for purpose. Both were somewhat left-field and antagonistic messages.

The new senior faces at the SFA join the likes of Neil Doncaster, Murdoch MacLennan and Peter Lawwell (2018/2019) at the SPFL. Rangers have previously voiced concerns over MacLennan’s suitability for that position and have questioned conflicts of interest on both him and his ongoing business roles.

What is stark is the lack of any Rangers influence in any of the governing bodies and things have been that way for a while now. For Scotland’s biggest and most successful club to be under-represented in this manner is unacceptable and, although easier said than done, it is something the club has to attempt to resolve at some point. As a club and support we need to ask questions of ourselves too - why are we as a group failing to get people to fill these roles and how do we get more politically astute and motivated, generally? If we’re not represented, then we’re not having our best interests serviced. Somebody else is. And that is somebody else’s gain.

Of a more clear and present danger is Maxwell’s defence of the Compliance Officer. The performance and statistics from the Clare Whyte led system last season are questionable to say the least. Both through the selecting, censoring and punishment of our players and through the system’s myopia with respect to Celtic players and incidents.

As a team on the pitch Steven Gerrard’s players had enough ill-discipline, mistakes and missed opportunities to not lay blame on the compliance system this season. But underneath that, there exists the suspicion that it did have an influence at times through the campaign. Those being times when we stumbled and struggled and ultimately lost ground and dropped out of the title challenge.

My hope was the Compliance Officer charade would be scraped going into 2019/2020 and if it had then I’d see this as a marginal gain for Rangers. It’s a system of universal ridicule (amongst fans of many clubs) and it adds nothing to the game - it certainly doesn’t add the few things it’s supposed deliver i.e. transparency, justice and fairness. The fact it could be adversely affecting the outcome of a title challenge would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious. If it continues in the same vein as last season then Rangers really need to nip it in the bud, before season-changing damage is done.

At this point it’s worth considering what Rangers FC actually is – at the most basic, season to season, it’s a business which exists to win football competitions. That annual £50m turnover (and all the surrounding fuss) is ultimately pointed towards winning the league (and cups) that year, that season. Alongside that longer-term, ongoing work like marketing, infrastructure, growth, reputation etc, all play their part towards that season's goals. Now, if that challenge is being undermined in anyway by a third party off the pitch, by attempted damage or interference, then it’s in the stakeholder’s interests to correct the situation. They then need to treat it like they would someone walking out the front door with that year’s revenue. From chairman to investors, to shareholders, to the paying fans, we are all stakeholders in this and we should all be asking questions and ensuring the playing field is level and not slanted against us.

Which leads to BBC Scotland. It’s quite a shocking allegation to even suggest that employees of the BBC are in cahoots with the compliance system or a favoured team to undermine a title challenge and/or undermine a football team. But that’s where we are. Part of Sportscene’s strategy last year was the targeting of our key players: to make Morelos a marked man – that much was clear from match day one, to attempt to spoil his reputation, to edit and present matches in such a way to prompt the compliance system to charge him over trivial incidents, right through to devaluing him as an asset. Michael Stewart, Tom English and others fixated on Morelos – and frequently tied themselves in knots to do so. Opposing views should be welcome, where verifiable and as part of a balanced discussion, but when that balance never self corrects then they really should stop themselves.

How strange does it sound that we have pundits and staff, repeatedly given a platform on the BBC, who are either wilfully or have been instructed to attempt to damage a football club on the pitch and financially? And for what, pettiness over an ongoing dispute with the club? For their own amusement or benefit? Tribal allegiances (if their editing segments are anything to go by)? Mr Stewart's political wishes? Or for someone else’s benefit? That doesn’t quite sound right – so here’s some excerpts from the BBCs own code on the subject.

  • Don’t do anything that looks or feels like bribery or corruption – even if technically it isn’t.
  • Everyone who works for, or with us, will know we have zero tolerance for bribery and corruption.
  • Proper checks before starting any relationships with people outside the BBC (even if we’re not paying them) will be carried out.
  • The BBC will keep checking to make sure our non-BBC partners live up to our own standard.

It all sounds very dramatic and serious but at its most basic, to the season of a football club, it is. Interference on some level is corruption. Interference on someone else’s behalf, be it from hospitality or prawn sandwiches or postal votes, is corruption. If the BBC cannot provide Rangers with a level playing field, then perhaps Rangers should insist on it through the BBC's own code of conduct.

As things stand we are losing out across the board due to the behaviour of the BBC so there’s nothing more to lose on that front - of course, they could behave even worse and issue more retractions and apologies but then London would surely have to get involved (or maybe not). The levelling of the playing field, reinstatement of a fair editorial policy, neutralisation of trial by Sportscene, would all seem like welcome big gains compared to the current situation. We’ll never recoup the years of mistreatment from the BBC but that would be a start, as a minimum.

An argument is that Rangers should ignore the sensationalists and detractors, be pro-active and fill the void in the Scottish press with their own stories. And without personally knowing the level of effort expended by Rangers on this it does appear on the surface that more could and should be done. But then the club are confronted by a level of mischief and pettiness that makes the environment in Scotland all but impossible. Logic then follows why not look outside Scotland? We have a bigger and friendlier press across the border so why not use what’s available to us? Get the fans to buy in and make it a commercially attractive option. More than that, once links are established, use the system to play the game –give some back for a change and have rivals spend their time and energy fighting fires, the kind that have been set under us for decades.

One of our biggest attributes is the size of our support, a huge diverse collection of people with one shared love. We need to be better at using this to our advantage. This is perhaps where I’d be expecting more from the bigger fan groups and investors. It’s surely not enough to simply accrue shares? There has to be more - something more pro-active and more affirmative – flexing our collective muscle. There has to a studied view of the bigger picture and a realisation of the environment. Do we know our own strengths and weaknesses? Do we know our rivals strengths and weaknesses?

These represent just a few examples where our overall fitness and efficiency can be improved, and where lost ground can be won back. Even if you don’t buy into any grand conspiracy then these simply represent areas where we can and need to improve. There are dozens more; every reflex quickened, every breath drawn that bit deeper, every profile swept to cut through the air that bit swifter. Admittedly, it’s easier said than done but in a race that is getting very close, every gain matters.

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