It's been over ten years since I joined the Rangers Supporters Trust board. Although I was in my late twenties at the time, it's fair to say I was quite naive politically - both with respect to football and certainly in a wider social sense. In fact, I think the same could be said of the Trust itself at the time too. The first meeting I attended was in a board member's flat near Ibrox and although there were several impressive characters involved, it's fair to say none of us were experts and the organisation was still finding its feet. There's also no doubt to me that in the three years I did sit on the board, our eagerness and hard work was occasionally outflanked by the cunning of those we dealt with in the media, business and general society. Sir David Murray especially, took advantage of our inexperience and, as much as we had our victories at times, there was never any doubt about who held the power.
Even if we put aside the huge majority shareholding Murray held, it was immensely difficult to persuade fans that Murray wasn't the omnipotent and benign sugar-daddy many thought he was. Yes, he'd helped bring increased domestic success after the David Holmes and Graeme Souness led revolution of the mid 1980s but despite the nine-in-a-row years of domination over Scottish football, it was clear by the new millennium there was no real tactical strategy in place to extend our upper hand. European success never looked likely after 1992/93, Celtic were winning trophies again and our debt was increasing to worrying levels. In its early days the Trust may have highlighted this alongside deals to sell and lease back Ibrox Stadium but the wider Rangers support weren't for listening to these concerns. Benefit of hindsight or not, risky strategies with the stadium ownership and tax obligation gambles should have been more than enough for fans to take issue.
Unfortunately, it didn't seem to matter if fans were a member of the Trust, the Association or the club's own Assembly umbrella group; most were placated year on year with moonbeams about stadium development or the odd new multi-million pound signing. It also didn't matter that the so-called French Revolution under Paul Le Guen died after less than a season or that the owner's lack of imagination resulted in the return of Walter Smith - as long as we kept winning titles, everything would be all right in the end? Problems within the fan groups themselves diluted their message so by 2011 and the end of the Murray era, most fans still had enough faith in his judgement to believe Craig Whyte would pick up the baton and maintain our position. In actual fact, the Motherwell businessman was as far from a credible owner as it gets and the club was in administration less than a year later. The eventual passing of club assets and goodwill to a new company remains mired in litigation and it's only four years on that the club seems poised to return to Scotland's top league with majority shareholders that have the same Rangers supporting background as you or I.
What of the fans though? Well since my days on the Trust board, the groups have splintered further. Not only do we have the RST, Association and Assembly but others have arisen through the intervening period. Rangers First and the Rangers Fan Board are perhaps the most well-known of these and that gives us five different constituted organisations as of this year - a situation which confuses and frustrates many fans. No wonder then that, after gaining a mandate from their membership, stake-holders of each group have met over the course of this season to try and find enough common ground to consider merging together into one consolidated body of supporters. This has resulted in a recent proposal to do exactly that and over the rest of March, members of these groups will be asked to vote on a members scheme called Club 1872. And, on the face of it, there's not much to disagree with in doing so - even if past efforts have failed in this regard.
First and foremost, having one organisation as a focal point for the club to deal with has to be a positive. Similarly, I know of friends and family - interested in buying shares due to the problems of recent years - are puzzled in not knowing what of the two current schemes to join. As such, having the one scheme and group to join can also only be a step forward. The same goes for ticketing issues and ensuring our voice is heard in the media (and by authority figures) when it comes to other relevant subjects. Celtic fans have shown how such lobbying can be done effectively and I can't be the only bear casting envious glances when they're having meetings with government committees. So far, so good then...
Regretfully it isn't quite as simple as has been presented and there have been several valid points made about the merger proposal. For example, despite the new group being independent of the club, issues of conflicts of interest have been made - both in terms of the personnel involved and finances. Can someone really sit on the Rangers board and that of Club 1872 to the benefit of both organisations? Similarly, surely the new group can't invest monies into the club without obtaining something tangible (such as equity) in return? Moreover, logistical concerns over life memberships and electoral procedures are issues well worth clarification. There are also doubts about just how unified this group will be. Past 'umbrella' efforts have failed so what makes this attempt so different? Finally, if you can't afford to join Club 1872 at a minimum fiver a month then, as it stands, there's no alternative if you want your voice heard by the club. This means season ticket holders may not be automatic members of the scheme which appears unfair given the source of funds such supporters provide.
In general, it may be somewhat harsh but there does appear to be an element of fait accompli in this proposal. Yes, discussions have been ongoing for up to a year and, yes, a huge majority of the individual group members involved voted for such debate but some continue to argue there's enough concern over the issues above to warrant taking a breath or two before moving to the next stage. Less than two weeks before publishing the proposal and the actual vote seems rather hasty given the time taken to get this far. Nevertheless, the second of two open meetings for fans to attend and ask questions is at 7pm tonight at the Ibrox Suite and I'd urge anyone interested in the subject to get along if they can. If you can't attend then I'm reliably informed a list of frequently asked questions with answers will be released alongside your opportunity to vote next week - be sure to read them carefully as it's vital everyone is well aware of what they're voting for.
As it stands it's difficult to know how successful any new group will be. I don't doubt the actual vote will be successful but there remains a lot of hurdles before the group itself will become a workable entity in its own right. Certainly in the ten years since I joined the Trust and opened my eyes to a wider aspect of supporting Rangers, a lot has happened. And, due to the actions of Murray, Whyte and Green the number of such politically engaged fans has increased tenfold to where we are now. That's encouraging but we need to take care not to allow the understandable cynicism and suspicion that has come to the fore in recent years to halt progress - either as a cohesive supporter movement or within the club itself.
In 2011, the former Rangers chairman Alistair Johnston told fans to remain vigilant when the club was sold to Craig Whyte. Otherwise impotent or not to that sale or Whyte's subsequent actions, Johnston's words must be heeded more than ever. We may now be in the hands of authentic Rangers supporting businessmen and progress has been positive since they took control last year but many battles loom large on the horizon - not least competing again for the SPFL Premiership title when we return as seems inevitable next season.
With that in mind it's vital we do so from a position of real strength. Despite criticism (some fair, some not) over our contribution to the club's recent tribulations, supporter loyalty cannot be questioned. Over 36000 season tickets were sold this campaign and thousands more are likely upon promotion over the coming weeks which shows just how important the fans are to the club. It can be argued Murray, Whyte and Green abused this loyalty for their personal benefit and we need to ensure it never happens again. Thus, do we have the maturity to work together? Do we have the humility to put aside personal grievances? Have we learned from past mistakes? We must also concede none of us are perfect and that must be remembered when we vote.
Ultimately, a strong Rangers needs a solid fan-base. It's to our credit that foundation hasn't been eroded throughout the last few years. Even better if it can be strengthened by working in honest tandem with the club. Doing this, whilst increasing our shareholding and unifying our voice, is the kind of genuine vigilance that will help ensure the nightmares of 2012 can stop haunting us all. Such a scheme may not be initially perfect but, by working together, we can improve it going forward and deliver the kind of influence our fans deserve. Let's take this opportunity to assume responsibility for our and Rangers' future. Unifying these groups can be the first step towards that. Please use your vote wisely.
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