Like most football fans I can remember the first game I attended as a boy. It was an international European Championship qualifying match – Scotland v Luxembourg at Hampden in November 1986. The home team won 3-0 on a cold autumn evening and it was the first time I’d seen my boyhood heroes of Cooper and Dalglish in the flesh.
The poor quality of the opposition didn’t matter – neither did the competition, result or performance – as I was only nine years old. In fact the main memory I have from the game is an overly keen ball-boy picking up a stray pass before it crossed the touch-line, resulting in a drop-ball. Similarly, the strange plastic effect the floodlights had on a matt black sky was new to me, along with how tens of thousands of football fans seemingly joined together as one murky, homogeneous mass. The noise, the smells and the literal giants on the pitch will remain with me forever. It’s fair to say I was hooked.
As such, just two months later, my auld man took me to my first Rangers game for a birthday treat. This time it was a bright Saturday afternoon in January and the Light Blues beat Hamilton Accies 2-0 at Ibrox (little did the 43,000 fans present realise what was to happen two weeks later in the Scottish Cup). Up until then I’d perhaps been more of a nominal Liverpool ‘supporter’ given their prominence in European football (and that man Dalglish of course) but the Rangers leanings of my Dad and my Grandfather were starting to rub off. Now ten years old, I was officially a Rangers fan and as Hamilton knocked Graeme Souness’ all-stars out of the Cup later that month, the hurt of that defeat still stings to this day.
Indeed, it’s fascinating how one’s life can be ruled by what is supposedly just a game. Our club’s progress often takes precedence over our personal life challenges whilst our favourite players (new and old) seem as much a part of the family as our kin. Further, when these players pass away (Cooper and Jardine to name just two) it can affect us just as much as when it happens to those close to us – people we genuinely did know. Hence, it’s fair to say logic doesn’t always play a part in how we support this incredible sport. Just ask my suffering wife how I can find a score for a Challenge Cup Final ticket or a previously unknown Asian TV channel to watch an Old Firm game on our Maldivian honeymoon.
It’s with that truism in mind I found Hugh MacDonald’s piece in The National newspaper somewhat forced. In his essay MacDonald cautiously approached the issue of Rangers’ current status: as per the sensationalist front-pages of the period, did they die as a club after they entered administration in 2012 or, upon sober reflection, was it merely a new company with the club of old retained?
That polemic aside it’s actually not that difficult a question to answer. First of all, in a logical, legal and sporting sense there is no argument. Independent legal commissions clarify Rangers as the same club along with all footballing authorities. Similarly, if you examine various other clubs who’ve undergone company changes in Scottish football (and beyond) then it’s fair to say any suggestion Rangers’ history is not retained within the new company’s structure is mischief-making at best. MacDonald himself highlights such in his piece, reminding us that some Celtic supporters purchased advertising space to rant about their more successful rival’s position. Unfortunately, even the Advertising Standards Authority have rubber-stamped the club’s claim to such successes whilst any cursory look at UEFA or the SPFL’s webpages will continue to detail all the trophies Rangers won fairly and squarely on the park.
However, perhaps where MacDonald’s contribution does become more interesting is that of the emotional discussion. In this case, he’s quite right to highlight the annoyance of Scottish football fans surrounding what has happened at Rangers. The non-payment of tax under Craig Whyte, the avoidance of same during the Sir David Murray era and a perceived ‘arrogance’ by the club and its fans throughout such periods means many Scottish football observers buy into the ‘cheating’ claims made by some commentators in the media. Ultimately such frustration manifests itself in the new club (supposedly aided and abetted by the media and Establishment) argument. As much as I can understand such upset, these allegations also lack foundation. The complicated fraud litigation currently playing out in the Scottish courts and the obvious legal uncertainty around Rangers’ right to minimise their tax obligations simply doesn’t equate to a widespread conspiracy to maintain the Ibrox club’s dominance in Scotland. Of course the Murray Group played fast and loose with the way they paid their employees but the finances of the club during that period show there was no clear sporting advantage via any savings made. Meanwhile, the lack of clarity over Whyte’s fiscal custodianship (as well as the lack of action by the SFA and HMRC at the time) only show his apparent personal dishonesty – not that of Rangers per se.
In actual fact, if the same commentators weren’t so keen to demand the ‘contrition’ of Rangers fans, they’d have noted their identical upset by now. Speak to any reasonable bear and you’ll find the same annoyance, the same resentment and the same distress over our financial misdemeanours. Rangers, the club, may not have died but it came damned close to doing so and it’s easily forgotten that our fans, much more than anyone else, would have lost out if they did. Ergo, does the emotional argument really stand? Or is the new club debate just an excuse for some to try and steal our history rather than accept it alongside the failings of their own?
Moving on, Rangers’ impressive charity foundation has had a season-long partnership with Alzheimer Scotland with both organisations attempting to raise awareness and funds for the charity. This is of particular relevance to me as my Grandfather suffered from this awful illness before his death just over two years ago. He was a Rangers fan as well and often regaled and excited me with his memories of following the club. I’ve passed matching stories onto my two young daughters and, just as my eldest experienced her first Rangers game after her seventh birthday two years ago, my youngest will attend a game shortly after hers later this year. Accordingly if their Great-Grandfather was still alive they’d have a unique upper-hand over him. Not only will they (hopefully) see their club win the Challenge Cup for the first time, they’ll have watched Rangers play a competitive match within a lower division. Even if, like me at my first game, these contexts don’t matter to them.
Unfortunately, such innocence soon leaves us all and, like the rest of us, they’ll have their fair share of happiness and hurt if they choose to follow the game in the future. Hence, when MacDonald talks about identity, he can’t do so without talking of the bonds that football brings. Yes, external social issues may help determine what club we follow but in an ever-more secular Scotland where the political landscape has changed more of late than in 300 years, it’s the hereditary bond more than anything else that ties one generation of fans to the next.
Consequently, I’ll do what Hugh wouldn’t and declare the new club debate as a phoney war. Not because of the legal argument which, wrong or right, merely smacks of desperation but because the club’s existence is secured through ordinary people like my Grandfather and his family, along with hundreds of thousands like us. Rangers Football Club isn’t an iconic Scottish institution via its company numbers or shareholders or tax practices – or arguably even through its sporting successes and failures – but because it’s a tangible asset of the populace that has been passed on through generations for over 140 years. That’s what defines its place in history and, as the incredible loyalty of the last few years have shown us, its legacy won’t be dying any time soon. It's that unavoidable conclusion which hurts the new club contenders more than anything else. And that's something else Hugh MacDonald couldn't say.
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