Political football: protests and power plays at Rangers FC

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For several years at Rangers matches the excitement has seldom been on the pitch but more in the stands. Watching Ally McCoist’s expensively assembled squad go through the motions against their opponents in the nether reaches of Scottish football does not pack the spice, drama and intrigue of the power play which the wood panelled boardroom has witnessed since the summer of 2011.

The financial implosion at the club, the dubious nature of some of those involved and the sulphuric whiff of conspiracy that hangs around Rangers lends the whole saga an intricacy even John Le Carre would struggle to match.

In the winter of 2012 Rangers managed to raise over some £20 million in a floatation; by the summer of 2013 the club’s much loathed (now former) finance director Brian Stockbridge said the club would be down to its last million by April 2014. How a lower level Scottish football team, admittedly one with a tradition of high expectations, had managed to spend such vast sums of money boggled the collective mind.

One of the many dumbfounded was Craig Houston, a supporter of the club for many years. “I was concerned after the summer,” he tells me in a phone conversation. (The summer saw the club’s board lose members at a remarkable rate, with much mud slinging ensuing.) “The tipping point, personally, was that there was a Q&A session with the board, with those in attendance handpicked. I thought, as someone who has supported the club for many years, had a season ticket for thirty two, that my views should be taken into account. So I set up a Facebook group with a friend and we had leaflets printed to hand out at matches to see if people had the same concerns.”

The group, named the Sons of Struth as a nod to the club’s most defining influence and successful manager, quickly grew into something much bigger. Leaflet drops of 3,000 were followed by protests and marches outside the stadium, and then by interviews with the BBC, STV and Sky. Houston held meetings in London with some of the club’s institutional investors to attempt to convey the severity of the fans’ concerns at the current board’s incompetence. Houston tells me that it was at times surreal seeing himself leading what seemed to be a parallel life, with his work building up to the centrepiece of what was set to be a cowboy westernstyle showdown at the club’s AGM. It was at this meeting that a group known as the requisitioners sought to remove the current board, now derided as “the spivs” among supporters.

“It was difficult as the campaign carried on. I’m self-employed, so as you can imagine organising leaflets, marches and other things put a great strain on that front. It was also stressful when supporters criticised what we were trying to do, but the criticism was outweighed by the support we received from the vast majority of Rangers fans, whether that was online or at the protests.”

While many fans may have been on the side of the group, the club’s board obviously were not and the PR machine went into overdrive. Houston recounts the odd tale of a mass march to the front door of Ibrox on a week of Scotland internationals, which was witnessed by five enthusiastic photographers only for it not to make the press.

One thing photographers could not ignore was the final home fixture before the AGM, where the group handed out red cards to all the spectators, resulting in quite the spectacle and a very visual display of the discontent aimed at the board. The AGM, however went the way of the board owing to block voting by powerful institutional investors.

Houston echoes the opinions of many, bemused that a board which has presided over the kind of financial self-immolation that proved the ruin of Rangers before has been allowed to stay on.

“I’m staggered that anyone can defend the board. The first year loss was projected to be £1 million in the share prospectus, yet the half-year results showed a loss of £7 million pounds. If you add in the very high bonuses the directors were paying themselves for the team’s successes on the park, and we have to remember it is in the fourth tier of Scottish football, the whole financial set up clearly is not working.”

At the AGM one of the board members, Sandy Easdale, a local bus company owner, promised supporters that he had investors lined up to provide funds to the club. The recently appointed CEO, Graham Wallace, the former COO of Manchester City, has commenced a review of the club’s spending and is considering cutting down the squad and pay cuts throughout the club.

Towards the end of our conversation, however, Houston says that despite the board’s apparent victory and these promises: “We as fans will be monitoring them closely”. One suspects that Scottish football’s greatest saga has a while to run yet.

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