In the summer of 1998, Rangers began to chase a dream. Season 1992/1993 apart, the club had been a relative failure in Europe since 1972’s zenith of winning the Cup Winner’s Cup, even during the 9IAR period which was so fruitful domestically. Indeed, Walter Smith, the custodian during this glorious period, remains irked to this day that, bar that one stunning run during the inaugural season of the Champions League, his time at Ibrox in the late 80s and 90s could not transfer its domestic dominance onto the European stage.
When 10IAR floundered and a clearout of personnel began, including ‘The Gaffer’, a new manager was signed from Dutch cracks PSV Eindhoven in the shape of former Netherlands coach Dick Advocaat and with him came a multitude of international footballers, players of the highest quality. The tenure of Advocaat saw the signatures of Ronald de Boer, Arthur Numan, Giovanni Van Bronckhorst, Claudio Reyna, Stefan Klos, Fernando Ricksen and many others, including, notably, Tore Andre Flo, who was captured from Chelsea for a Scottish record fee of £12M, a record which, unsurprisingly, remains to this day.
The problem with this period of opulence is fine living comes at a price. Not only were the transfer fees unheard of (in total Advocaat spent around £72M), but the wages being shelled out to appease the likes of de Boer were astronomical for Scottish standards. In order to make these deals feasible, Rangers invoked the use of Employee Benefit Trusts, which boil down to offshore bank accounts which avoid or delay tax.
So, Rangers were dining at the captain’s table – Sir David Murray, the chairman and majority shareholder chasing a dream of credibility in the Champions league; a dream few supporters objected to. We all saw these Dutch superstars arriving at Ibrox, just like we had enjoyed the English stars in the mid to late 80s, and we loved every second of it all. Every football fan wants to sign the best players their club can realistically obtain, and we were no different. Were we going to object when a brilliant player like Ronald de Boer shows up to sign on the dotted line? Of course not, we loved every second and none of us questioned where the money was coming from or how these deals were being sustained. Does this make administration our fault? Of course not, it is the exponential result of spending during a time when we demanded success off the back of failing to achieve 10IAR. But as fans we do have to look back and wonder why none of us had the economic foresight to see the spending was not sustainable.
Even under Walter Smith during his second spell spent around the £30M mark on players like Cuellar, Thomson, Whittaker, Bougherra, Naismith, Jelavic, Beasley, Cousin, Darcheville – and none of those were off the back of star players being sold. Our spending beyond the means available to us continued from Dick Advocaat right up till the capture of Croat Nikica Jelavic and beyond. Lloyds TSB banking group had seized control of the boardroom thanks to the debt we now had with them and the noose around our financial neck was tightening – yet even as recently as 2010 (£3.5M on Jelavic), as mentioned, we spent money we did not have.
Now we find ourselves in a dark pit. We are at the mercy of administrators appointed by ourselves, and while Craig Whyte is on record as saying we should be out of this embargo within a month and a half, that seems a very optimistic estimate. Key players are vulnerable to sale or release, indeed all players are. Assets are equally likely to be considered valuable enough for sale, and a 10 point deduction is enforced on the club due to this predicament. Jobs will be lost – and that is the worst part. The ‘average’ joe who works an honest day for the club is as vulnerable as anyone else, and unlike the star players who have a healthy bank account, the tea lady does not.
Truthfully, I still find it hard to blame anyone. I find it hard to solely point the finger at Murray because he chased a dream we all bought into. If there had been an outcry and objection, and he had still pursued his expensive cause, then yes, he really would be the only one to blame. But we all had a part to play in this. I find it hard to blame Whyte either because the tax bill loomed long before he took over. It is the reason we are in this oblivion.
Rangers are not over, the club still exists. But the example of Leeds Utd is exactly the comparable scenario of a club who chased a dream and ended up staring into an abyss. They recovered, but have been reborn as a smaller-scale outfit who remain outwith England’s top flight. Elland Road remains but does not command the giant crowds such as those who fit in when Rangers defeated the English champions on their own turf in 1992.
Both of these clubs have now suffered from financial meltdown from wanting too much, too quickly. Both were involved in the inaugural season of the CL. Both wanted to taste more, but were bitten by it instead.
The only hope is Rangers can come out of this pickle, and become reborn in a new healthy environment where money is managed better and tax bills and debt are a thing of the past.