The world game remains a forum where can you can squander millions of your personal fortune for the love of one club, and continue to be booed by its supporters when you return. There have never been any laws of logic governing the fundamentals of football. Sugar conveyed the message that he viewed his period as the controller of Tottenham Hotspur in the 1990s as a waste of his time.
“Football is about the only business in the world where it’s embarrassing to make money,” said Sugar. Football is not the only business in the world where it is embarrassing to lose your bread, but it can prove to be the most painful.
The dearth of funds affecting Glasgow Rangers, champions of Scotland over the past two seasons, would be embarrassing if it was not so serious.
As chairman of a club in the English Premier League, Sugar made money on his controlling interest in Spurs when he sold up a decade ago. He received £22 million for two thirds of a stake that he paid £8m for in 1991.
Sir David Murray, the owner of Rangers in the Scottish Premier League, put up around £6m for the Glasgow club three years earlier, but looks likely to be left with nothing more than a series of gilded and galling memories when he finally departs a scene he has been trying to escape with some urgency for several years. He will be left bereft of vast financial rewards for investing his emotional capital in Rangers. In trying to apply the Midas touch to the game of football, Murray has been left badly scalded.
There is a growing sense that the worst is yet to come for Rangers as the club is forced to face up to its fiscal responsibilities. Debt has gripped Rangers since the former Dutch coach, Dick Advocaat, was given carte blanche to blow over £80m on players over a decade ago in an attempt to furnish the Ibrox trophy room with the European Cup, a vision commensurate with such an extravagant commitment to excess. Pride comes before a fall. Common sense, if not finance, was in short supply when Rangers began spending money they evidently did not have.
The Glasgow side are again jousting with their eternal foes Celtic as they pursue a third successive Scottish Premier League gong this season in a championship that has not been won been by another club side since Sir Alex Ferguson ran Aberdeen in 1984. They do so against severe financial hardship. Having failed to find a buyer for Rangers over the past few years, Murray has been conspicuous by his absence in failing to inform the fans of what is going on. These are the same diehards who lavished praise upon the proprietor for helping them match Celtic’s record of nine successive domestic titles in 1997. It must be said, the supporters of Rangers deserve better than they are getting from a figure who once liked to cut himself as a figure of dignity in a rabid Scottish football scene prone to moments of madness.
Murray bought Rangers in 1988 before leading them to the fore of British, if not quite European football. To a neutral, Murray is a man to be admired, a brave figure who recovered from losing his legs in a horrific car crash in the 1970s. He is one of the country’s leading businessmen, a so-called pillar of society and leader of one of the country’s largest sporting institutions, but money never made a man. Before the advent of Sky Television and the English Premier League as we know it in 1992, Rangers were arguably the biggest and wealthiest football club in the United Kingdom. Funded by Murray, Rangers reversed the trend of talent departing Scotland for more lucrative shores.
Mark Hateley, Brian Laudrup, Paul Gascoigne and Giovanni van Bronckhorst are a selection of the names to have washed up at Ibrox during Murray’s stewardship, but all this has come at a price. It is a price they now seem unwilling, or unable, to pay. The owner’s treatment of Rangers since around 1998 has proved classless bordering on reckless. The sums involved are truly astonishing, and not just in unloading £12m to purchase the much-maligned Norwegian striker Tore Andre Flo from Chelsea a decade ago.
Net debt at Rangers reached £82m in the early part of the previous decade, but they have not yet got their house in order.
Murray remains owner in name only with the club’s bankers Lloyds TSB taking an active interest since the recession bit deep into his company Murray International Holdings three years ago. To cut a longish story shorter, Rangers are inextricably linked to Murray’s other assets. They have taken a hit, and Rangers have been dragged along for the ride. It is unclear where the final destination for the club will be in all of this. Run in the interests of Lloyds, who are attempting to claw back debts of £27m, it is interest on an unpaid tax bill that leaves Rangers sporting a jaundiced look. Prospective buyers Andrew Ellis and Craig Whyte have appeared to be Walter Mitty characters in failing to purchase the club, but it seems the figures do not add up for them.
If they are toying with the idea on whether investing in football makes sense, they need only study the man they are buying the club off to understand the pitfalls of such a foolhardy venture. Money spent without care on Scottish football tends to be money lost. It must be assumed that the real reason why Rangers have not yet found a buyer to purchase the club is that no prospective owner wants to be left with an estimated tax bill of £24m and interest of £12m, a figure touted by several commentators on the subject, once a hearing into the case is played out in May. If you read some of the literature swirling around this mismanagement, added penalties for failure to pay tax to HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) over wages paid into offshore accounts to the club’s employees in the past decade could apparently see the tax bill rise to over £50m by the end of next year. This is before the bank debt is totted up.
There remains a possibility that Rangers could be forced into administration when this reaches a crescendo. Rangers look unsellable unless some rich Sheikh in the Middle East decides he suddenly has a penchant for golf or the Scottish Highlands. There has even been talk about Glasgow City council coming in to to take over the running of Ibrox Stadium and leasing it back to Rangers. It is little wonder that Lloyds Bank are refusing to release sizeable funds for new faces if the tax man is about to take back what is his. None of this is good news for the general health of Scottish football. Rangers opted to sell top goalscorer Kenny Miller, a man who had discovered 22 goals in the SPL this season, to Turkish champions Bursaspor for £400,000 at the outset of the January transfer window rather than watch him walk away for free during the summer months. This was a decision taken by the bank.
If Rangers were in rude health, Miller would have signed a long-term contract last year. He walked away because the club is financially paralysed, unable to meet his demands.
They were apparently outbid this week by Celtic for the Derby playmaker Kris Commons, who was offered a modest £20,000 per week compared to the maximum of £15,000 Rangers could unearth. Who would have countenanced such a possibility when Murray vowed to put down a tenner for every fiver Celtic spent a few years ago? Rangers now toil to stick down a ha’penny without the permission of the bank. Of course, apart from the loss of face, these are trivial moments compared to the wider issues. It is ironic that for a club which wraps itself in the Union Jack and God Save the Queen, Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs could help Rangers plunge into a period of deeper despair.Murray must shoulder the blame. He used to court interest from a fawning Scottish press in the 1990s when money was no object. A few newspapers in the country were furnished with a bottle of Scotch from the Rangers owner back in the day, but he is nowhere to be seen when the going gets tough.
The constantly impressive Walter Smith has helped Murray by luxuriating in trinkets since he returned to manage Rangers in 2007 a decade after he oversaw nine-in-a-row, winning with the spine of a team purchased three years ago. An appearance in a UEFA Cup final and two SPL titles in three seasons suggest Smith is more an alchemist than a football manager, but he has been left exhausted by his inability to strengthen his squad. It would not surprise this onlooker to see Smith manage in the English Premier League or Championship next season if he so wishes.
At least Sir Alan Sugar got out of the cursed business with millions for his shares in an English Premier League concern. Not so Murray. His silence on the subject speaks volumes.
“There is a massive moonbeam of success coming to us. We’ve got big plans,” said Murray at the time he bestowed the job of manager upon Paul Le Guen in 2007. Such sentiments now sound like the utterances of a fantasist.
Rather than Sugar, perhaps history will remember Murray as a man who was more similar to Leeds United under Peter Ridsdale, a custodian of a club who believed his own press, a figure who spent money without preparing for an economic downturn that was just around the corner. ?As has been said in other quarters, such treatment of a great club like Rangers amounts to a form of financial vandalism. The fans will thank Murray for fuelling their rise to nine-in-a-row, but they are also discovering that the road to ruin lies in living outwith your means. Time may yet be a great healer for Rangers, but in poring over the effect of the Murray years at Ibrox, it has also been a great revealer.
His empire appears to have been built on shifting sands.