Valentine’s Day. A day traditionally set aside to celebrate romance since the 14th century. In modern terms, it’s basically an excuse for card, flower and confectionery companies to fleece the gullible but if people spend a few pounds and some extra time for the sake of their better half, perhaps we shouldn’t complain too much. I know my life wouldn’t be worth living if I didn’t…
Unfortunately, whatever fun was taken from the day for me dissipated five years ago when Rangers officially entered administration on this date in 2012. I won’t go into the detail again here but the actions of all those involved are still being played out in court. Whoever was to blame and for whatever reason, the club’s name has been tarnished forever. And the effects are still being felt now with the burden of litigation continuing to strangle the club financially. Suffice to say whatever enjoyment we get from sending a few roses is quickly dulled when the annual reminder of the oldco’s demise is juxtaposed with our current, very obvious struggles.
In that sense, when Dave King and his associates managed to wrestle control of the club from the previous regime almost two years ago, things did look brighter. Although he and Paul Murray were part of an oldco board that can hardly be remembered overly fondly, no-one could doubt their Rangers supporting background. Via a ‘landslide’ victory at a 2015 EGM, substantial investment was promised, infrastructure improvements affirmed and a future where the club could again compete for success outlined.
Since then, it’s difficult to be too critical of King and his board. Substantial investment has been made and whilst not every penny of that is immediately obvious via the product on the pitch, work on the stadium and behind the scenes won’t have come cheaply. It can also be said the board have tried to instil an improved footballing ideology throughout the club. Mark Warburton and Davie Weir duly arrived in the summer of 2015 and set about a sea change in the way we approached the game. An attacking, exciting brand of football was promised (and largely delivered) after many years of more pragmatic tactics under Walter Smith and Ally McCoist. It’s fair to say at the start of this season, fans were confident that although we remained well behind Celtic in a financial, logistical sense, we could get close to them on the pitch – especially after our Scottish Cup semi-final win of 2015/16.
Unfortunately, recent events have proven that boldness wrong. Despite that Cup win and a canter to the Championship title, our form for the latter part of last season was inconsistent at best. This culminated in a failure to secure the Scottish Cup against Hibs and a loss of European football which could have accelerated our progress. With that in mind the manager sought to improve his squad and although a huge amount wasn’t spent, various experienced players were brought in with the associated risks obvious – though perhaps understandable given the budget. To be fair to Mark Warburton and his much-lauded Head of Recruitment, Frank McParland there weren’t a huge amount of complaints at the time.
Regrettably our early season confidence was soon shown to be misplaced. A series of inconsistent results and performances showed our issues from the previous campaign remained. Worse, the marquee acquisitions of Joey Barton, Niko Kranjcar and Jordan Rossiter had all failed – perhaps due to bad luck but the gamble on Barton’s personality and the injury-proneness of the other two midfielders had nonetheless backfired. Meanwhile, the manager’s two most expensive signings of Joe Garner and Michael O’Halloran were clearly struggling to fit into the team’s style of play. Was that a fault of the scouting or the manager’s own stubbornness in his preferred 4-3-3 system? No matter, the better part of £2.5million seems to have been frittered away.
Even so by the time the Scottish Premiership closed down for its winter holidays, we were in second place and despite another defeat at home to Celtic in the Hogmanay fixture, wins against Hearts and Aberdeen showed this team were capable of delivering European football at the first time of asking upon our return to the top division. Nevertheless doubts remained about the quality of the side and the manager’s own ability was increasingly called into question – no more so after an appalling humiliation away to Hearts for the second time this season. A third draw of the campaign with Ross County quickly followed and the ‘Comical Ali’ reaction of the manager didn’t inspire.
Media coverage and criticism started to heat up with obvious games being played by at least one party over the team’s performances and a lack of investment in the squad. This all came to a head last Friday night when an official statement was released to say the club had accepted the resignations of the management team. Embarrassingly Mark Warburton quickly denied this and with the badly written statement having been withdrawn from the website, confusion reigned. Suddenly we were back in the circus days of Charles Green and the shambles of last weekend ranks close to the more bizarre events of the last five or six years.
Since Friday various stories and rumours have been discussed in the wake of the Warburton debacle. In a general sense it appears the management team were looking to exit the club and the board took the opportunity to move them on in an inexpensive fashion. You can read both the confusing resignation announcement (now restored but still badly written and formatted) and a clarification from Dave King on the club’s website. I’ll concentrate on the latter now.
First of all, I think it’s important to say the board’s ultimate decision to accept the alleged resignations was undoubtedly the correct one. Warburton, Weir and McParland were all under-performing and, if suggestions they wanted to move both last week and previously are correct, then there was no point in keeping anyone who didn’t want to be at our club. However, the manner in which this has been done reflects badly on all concerned. I won’t waste time discussing the selfishness of the three names above but I sincerely hope the club and its lawyers have pursued this correctly. After the mess that was the Joey Barton signing and pay-off, further employment law issues is the last thing we need – especially if we want to attract a top quality replacement. Further, our PR operations are awful and this needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. Quite how the issue was allowed to fester so long is something the chairman also failed to address.
With regard to King’s statement there were a number of other matters worthy of discussion in it. Unfortunately, as much as the statement was welcome and certainly required, it’s perhaps not as satisfying as we’d hope.
King opens with last season being an ‘unqualified success’. Now, that much is true in that we achieved promotion and beat Celtic but those positives were indeed qualified. First, via our inconsistent form for the latter half of the season and secondly our inability to win perceived ‘bigger’ games. This was no more obvious than when Hibs beat us Hampden. With that in mind, some did have concerns about the manager and it was clear the squad was neither good (nor deep) enough. As such, when King goes on to talk about the squad only needing ‘five or six’ players in the eyes of his board, that seems a glaring under-estimate.
That, in turn, and along with the current squad’s under-performance this season, King’s estimate of only needing another five or six new players to challenge for the title and compete in Europe looks just as low. Indeed, out of a current first team squad of 24 (including loans in and out), it’s debatable how many any new manager would want to keep. In fact it could be argued that only the likes of Foderingham, Wallace and McKay are genuine assets and two of them may be sold in the summer. Yes, others such as Hill, Miller, Tavernier, Holt and Waghorn have played their part over the last 18 months but age, injury and inconsistency are not attractive virtues to a manager tasked with challenging an impressive Celtic team. Ultimately, this squad will need up to 12 new players in the summer – perhaps even more. With no manager, no recruitment head, no scouting system and minimal funds, this is a huge issue to address going forward. Quite simply, no mistakes can be made and serious money has to be provided.
King goes onto discuss said funding and suggests, somewhat disingenuously in my view, that £18million of his previously estimated £30million has already been invested. Now, if we count the effective purchase price to secure control, that figure is strictly correct but I doubt many fans would consider that £5m as part of the overall total. Of course, it’s difficult to be overly critical given the effort and financial risk taken by King and his associates. It’s also important to note that as much as fans would want every penny of the £30million to be on players; stadium improvements and other overheads don’t come cheaply whilst working capital is equally vital within the scope of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations. King’s statement infers up to £12m may be spent in the short-medium term to accelerate squad improvement but less than half that may go on actual transfer fees once we consider wages and the cost of bringing in a new management team.
Clearly recent events underline the importance of that latter point and the rest of King’s statement where he discusses what happened with Warburton reinforce that. Do we look for a new manager with assistant? Or should a Director of Football model be explored where a Head Coach is only part of a wider platform? In Scotland, Hearts are an obvious example of the latter and whilst doubts about Ian Cathro persist, the guiding hand of Craig Levein appears to bring a continuity that our club has lacked in recent years. Or would it be considered interference by any ambitious coach?
In any event change is coming and it remains to be seen just how remarkable that will be. An interim duo of Alex McLeish and Alex Rae may not inspire much confidence but their experience of such roles and the club itself may be an agreeable short term measure to secure second place – or third at the very worst. However, even if that does happen, there’s not much appetite for such names in the longer term. After all, when Dave King talks of ‘entrenching (Warburton’s) footballing philosophy’ names like Wright, Davies and McInnes just don’t cut it. Conversely can we really afford the de Boer’s of this world? Just how much innovation can we find with this new appointment and how do we square any associated risk?
Whatever the failures of the board over the last week and of the departing manager and his signings, once constant remains: you, me and the rest of the huge Rangers support. With somewhere in the region of 40,000 season tickets sold for this season, our influence on the club continues to be vital and King’s statement was an acknowledgement of that. Unfortunately, as much as it was welcome and, for the most part accurate, it didn’t deliver a clear vision for the immediate future. It’s difficult to doubt him and his board’s commitment but the failure of Warburton, his staff and his squad don’t inspire much confidence in their ability to find replacements. That may be harsh but we’re beyond niceties when we’re almost 30 points behind Celtic and being hammered 1-4 by Hearts.
Yet, valid criticisms or not, as it stands this board are all we have so back them we must. As well as continuing to buy season tickets, new share issues (possibly in two or three tranches) are inevitable as we approach a new decade. We will need to play our part in these so please consider Club 1872 again. Other investment routes are also available via Rangers Lotto for our development squads and hopefully retail will again become a positive financial focal point sooner rather than later - an update on that would be useful. Certainly when King spoke of a higher end £50m requirement in March 2014 (a full year before he assumed control), that’s the kind of figure we’ll need to mount a genuine challenge to Celtic.
In that sense, a managerial and playing squad reboot this summer will help define our ambition for the next three years to 2020 and beyond. Coming up short wasn’t good enough for Warburton so it shouldn’t be good enough for the board either. Ergo, their short term actions really will determine the long term so they must find investment to inspire fans and achieve success. And, as much we may want to look to and/or criticise others, we’ll have to open our wallets again to take responsibility for our club’s competitive future. In many ways we’re back to square one but we must pick ourselves up and start again. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.
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