When Rangers were liquidated in 2012 there were two nagging questions left unresolved that prompted endless arguments amongst football supporters. Were the Rangers club that kicked off in July 2012 a new club (as Dundee skipper Gary Harkins has suggested)? And should titles be stripped from Rangers because their use of Employee Benefit Trusts, which attracted the ire of HM Revenue & Customs, amounted to cheating?
The second question is a genuinely difficult and complex issue that requires consideration of tax law, Scottish FA regulations, and the rather vague notion of sporting integrity. I’m not going to touch on it here. It’s too big a topic for a short blog.
The first question, on the other hand, is deceptively simple. It can be answered easily and persuasively, without recourse to liquidation legislation or SFA regulations. It has appeared complex only because Rangers supporters are reluctant to concede any ground whatsoever, and their opponents are happy to pick up any stick with which they can whack the fallen giant.
In summary, the Rangers fans are right, but for the wrong reasons. The anti-Rangers faction are also right, but for reasons that don’t matter, or really should not matter to football fans. It might be more apt to say the Rangers’ enemies are wrong but for the right reasons.
The legal opinion on whether Rangers are a new club hangs on the question of whether the club and the limited company are distinct legal entities. The legal opinion is complex and irrelevant. No Rangers supporters would change their minds if a judge issued an awkward verdict. The Rangers support has been fighting the wrong battle in arguing that the limited company and the club are legally separate, and that the club can therefore survive the death of the company. That seems arguable as a point of law, and the opponents of Rangers have been revelling in their opportunity to pose as legal experts in order to wind up the establishment club. However, if you backed any true football supporter into a corner, they would acknowledge that a club is not defined by its articles of association as a company.
Limited companies are a lousy model for forming football clubs. They concentrate power in the hands of a few, who are barely accountable to the community they should represent. A football club can be bought and sold in absurd haste, with no adequate scrutiny of new owners. By their nature football clubs attract dreadful owners. Rangers are a classic example, stumbling into liquidation under Craig Whyte, then being resurrected by the dodgy Charles Green’s consortium. I doubt if any Rangers supporter believes that either Whyte or Green were fitting custodians of the club and its traditions.
What defines a club is the community it represents, its supporter base along with all the nebulous but vital memories, beliefs and myths that add up to tradition. They’re summed up beautifully by this anonymous writer.
The soul of a club is the product of its history, and the history of a club is a product of those who toil in its cause, with their hearts on their sleeve as well as the badge on their chest, who play with an awareness of where they are, and in whose footsteps they tread.
These words matter because we believe them, because we believe they matter far more than any legal document. They are used to great effect in this video, nakedly emotional and heart-tugging but deeply stirring for supporters of my football club.
It is this sense of continuity and tradition that validates Rangers as a continuing club, and this is what their support should be citing, not legal opinion.
The legal arguments are a smokescreen that have obscured the essential points. As far as I’m concerned Rangers are the same club, for better or worse, because I see the same community with a strong and continuing sense of identity and tradition, only part of which is that they’re playing at the same ground in the same colours.
The legal nit-picking has let the Scottish FA off the hook. Instead of trying to justify their actions, and justify the notion that company and club are currently legally separate, they should be admitting that their governance of the game has been badly flawed and that they had to try and achieve the right outcome by means that weren’t always strictly constitutional or legally rational. The SFA’s squirming to try and reconcile the law, their regulations and the reality of Rangers’ continuing existence has been cringeworthy.
Rangers have won their battle to be recognised as the same club, but there is still a widespread, sullen refusal to accept that, and an understandable belief that the SFA’s twisting and turning reflects a refusal to apply the regulations honestly. The wider battle for competent and responsible governance is nowhere near being won. Just one feature of that struggle is the need for an honest acceptance of what a football club truly means and an acknowledgement that forming clubs as limited companies has serious disadvantages; in particular limited companies are easy meat for chancers like Whyte and Green. Supporters deserve better.