Kicking off a Scottish spring?
Even those who have little interest in football have probably found themselves occasionally touched by morbid fascination about the dramatic fall from grace (or at least glory and power) of Rangers Football Club -- an iconic part of Glasgow's and Scotland's social history -- and the huge public reaction it has created.
Some have even spoken of a 'Scottish spring', a popular revolt against one of the pillars of corporate orthodoxy: in this case, the distorted, top-down way in which the national game has been organised and funded. (There is another, toxic, side to this fan uprising which also needs to be understood and accounted for. I will be writing about that later.)
For those who haven't been following the saga, Rangers, a big (if fading) name in world football, entered administration in February 2012 as a result of debts and failure to pay tax to HM Revenue and Customs. There were also serious charges of malfeasance, leading to police investigations and possible further court cases.
On 14 June the club was forced into liquidation following the rejection of a proposed Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA), and its assets, including Ibrox Stadium and Murray Park, were bought by a consortium led by businessman Charles Green for around £5.5 million.
The Newco was refused entry into the Scottish Premier League (SPL) and last week the Scottish Football League (the SFL, the governing body for the next three professional tiers of the game in Scotland) admitted it to play at the lowest level, the Third Division. Even formal registration with the Scottish Football Association (SFA) is not proving straightfoward.
The spectacular collapse of an apparently invincible football giant produced massive supporter revolt against proposals for treating Rangers in a preferential or different way because of their juggernaut status. The Newco carrying their legacy hoped to start life again in one of the top two divisions. The people said a loud 'no'.
Rangers' demotion will certainly pose a massive financial challenge to the game as a whole. That is not due the decisions taken by the SPL and the SFL alone, but because it has highlighted in the starkest terms possible the fatal nature of the game's deadly, long-term dependence on just two hugely wealthy teams (Celtic being the other) and upon a raft of commercial deals mortgaged on what is known as the 'Old Firm'. Meanwhile, ordinary people have drifted away from a game in which meaningful competition and sporting integrity has been lost or marginalised.
Earlier this week a new campaign and policy organisation called FansFirst Scotland was launched. I am one of its founders. The aim is to try to grasp the flower of genuine reform that lurks amid this bed of nettles, and to help channel the anger of ordinary supporters and communities into pressure for lasting change to the way the game is structured and financed, putting public benefit above corporate self interest.
Several papers, including the Scotsman and the Metro in Scotland published our founding letter, setting out an alternative agenda for a game that continues to play a huge role in Scottish public, civic and cultural life. We wrote:
The decision by Scottish Football League clubs that Newco Rangers should start life in the Third Division was described by CEO David Longmuir as being about “sporting fairness”.
Yet a key driver for many proposals considered in the lead up to this decision has been commercial interest. Money cannot be ignored, obviously. Livelihoods are at stake. But it is only fundamental reform that can bring back the supporters who are the game’s lifeblood.
The signatories to this letter include two authors of a realistic plan for radically overhauling Scottish football. This document, originally published through Supporters Direct Scotland, is now known as the FansFirst Plan. It is based on the results of two huge online surveys of 8,000 supporters in 2010 and in 2011.
Our philosophy is that football should be organized to create competition between clubs, distributing resources so as to develop the game as a real spectator sport.
Scottish football should not be a procession in which one of two clubs wins every year. Only renewal at all levels can arrest the disastrous decline in attendance we have suffered in recent years. That in turn can drive an economic model that benefits all, rather than undermining the foundations of the game.
The FansFirst Plan offers both specific reform proposals and a philosophy in tune with the wishes of the most important single group of financial contributors to Scottish football, the supporters.
The reform proposals that came late onto the table in the Newco saga, many of them drawing on the FansFirst Plan’s approach, must not be abandoned but deepened and extended. The SFA, SPL and SFL now have to go back to the drawing board by listening properly to those who are the lifeblood of the game.
But that will only happen if the voices of supporters, heard so loudly over the Newco, can be focused on changing Scottish football for good. To that end, over the next few weeks, we will be launching a new network, FansFirst Scotland, and a ‘Claim of Right’ for our national sport.
ALAN S HARRIS
Joint founders of FansFirst Scotland
(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia, a cofounder of FansFirst Scotland, and a member of the board of the Sonstrust - the provident society at Dumbarton FC.
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