PART THREE (B) – The Insiders – The Men Who Destroyed Rangers
David Murray (Continued)
In the first instalment of Part 3 we left David Murray grinding his molars in sullen rage, his face blistered with furious indignation over the fact that his ruinously purchased collection of stars had ended the season without any silverware. Celtic had bested Rangers for the league title for the first time in ten years, and Hearts had added insult to injury by roasting them in the Scottish Cup final. That the catastrophe for Murray was caused as much by errors of judgment at Rangers as much as anything else simply poured heaps of salt into the wounds torn across his traumatised vanity. And it was definitely suffering major trauma. Murray had after all had enjoyed a decade of expensively achieved success, and was now hopelessly addicted to the adulation of the Rangers support, and more importantly the seemingly limitless sycophantic worship from the mainstream media. He wasn’t about to give it all up now.
It did not seem like it in the summer of 1998 as Celtic imploded into factional infighting following the huffy departure of manager Wim Jansen in a huge cloud of talcum powder, but a series of events were in progress that would ultimately lead to the demise of Rangers. The first of those events was of course Celtic winning the league, but that in itself while damaging to the collective supremacist ego of the Ibrox club wasn’t a crippling body blow. The real damage was about to be inflicted by a source far closer to home, and that was of course David Murray and the decisions he took in the wake of that league defeat.
The first decision was to replace the departing Walter Smith (off to help ruin Everton financially too) with the glowering, “something of the night” presence of the diminutive Dick Advocaat previously of PSV Eindhoven, and before that FC Transylvania.
Murray’s sanctioning of that first season spent of £37m can only be put in perspective when its realised that in Britain only Manchester United were spending as much and that was in the flesh pots of the English Premier League. The sums were just about astronomical enough to match Murray’s astronomical egotism, and in the wake of the spending sensation he crowed to his favourite media sycophant, James Traynor: “No one should doubt that Rangers are the biggest club in the country, but I know that talk is cheap in this business and that we will have to prove just how big we are. That doesn’t really bother me because as long as I am able to influence this club we will be the biggest and we will be the best.” Touching on the subject of that vast spend Murray continued: “I don’t [lose sleep over spending £37m] because I consider spending as much as £5m on someone like Andrei Kanchelskis as a necessity. If a club like ours doesn’t do that then we fall by the wayside.”
Yet even in that infamous Succulent Lamb interview, with Murray at his braggart best as he hastily rebuild the myth of invincibility using recycled IOUs, the first cracks were appearing. At the end of the interview Traynor, like a reluctant parent having to broach the subject of sexual education with their attentive offspring, hesitantly touched upon the rumours concerning ENIC’s opposition to Advocaat’s spending spree: “He [Murray] knows roughly how much it will cost him and he’s heard the rumours that ENIC, who have invested £40m in Rangers, are uneasy at the club’s spending policies but Murray claims these backers have always been supportive of his methods.” So supportive that 6 months later Howard Stanton resigned from the Rangers board and ENIC announced their intention to sell their 20.2% stake – only to find no one wanted to buy it. Earlier in the year the concerned Bank of Scotland had taken a 7% stake in Rangers and “secured a charge over the club’s income and assets should it default on its repayments”. The storm clouds were gathering.
Publicly Murray remained as bombastic as ever, announcing in 2000 his intention to spread the club like some virulent plague to every continent on the planet, along with another apocalyptic Cunning Plans that sent the MSM into raptures. Yet it can be seen now as desperate attempt to both distract attention away from Rangers descent into fantasy finances, and in some cases to explore any avenue for revenue generation no matter how tenuous its acquaintance with reality. Murray appears to have believed that by spending on the level of a top major league club, Rangers would naturally assume all the trappings of a top major league club but that of course never happened. In the glamorous world of top European football, Rangers remained a decidedly unglamorous afterthought; the drunken Del Boy trying to blag his way into the high rollers’ table with borrowed cash. Murray’s vision of Rangers place in the football hierarchy simply wasn’t shared by anyone outside his circle of toadies, lickspittles and sycophants.
In January 1999 for example Rangers chief executive, Bob Brannan, “stepped down” after 11 months in the job to spend more time with himself. “I took the decision more than a month ago that I did not want to follow a long-term career in football,” wailed Brannan as his fingers were pried from the Ibrox main door. Brannan had been brought in to realise Rangers off pitch potential but it simply never happened, and it didn’t happen due to the fact that there wasn’t much to speak of. The final straw was Brannan’s failure to secure a major money shirt sponsor. His “stepping down” was marked by Murray announcing that he would do it all himself “I will assume responsibility for day to day operations at the club. There will be no further statement on this issue.” Except the following week then “We’ll get a worthwhile shirt sponsor deal next week when I get back to Scotland and will make a statement then.” Statement there came none.
Two months later Murray’s humiliation was complete when it was announced that only by forming a joint deal with Celtic, could he manage to secure that elusive “worthwhile shirt sponsor” in the form of US cable TV company NTL. Despite transfer spending on the same level as Manchester United that season, Rangers had nothing like the same commercial pulling power and consequently had not even a slim hope of balancing the books. For example the EPL club could turn down a £7.5m a year shirt sponsorship offer from Emirates Airlines in 2000, Rangers couldn’t even attract a deal worth a fraction of that amount without Celtic’s involvement. Yet the failure of the mainstream media to do their job and to ask any serious questions of Murray meant that Rangers finances were allowed to deteriorate away from the glare of publicity. As the BBC later reported “He [Murray] held sway over a largely unquestioning support, and a Scottish media which reported his pronouncements with the minimum of scrutiny.”
Yet the bells were tolling, with Martin O’Neill’s arrival at Celtic, the push was about to be delivered that would send Rangers over the financial precipice. When the team that Advocaat had assembled at such an enormous cost disintegrated at the first real domestic challenge from Celtic, another Murray decision hastened catastrophe. Viewing Celtic’s stunning success, Murray acted in the only way he knew and despite debts approaching £50m, rushed out and bought Tore Andre Flo for £12m.
Dick Advocaat’s largesse in the transfer market over three seasons now topped an astonishing £80m. The Bank of Scotland was reported to be incandescent with rage, with executives chartering a fishing boat to Norway where they relieved their frustration by clubbing baby seals. Meanwhile a despairing ENIC gave up trying to find a buyer for their share of the club and sold it for a loss of £31.5m to Murray increasing his holding to 66%. The failure of ENIC to find anyone stupid enough to buy their stake confirmed that Hugh Adam was indeed correct; the source of bailout cash from hapless dupes had dried up.It was around this time that a desperate Murray heard about Employee Benefit Trusts and thought this would be an answer to the club’s increasing inability to afford lucrative player wages. Over the next 9-10 years Rangers would avoid paying an estimated £59m in taxes, securing league titles with the tightest of winning margins thanks to players they would otherwise have not been able to afford. Rangers players weren’t the only ones to gorge themselves in the EBT Candy Store, alternatively known as the Murray Group Remuneration Trust. The MGRT doled out largesse to managers and executives as well, Alex McLeish adding £1.7m to his account for example and Dick Advocaat having to scrape by with a more modest £1.5m. Not very surprisingly the main single beneficiary was David Murray himself who trousered a handy £6m tax free. The EBT scheme would shortly become an albatross around the neck of Rangers, securing the attention of HMRC, leaving the club unsellable to any legitimate party and in the end saddling Rangers with such potential financial penalties as to practically guarantee their demise. Feel free to cry with laughter at this point.
In 2002 Rangers posted an incredible £35m loss and a debt of £52m. With cost cutting insisted upon by HBOS, a sulking Murray stepped down as chairman to be replaced by John McClelland complete with strings and a hopeless desire of one day becoming a real boy. Murray didn’t disappear into the sunset though, more sort of disappeared temporarily behind the curtains complete with involuntary twitching. As he stepped into the newly created vanity-pandering role of honorary chairman, he grudgingly admitted “We got it wrong”. Continuing with the majestic plural abuse he elaborated: “We obviously spent far too much money. We can’t let it happen again because that would be total mismanagement.” Some might consider guiding a club to £35m losses and debts approaching £60m qualifies for the label of “total mismanagement”, but clearly it wasn’t as Minty Moobeams didn’t think it was.
The drastic measures to try and slow down the financial collapse didn’t help, not even scooping all the high earners into a plastic bag and throwing them in a canal or slashing the transfer budget to a level that hadn’t been seen at Ibrox in more than a decade . Nothing worked, it was too late. By 2003 debt was at £68m following another huge loss, this time close to £30m. In the following year it was only thanks to scooping in over £10m through a player car boot sale that Rangers managed to keep the loss down to £5m with debt now at an eye-watering £73.9m. Rangers’ financial meltdown had reached such a level that even the frantic upward valuation of Ibrox to a point where it must have been covered in gold plate could not cover the impending insolvency, another quick fix was urgently required.
Murray returned to the chairman role on 1 September 2004 and immediately issued the now famous proclamation of impending moonbeams. He had been planning his comeback for months he revealed, and would soon present a stunning plan to revive Rangers financial fortunes. “Given the increased commitment being made to the club by the Murray Group – £8.7million to acquire ENIC’s shares together with £50million for the rights issue – I feel it is my responsibility to take up the reins at Rangers once more,” he simpered while continually stroking a terrified white cat. He failed to mention of course that Murray Group had to buy ENIC’s shares as no one else wanted them, but why bother with trivialities?
After Murray’s announcement the country waited with baited breath and after a week-long festival of gratuitous media hysteria the Great Man appeared before a selected group of whisky-soaked media sycophants to reveal his Masterplan. It amounted to buying some magic beans, planting them in a handy pot and hoping a huge beanstalk erupted from the earth whereupon a gold egg laying goose would immediately sign for Rangers. OK it didn’t, but the claim that Rangers would trade their way out of trouble was nearly as plausible, and not exactly the stunning blueprint for instant revival that had been touted prior to the event.
Given Rangers debts and reduced income streams, the belief that Rangers could trade themselves out of trouble was utter fantasy, and but it was another Minty Moonbeam that went unchallenged once again in the mainstream media. Fair enough though as no one really believed it anyway; simply another Emperor’s invisible clothes moment without the handy presence of a loud-mouthed runt. The real reason for Murray’s return wasn’t anything to do with actually resolving the fiscal meltdown, as that wasn’t possible, but just another quick fix; a share issue underwritten by a company controlled by Murray, Murray MHL Ltd. The idea was simple; buy some breathing space by transferring Rangers debt to Murray MHL Ltd while hoping supporters took up as much of the offer as possible.
In the event the share issue was a flop, with only £1m raised from the suckers, Murray MHL Ltd was forced to cough up £50m. Despite this Murray, now with a 91.8% stake in the club, was typically bullish in the face of adversity: “The success of the fundraising was guaranteed by MHL underwriting the issue, but the investment by over 4,500 subscribers demonstrates strong support for this initiative. Collectively we have created a firm financial footing for the future of our club.” (guffaw) The firm financial footing turned out to be quicksand as no sooner had the share sale wiped out £51m in debt, than Murray was arranging a huge loan facility with the Bank of Scotland: “Eyebrows were raised when it emerged in the rights issue prospectus that Rangers had lined up £37m of borrowing facilities from Bank of Scotland, even as it detailed plans to pay down debt”. The simple truth was that Rangers outgoings could not be sustained necessitating the kind of drastic fiscal austerity that was anathema to Murray’s management style or the toleration level of the Rangers support.
The quick fix was barely complete when debts inevitably started mounting, Murray knew it was time have it away on his toes and let someone else take the rap for the inevitable collapse. “I’m coming up for 20 years, and I think that will be enough for anybody,” he told the Financial Times in July 2006 as he hastily packed a suitcase. “We’ve had a couple of people speak to us tentatively, but I would only sell the club if it was somebody who could take it to a higher level.” Who these “couple of people” were never materialised as Murray and was still desperately trying to find a buyer when the Fates again intervened to deal him a hefty boot to the gonads. Rangers were by this time a plummeting airliner whose captain has just managed to gain control by ejecting all the dead weight in first class, only to find that the wings have fallen off.
The collapse of the financial sector in 2008 saw the club’s friendly bankers HBOS taken over by less friendly Lloyds TSB to form the Lloyds Banking Group which was 40% owned by the Government following the financial sector bailout. With Lloyds owing the tax payer £billions and with bankers staring at their (temporarily) disappearing bonuses, the call went out to recover all owed money as quickly and as mercilessly as possible. Murray’s business empire by this time owed Lloyds a piffling £700m and it had been in trouble for a considerable number of years as Alf Young of The Herald reported back in the early 90s.
As Young recalled later: “When the news came through that he (Murray) was buying Rangers, I was as astonished as everyone else. Some three years on, with the early 1990s recession beginning to bite, my editor called me into his office. ‘I’ve heard there are serious problems with David Murray’s property interests. Could you check it out?’ he suggested. I talked to my contacts and checked out the relevant company accounts. It rapidly became clear there were problems. They were big ones. And this was happening at the same time when a recently-acquired Rangers’ overdraft had tripled in the space of a year. All in all, my editor’s whispers had substance.”
Murray reacted to Young’s Herald revelations by attempting to get him fired, but by 2008 the problems were too glaring for any cloak and dagger assassinations. Lloyds wanted their money back, and didn’t particularly care how this was done as long as it was done. In 2009 Donald Muir joined the Rangers board to oversee Operation Clawback, his mission to get Lloyds their filthy lucre so the bank could pretend that it had never heard of Rangers thereby recovering something of its battered reputation. Lloyds imposed severe spending restrictions on the club much to Walter Smith’s chagrin, with The Cardie moaning to the press that he wasn’t allowed to plunge Rangers further into unmanageable debt. Rangers supporters rose up to demand their club’s demise was hastened by yet more unaffordable spending, Murray didn’t say much at all as he had once again been invited to step down as chairman, and this time he wouldn’t be stepping back.
“I have said many times that being the chairman of Rangers is not something anyone should do forever and I have personal and business interests outside the club I would like to pursue,” Murray told the BBC as he stared glumly at the business section of The Beano. “As things stand, I remain the majority shareholder at the club and will always have the best interests of Rangers at heart – but it is time to pass on the chairman’s baton.” After a brief pause where he made sure that everyone listening had a straight face he then added: “The club has the governance and management in place, both in footballing and business terms, to deliver further success in the future and Rangers can go forward with confidence.” Forward as in the manner of the Titanic approaching an iceberg.
With Lloyds calling the shots, Murray once again ensconced behind the curtains (securely tied this time), Smith sulking and the Rangers support being, well, the Rangers support, Ibrox was not a happy place, and it was about to get much worse. In March 2010 Andrew Ellis and his company, optimistically named RFC Holdings, announced to the Stock Exchange that they were interested in taking over Rangers. Any hope that Murray and Lloyds entertained of a quick grab of Ellis’ reported £33m were dashed when a month later the Employees Benefit Trust ticking bomb finally exploded. As The Guardian reported on 27 April 2010: “Rangers are the latest club to be targeted by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs regarding offshore payments made to players. The newly crowned Scottish Premier League champions issued a statement this afternoon which confirmed they are subject to an investigation and facing court action although they vigorously reject any suggestion of wrongdoing.”
“There is an ongoing query raised by HMRC, which is part of a pending court case,” said Rangers in a statement. “On the basis of expert tax advice provided to Rangers, the club is robustly defending the matters raised.” The Guardian continued: “The timing could hardly be much worse for Rangers with their future uncertain. David Murray appears no closer to selling his majority 92% stake in the club, which means the Lloyds Banking Group retain a firm grip on their financial affairs. Rangers’ debt is understood to have dropped only marginally since it was last formally reported at £31m.” A month later with the Ellis “bid” dragging on the situation deteriorated further. “Rangers Football Club could be saddled with a debt of up to £80 million after being hit with a colossal tax bill,” Chortled The Scotsman on 16 May. “The Glasgow club has reportedly been handed a £24m ‘assessment’ by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) after an investigation into offshore payments made to players during the past decade. The club fears the fine, combined with interest of £12m and possible additional penalties, could reach up to £54m. Combined with its existing debt of about £30m – which it is under pressure from Lloyds Banking Group to repay – this could leave Rangers owing almost £80m.”
HMRC had investigated Rangers use of the EBT scheme and found it to be “a sham designed to avoid due PAYE & NIC”, Rangers duly appealed but the toxic cloud now hanging over the club left it unsellable to any legitimate party. Not long after Ellis’ take over foundered leaving the only other possible player was David King, a person facing 322 criminal charges “including tax evasion, money laundering and racketeering”. Just the sort of person that would appeal to the Rangers support, and even today he’s hugely popular with the Ibrox Loyal. Not so popular with anyone with money though, and having limited funds of his own no bid from King appeared. Murray’s quick fix mentality had effectively rendered Rangers such a financial basket case that unless a Roman Abramovich figure materialised then the club was doomed.
Panic now reigned in Ibrox, with the marble staircase cordoned off in case anyone decided to end it all by throwing themselves down its lethal, but atheistically pleasing, steps. “We’re already struggling to pay £30m we owe the bank. Another £50m could tip us in to the abyss of administration,” screamed one “insider” from a high ledge overlooking Edmiston Drive. “We’ve been hit with a £24m ‘assessment’ from the taxman. The implications are horrifying. The interest could be £12m and there may also be a penalty element of between £12m and £18m. This is a desperate situation.” In June 2010 Murray took the club off the market and scuppered Donald Muir’s necromantic attempts to keep the croaking Ellis bid alive. “We believe the outcome of our recent positive discussions with the bank gives us a real platform for operational stability at the club and we thank Lloyds for their support. We have a clear business plan in place and will continue to maximise efficiencies and endeavour to increase our non-playing income,” Explained a MIH statement to incredulous observers. “The board of directors of MIH therefore considers that the interests of stakeholders are presently best served by providing the football management team and board of directors with an opportunity to implement its business plan which is supported by Lloyds Banking Group.”
Incredibly some still didn’t get it. “It’s already been said that Walter Smith will be given money to spend on new players. Is that still going to happen?” squeaked John McMillan, secretary of the Rangers Supporters Association. “Has Sir David Murray the time and the money to get Rangers moving forward again? And has he had a sudden second wind? If he does then that would be a good thing for Rangers but he needs to come out and tell the supporters exactly what’s going on because we are all in the dark.” McMillan never seems to have figured out that he was in the dark simply due to the fact that he’d placed a black bag over his own head. Rangers were now facing a huge tax bill, were under tremendous pressure to repay Lloyds the money owed and could not find any acceptable way to reduce their debt. If that wasn’t bad enough the EBT ploy that enabled the employment of otherwise unaffordable players now been thwarted. It was into this “desperate” situation that Craig Whyte appeared.
In November 2010 Keith Jackson at the Daily Record reported that Whyte’s bid to buy Rangers was in an “advanced” state, not bad for a company that a few months before had been taken off the market as a business plan of astounding magnitude had been agreed with the bank. Jackson like all others journalists in Scotland ignored Whyte’s dubious reputation and instead repeated without question the fable from Whyte’s PR team that he was a “billionaire” whose “wealth is off the radar”.
At the E-tims though we were less impressed “And what about that shady spiv [Whyte]? Well Private Eye No 1286 also reveals that Rangers saviour is also a man with a pretty murky present… No doubt Rangers supporters will find this out sooner rather than later, we already know it.
”So came the final act of the drama for Murray. On 6 May 2011 Murray sold MIH’s 85.3% stake in Rangers to Whyte’s company, Wavetower Limited for the princely sum of £1. He did so under intense pressure from Lloyds, who were rather keen to get their £18m debt repaid, but the sale faced considerable opposition within Ibrox. Despite internal dissent mounting and with the knowledge that Whyte’s reputation was only slightly better than Lucrezia Borgia’s Murray pushed the deal through. Murray would later claim that he was “duped” by Whyte, but this is contradicted by Ibrox insiders and a report by the SFA’s Judicial Panel Disciplinary which was released on 11 May 2012. So concerned were some at Ibrox that Rangers’ Independent Board Committee commissioned a private eye to examine Whyte’s shady business dealings. As the Daily Record reported: “The private investigators hired by the Rangers’ Independent Board Committee found Whyte was involved with numerous companies which were soon wound up owing thousands of pounds in unpaid taxes. And they could find no evidence of Whyte’s supposed personal wealth.” Well better late than never from Scotland’s most “popular” newspaper.
The dossier was seen by Chairman Alastair Johnson and also by chief executive Martin Bain who drew the short straw and had to present the findings to David Murray in March 2011 (while the others all ran to hide in cupboards and wardrobes). According to Bain, the meeting did not go well with Murray simply sitting in his overstuffed executive swivel chair with his fingers in his ears as he shouted “la la la la la fingers in ears not listening.” Bain eventually gave up and slunk out the door leaving Murray with a report that concluded “most of Whyte’s companies left a trail of debt, including unpaid taxes running to six-figure sums.” Despite the facts about Whyte being well known, Murray successfully pressured the IBC and the Rangers board to support the sale and confirmed to Johnson and other board members that Whyte indeed had the £30m bid cash at his disposal. “When Johnston and the board asked Whyte where he would find cash to repair parts of Ibrox and provide working capital, Whyte said cash had been lodged with his London solicitors Collyer Bristow and that proof of this had been shown to the Murray Group,” reported Keith McLeod in the Daily Record after the SFA report was released. “When the board sought confirmation from the Murray Group, they were told Collyer Bristow [Whyte’s lawyers] had provided proof of funds.”
Not only had David Murray mismanaged Rangers to financial disaster, he now had left the club in the hands of a man who the SFA would later declare to be unfit to hold a football post anywhere in the multiverse including Methil. “He got too immersed in the fans’ perception of himself – as well as his own ego and invincibility, probably,” revealed ex-chairman Alastair Johnson in May 2012. “In the last few years he lost his business discipline, then panicked when he saw Armageddon coming.” Johnson may believe that it was only the “last few years” where Murray’s decision making had proved questionable, but as we’ve seen the truth is that those “last few years” were an almost inevitable consequence of the decisions taken in the preceding years –especially following Celtic’s league win in 1998 and the subsequent appointment of Dick Advocaat.
Murray had presided over two decades of unsustainable spending and then plunged Rangers into disaster by failing to bow to reality. Faced with a choice of making unpopular decisions regarding spending or destructive short-termism in order to keep the bandwagon rolling for a little bit longer, Murray inevitably chose the latter. Egotism, brash arrogance and chronic delusion were both Murray’s and Rangers’ downfall in that they combined to prevent the kind of timely austerity measures that would have avoided financial meltdown. These failings even now rule the roost at the successor to Rangers, and prevent all those involved from accepting the reality of their own contribution to the disaster, the necessity for wrong doing to be adequately punished and the need to avoid making the same mistakes all over again.
David Murray left with Whyte’s £1 coin burning away in the depth of his coat pocket, whether he looked back as he departed, wiped a tear from his eye and said “Thank Christ I’m out of that” is something we’ll probably never know. But what we do know is that even now, with all that’s happened, with all the evidence now in the public domain, Murray refuses to accept the responsibility for Rangers demise. In March 2012 Murray made the now utterly discredited claim that he had been “duped” by Whyte: “I was primarily duped. My advisers were duped, the bank was duped, the shareholders were duped. We’ve all been duped.” The IBC’s private eye report confirms otherwise.
Without doubt Rangers would not have achieved the success they did in the 90s without Murray, equally it’s safe to say that they would not have terminally crashed and burned into a financial maelstrom of burning debt without the presence of David Murray either. To destroy a club of Rangers size is no easy feat, but while it takes a man who is wholly detached from reality to achieve such a goal, it also takes a lot of other people to allow him to do so. In the next instalment of this series we’ll take a look at those supporting actors in the great drama. Men such as Craig Whyte, Walter Smith, Dick Advocaat, Alastair Johnson to name but a few. Men who can accept the plaudits from the audience, the acclaim of the critics and luxuriate safe in the knowledge that history will record their contribution to the Fall of the Evil Empire.