THE FALL OF THE EVIL EMPIRE : WALTER
In the previous sections of Part 3 we looked at the two dubious characters who held ownership of Rangers FC from 1988 to the club’s demise in 2012. Craig Whyte appeared but briefly during this period, right at the death like the scampish little vulture he is, while David Murray as we all know presided over all but the final year. Now considering that fact, any rational person would conclude that David Murray bore greater responsibility for Rangers grisly end, but when it comes to the Scottish mainstream media, the Rangers support, and certain ex-Ibrox employees, rationality doesn’t get a look in.
To be fair though, all three groups have a deep vested interest in revisionism as all three contributed in their own way to the insanity of the Murray years, and consequently to the Fall of the Evil Empire. It’s one of these groups we’ll look at next: the ex-Ibrox employees. These are the men who either (at best) stayed silent when Murray’s feral ego was on the loose, or more insidiously joined in the exuberant excesses with all the enthusiasm of a drunken, Viagra-swilling Caligula at an equestrian orgy.
So here we are then, the supporting cast for what is without doubt one of the greatest productions ever in the history of historical things. Without them the stars would never have been able to shine.
Etims Note – Dear Reader, We’ve broke this section up as its a lengthy read, first up, heres Watty-
The Good Old Days (just don’t mention Europe)
For some reason in the movies good guys always have sidekicks or buddies, and in the worst of them quirky robot/animal companions that you just want to take a hammer to after five minutes. Bad guys never do though, they are destined to traipse through the whole movie unloved and alone – which is a damned sight better than having a bloody robot tagging along making comical observations. Not in this movie though. In The Fall of The Evil Empire the main villain, David Murray, had a faithful sidekick during roughly half of his infamous reign, and that person was of course Walter “Teflon” Smith.
Aside from his full-time role as David Murray’s robot companion, Smith also held down the post of Supreme Untouchable with the Scottish mainstream media. So dedicated was Smith to this role that not even the ritual slaughter of Rangers in Europe, or his shocking abandonment of the national team mid contract, resulted in the kind of career-ending headlines that would have been inevitable for the less favoured. Even Smith’s disastrous stint at Everton where he skilfully managed them to abyssal plain detritus level failed to cause any kind of negative comment. And if you can’t remember Smith being at Everton for nearly three years of colossal failure, it’s no great surprise. Smith’s managerial saunter down south is one of those topics that have become taboo for the MSM.
Another subject that is off the MSM radar concerning Walter Smith is his contribution to the demise of Rangers. Smith’s presence at Ibrox during the years that are frequently referred to as a period of “unsustainable spending” is acknowledged, he’s given the credit for the triumphs after all, but what isn’t acknowledged is that a good deal of the “unsustainable spending” was spent by Walter Smith. It’s as if Smith glided through those years in a perpetual state of blissful astonishment over the fact that all these players just turned up out of the blue clamouring to play for the Mighty Gers. The bemused Smith simply welcomed them in and put the kettle on.
So what did Smith actually spend? Well from his appointment as manager in April 1991 to his tearful departure for the first time in June 1998, Smith splashed out nearly £59m with a net spend of around £33m (remember this is twenty years ago). During Smith’s last three seasons at Rangers from 1995 to 1998, the club was annually in the red in the transfer market to the tune of £9- 10m. During this period Rangers dominated domestically, but in Europe the annual bout of abject humiliation meant a huge blow to Rangers fiscal well-being. Simply put Rangers high spending could not be sustained by domestic income and required successful European participation to pay the bills. Successful European participation and though and Rangers were destined to remain strangers save for very brief flirtation.
The reason for the failed relationship was that Smith’s limitations as a manager were routinely exposed on the European stage in a manner that made their televised matches popcorn specials. In a dark era for Celtic, Rangers demonstrated a positively charitable spirit by cheering the rest of the country up for a few weeks. But if you thought the annual burning train wreck of Rangers Euro catastrophes would perhaps see a deluge of justified criticism descending on the beleaguered head of Walter Smith you would be mistaken, very mistaken. Such was the MSM dedication to Rangers that their ritual slaughter was blamed not on Smith, but on all the other SPL clubs. The rest of the SPL, we were told, were to blame for not providing Rangers with the standard of domestic competition that would enable them to avoid repeated cheek ripping European wedgies.
Oddly enough for the SPL-To-Blame theory, most of the clubs that put Rangers to the sword in Europe fell flat on their face in the next round suggesting that they too weren’t very good. For example in 1997 after IFK Goteborg thrashed Rangers out of the second qualifying round for the Champions League, the Swedish team finished bottom of Group E. The same thing happened to AEK Athens after exposing the SPL’s lack of help for the Mighty Gers in 1994. On that occasion the underpants were shredded in the first qualifying round, and prior to that the Banner of The Tattered Boxer Shorts was taken up by Levski Sofia who got no further than the second round when they met Werder Bremen.
Domestically Rangers under Smith were a dominant force mainly due to the club’s ability to outspend the opposition by a considerable degree, but also other factors were involved which gave Smith’s team a particular advantage. Simply put few managers in Scottish football have experienced the ‘inexplicably’ favourable attentions of match officials in the way that a Smith led Rangers enjoyed. Similarly the Farrygate scandal revealed the SFA’s less than even handed approach to the game, although the decision to present the potentially league deciding last game at Ibrox in season 97/98 to Rangers-supporting referee Bobby Tait as his retirement present spectacularly backfired.
Smith’s largesse from the Scottish football establishment didn’t end there. When Rangers signed the massively talented, but psychologically damaged, Paul Gascoigne in July 1995, football journalist Gerry McNee revealed on STV’s Scotsport that match officials had been instructed by the SFA to ‘protect’ the amiable lunatic and to go easy on his red mist transgressions. McNee’s revelations were greeted with incredulity and scorn, yet events were to prove that he had for once been totally accurate. We were all about to witness Gascoigne headbutting opponents (Aberdeen) and kicking prone players (Partick Thistle) all directly in front of referees without censure. In one season Gascoigne picked up 13 yellow cards without managing to turn one of these into a red; an SPL record. When referee John Rowbotham eventually sent the rampaging Gazza off for an early wallow in the mudpit during a midweek game against Celtic in November 1997, Walter Smith angrily denounced the quavering referee and accused him of having “an agenda”. A weeping Rowbotham was duly packed off by the SFA to experience the Siberian thrills of the lower leagues for a spell.
Despite the annual European humiliations, domestic success meant that Smith’s reputation in Scottish football during the 90s was riding high. That success was looking increasingly fragile however after a popular revolution at Celtic deposed the old Junta and ushered in a period of rapid modernisation. In season 93/94 Rangers ended their title winning campaign 15 points clear of second place Motherwell, with Celtic languishing in fourth place, but wearing a hopeful grin. The next season Celtic reduced the gap to 5 points and the same gap separated the two teams in season 96/97. In the summer of 1997 Celtic dispensed with the popular but tactically naïve manager Tommy Burns and replaced him with the gloweringly dour figure of eccentric Dutchman Win Jansen. Jansen’s first act was to shore up the feeble Celtic defence, less than affectionately known as The Sieve by supporters, and to end the same predictable charging cavalry tactic Celtic employed when facing.. well anyone.
Season 97/98 ended in a Celtic league triumph that brought a halt to Rangers title winning run and caused consternation through the fetid corridors of Ibrox. Smith, who had already announced his decision to leave Rangers in the summer of 1998, exited stage right without a trophy to ease his exit, leaving him noticeably downcast and even greyer of face than usual. Smith’s failure delivered a huge blow to the pampered ego of David Murray, causing the shy retiring recluse to rush out and deliver what would become the death blow to Rangers already damaged financial health. Not that Smith can be blamed for that, but it’s a plain fact that Smith’s first term as Rangers manager set the pattern for the club’s excessive spending and his routine abject failure in Europe heaped financial disaster upon financial calamity.
Back to the Future – The Return of Walter
Towards the end of 2006 Ibrox was gripped in the midst of a Winter of Discontent with players in open revolt, supporters even more revolting than usual, and with Rangers experiencing their worst start to the season since the happy days of John Grieg’s managerial incompetence. Manager Paul Le Guen had outraged Rangers players by insanely trying to force them to play attractive football, something alien to the Ibrox psyche, and worse, sought to end the dressing room dictatorship of certain veteran players. On 1 January 2007 he made his biggest mistake by taking on the darling of the nation’s spit and sawdust drinking hovels, team captain Barry Ferguson. Three days later Le Guen’s broken and bleeding body was pushed into the boot of a waiting taxi as Smith arrived to a fanfare of media and support exultation despite the rather shoddy way he had ditched the national team.
Rangers by this time were in deep financial trouble, but Smith still managed to demonstrate that there was life in club’s dedication to stupidity by spending £18m in his first full season in charge. Prior to that Smith had used his national team experience to build on the UEFA Cup run started by Le Guen, managing to push Rangers into the final by the effective tactic of stopping any football from being played. In the eight games played from the group stage to the final, no less than half ended in scoreless draws. In the following season thanks to that huge spend and Celtic’s complacency, Smith managed to return Rangers to domestic success. It must have seemed like the good old days were back again as along with domestic success, Smith brought European humiliation back to Ibrox. This time the shorts desecrators came in the form of Lithuanian club FBK Kaunas who knocked Rangers out of the Champions League second qualifying round. Keeping with that sense of déjà vu, Kaunas were thrashed in the third qualifying round by Danish club Aalborg BK.
Events though were occurring off the pitch that left Smith bewildered and irritated. The financial collapse of 2008 had hit David Murray hard, and had resulted in the takeover of Rangers’ rather accommodating banker, the Bank of Scotland, by Lloyds TSB in a £12.2bn move. If that wasn’t bad enough, the tax payer bailout of Lloyds meant that the men in grey suits were exceptionally keen to recover all money that was owed to them, and Rangers owed around £18m. Lloyds duly forced their man Donald Muir onto the Rangers board tasked with the recovery of that owed amount, and the bankers weren’t particularly fussed about how this was achieved. As the Herald reported later “Lloyds put a gun to the club’s head and insisted that he went on the board. Former chairman Alastair Johnston said the bank made it clear that it was a condition of Rangers’ credit facility that Muir had to be a director. “ The nerve!
Lloyd’s, through Muir, brought an end to the candy store spending that Smith had enjoyed in all his previous seasons with the club. Rangers were losing money and the books had to be balanced. Smith though appears to have believed that despite the dire financial position, the spending could go on as before and all the factors combining to ensure fiscal meltdown could be happily ignored. “I feel as though the whole situation is a bit unfair from the football side of things,” Smith said in an interview with The Telegraph in January 2011. “We do need a bit of help. You had the situation a couple of years ago when some boys put the banner up saying ‘We Deserve Better.’”
“It becomes a concern when you have to keep asking the same group of players to keep on delivering,” said Smith to a room full of sobbing hacks. “That’s when you need a wee bit of help. Unfortunately, we are not going to get that help. We can’t afford to bring in a loan player or anything like that. [cue violins] That’s the situation we’re in. It’s an unfortunate one for our club but the bank are dictating the policy overall. [picture of abandoned Albanian orphans is held up] That’s what we have to put up with. If we transferred a player we might not get all the money and we have been told that. [Smith cuddles a drowned kitten] If someone left it would give us the opportunity to bring someone in on a similar wage. But transfer-wise we’ve been told there’s no certainty we would get the money. [Line of gassed blinded WW1 Tommies file through the room] The wage would obviously allow us to bring someone in but if we don’t lose a player then we won’t be bringing anyone else in.” At this point, unable to see due to the floods of tears, the wailing pressmen rushed towards the kitten craddling Smith and engaged in a mass hugging session.
At no point does it occur to Smith to realise that only through a strict programme of financial austerity could Rangers hope to avoid financial Armageddon. Players could not be brought in on the same wages as Rangers could not afford the wages they were already paying out, especially considering the fact that HMRC had put an end to their EBT scam. No manager wants to experience such a downgrading, but Smith’s public sulking did little to sell the message of financial reality to a particularly idiotic support who believed that never ending success was their given right. Smith simply played the populist card, unless of course he genuinely failed to understand the seriousness of Rangers position, which is rather hard to credit since he was the team manager and could tie his own shoelaces without help – except when it was windy.
Smith left Rangers for the second and last time in May 2011, and marked his exit by once again calling for massive spending at a club facing a potentially terminal tax bill. “The new owner [Whyte] is aware that the club needs quite a large level of investment into the team,” Smith said. “He’s also aware that if they don’t get that they will not continue the success they’ve had. Unless there is a significant investment in the team then the team will stagnate. Historically if you look at Rangers over the last 20 odd years, every three of four years they have needed a fairly large investment in the team to boost them.” That periodical large investment had occurred rather more often than every three or four years, and had resulted directly in Rangers financial problems through both excessive spending and the folly of the misuse of EBTs to fund high wages. Smith though never seems to be able, or willing, to join all the dots where this is concerned.
Smith’s activities since Rangers demise have been even more peculiar. In March 2012 Smith went on record claiming that the club was debt free when Craig Whyte took over: “In May of last year all of that [debt] had disappeared. There was no debt; the club had managed to cut £16m off the overall debt, Craig Whyte gave the other £18m to the bank. The bank had received £34m in three and a bit years.” Rangers had no published accounts since 2010 when their finances were buoyed by Champions League participation (after having lost £12.7m the previous season), and in those accounts the debt figure is reported as £27.1m with bank debt lowered by just £3m despite a £16m increase in turonover. Moreover the £18m paid to Lloyds can’t be just counted as “no debt” as the debt was simply transferred to Ticketus and had to be paid back through loss of ticket revenue. It’s also interesting that Smith lauded the ability of the club to pay off debts while he was the main figure trying to make this impossible.
Smith has also done his bit for The Great Whitewash by attempting to pin the blame for all that occurred to Rangers on one man, the demonic budgie-gropper Craig Whyte. Smith’s criticism of David Murray has been limited to the sale of the club to Whyte, but with the caveat that Smith accepts the incredulous claim that Murray was “duped”. Aside from that no one did anything wrong at all at Ibrox. Even the SFA is more to blame as apparently the organisation failed to act on the information on Whyte that it didn’t know about – but David Murray did. Smith also appears to forget that when Whyte arrived at Ibrox he was heralded as the new messiah on the back of assurances provided by David Murray, assurances we now know were contradicted by the information presented to Murray by chief executive Martin Bain before the sale went through.
The claim that Rangers were on a sound financial footing prior to Whyte’s arrival is hard to swallow, as we can see from the accounts of season 2009-2010 that without a huge amount of European income Rangers were still losing money hand over fist. An examination of Rangers 2010 financial results [the last produced] reveal that turnover increased £16.6m nearly all (if not all) thanks to Champions League income yet the operating profit was only £5m. It is quite plain that to avoid heavy losses Rangers needed Champions League money, and a lot of it. Without that revenue stream Rangers’ wages accounted for 75% of turnover, way above the level deemed safe or affordable.
Administrators Duff & Phelps also confirmed that Rangers were losing over £1m each month despite having reduced the wage bill from £34m in 2008 to £28m two years later. That is not a club on a sound financial footing. And then we come to the EBT tribunal, something Smith appears to want to ignore in the same that polite dinner party guests ignore someone peeing in the soup. Given the fact that Rangers were likely to lose the liabilities would’ve sunk the club anyway. Years of tax dodging came home to roost in 2010, so administration and subsequently liquidation were practically inevitable. Quite why Smith appears to believe that Rangers could continue not only losing money but with such a disaster on the horizon is anyone’s guess.
During the incredible saga of Rangers administration and the search for a new owner, Smith confined himself to offering moral support to the IOU waving Blue Knights fronted by former Ibrox director Paul Murray. During this period Smith determinedly ignored the beseeching howls from the Ibrox loyal desperately looking for someone to do their thinking for them. Despite the clamour Smith doggedly remained in the background, refusing to commit to anything that would see him having to take centre stage at a time when the unthinkable was inevitable. Post liquidation it was a different story, with the dirty deed having been done by Charles Green and Duff & Phelps, Smith heroically erupted into action as head of a consortium offering some magic beans for the dead club’s assets (Green had paid £5.5m, the “Late Knight” consortium offered £6m).
The behaviour of Smith and the consortium of carpet-bagging tycoons did not go down well with Green and his weird assortment of allies (those that were known). As former Sheffield United chairman Mike McDonald snarled: “Where were Walter Smith and his team when David Murray and Craig Whyte were running the club into the ground [helping – Ed]? These guys sat there and let all this happen and now, all of a sudden, they are back saying they want to do this and that.” And McDonald was correct. The Rangers die-hard “tycoons” had not lifted a single digit to save the club when a decent enough offer could’ve avoided administration turning into immediate liquidation.
Having failed to commit their vast wealth when it was really needed, the Late Knights instead waited until someone else had plunged the dagger and then attempted to pick up the club assets on the cheap. Even some of the notoriously gullible Rangers support raised a mono eyebrow over Smith’s late show, and the less than armfuls of cash being put up by these media proclaimed relatives of Midas. Smith’s behaviour succeeded only in plunging Newco into fresh turmoil as supporter groups announced ticket boycotts to force Green to sell to the Late Knights. Boycotts that fizzled out in disappointment once the consortium’s bid was dropped after unspecified “verbal assurances” were delivered by Green.
Smith may not have played the same centre stage role in Rangers demise as David Murray or Craig Whyte, but a role he certainly played. His penchant for high spending together with an atrocious track record in Europe combined to lay the ground for Rangers financial collapse, and while it was Murray who allowed the spending to occur (or even insisted on it), it was Smith who failed to make good on the investment. Even at the death some things never changed with Smith demanding increased spending despite the gathering storm clouds. Even with the fate of the club hanging in the balance, with Lloyds demanding their money and an estimated £134m in potential liabilities due to Rangers EBT transgressions, Smith clearly thought that the club should be making a far bigger splash in the transfer market. With attitudes like that its no wonder Rangers ended up in such a mess.
Coming Soon : Wee Dick.