Most commentators have thus far rightly criticised the fans of Hibernian and Rangers for their post-match pitch invasions that witnessed opposing supporters fighting one another and jubilant Hibernian supporters provoking and allegedly assaulting dejected Rangers players. The scenes that unfolded at the 2016 Scottish Cup Final were embarrassing and concerning but were not, as some may imply, surprising. Celebratory pitch invasions are prohibited, but tacitly accepted when they are the culmination of memorable, historic or extraordinary sporting achievement. Given the sporting context of one of Scotland’s premier clubs winning its first Scottish Cup in 114 years, one needn’t be blessed with psychic powers to have foreseen the pitch invasion at least.
Whilst most sensible critiques of these events have acknowledged that Hibernian supporters initiated the post-match proceedings and had far greater numbers on the pitch, both sets of supporters entered the field of play and engaged each other in violence. Yet a central set of contextual contributory factors has been almost universally overlooked; not only were these events rather unsurprising, they were not simply the hangover of a century old Scottish Cup failure on the part of one of Scotland’s largest and most tortured groups of supporters. Nor were they the inevitable result of ‘sectarian’ behavior between two clubs with varying degrees of ethno-religious identities. A proper consideration of what happened at Scotland’s showpiece cup final needs to consider the path Scottish football has taken since the events of 2011 when Rangers imploded on its way to liquidation. Furthermore, one must understand how those events and their consequences have been portrayed and interpreted by different groups in Scotland, each with their own biases, agendas and interests to protect. For it is these events and their contrasting interpretations by competing interest groups that have bred the toxic conditions that made a Rangers versus Hibernian cup final the potentially extraordinary and combustible event that it became.
In the aftermath of 2011, which witnessed the debt-ridden and tax-dodging Rangers effectively being sold for £1 on the grounds that the debts also transferred to the new owner, Rangers supporters created a narrative that presented them as victims of unscrupulous businessmen looking to get rich quick on the backs of their cherished club and loyal support. There is truth in this assertion of course. Why, for instance would arch capitalist David Murray give Rangers away for £1 and why would someone buy it for £1 knowing the existing and potential debts they would be accruing? These and other questions have seldom been asked, never mind properly investigated, in the Scottish mainstream media. This information vacuum helped create the Rangers supporter narrative that extends to assert that financial asset stripping, tax-evasion and avoidance and general fiscal abuse by greedy ‘investors’ – rather than or including malpractices by a previous board – led to Rangers being unjustly placed into administration and liquidation. The power of this re-imagined narrative is that the Rangers supporters, aided and abetted by the reincarnated club’s directors, have built up a persecution complex emboldened by visceral victimhood status. This has led to large sections of the Rangers support feeling embittered and under attack from the rest of Scottish football and sections of Scottish society, including the media, a Scottish nationalist government and opposition supporters and clubs.
Despite leveling such accusations, this Rangers supporter narrative has actually been bolstered by sections of the Scottish media and the football governing bodies in Scotland who have each engaged in vernacular and administrative gymnastics to facilitate and normalise the idea of Rangers being the same club. Hence, when discussing Rangers’ woes, Scottish society has witnessed the sudden application of curious phrases being applied to Rangers such as “the company that ran the football club”, “being in an incubation period” “bought the history” when re-presenting a liquidation as incidental to and detached from the football club. This serves to reinforce the Rangers supporter narrative that the club never died. Paradoxically the narrative itself – that Rangers is the same club – also seeks to detach Rangers from Rangers’ previous actions and financial misdemeanours. “We’re the same club. But it’s not us who are responsible for the unpaid debts. That would be the company that ran the club”. Yet, this brand of re-imagining leads Rangers supporters to extend the list of enemies to blame for their troubles to include the SFA and an alleged cabal of anti-Rangers activists working in conjunction and united in their hatred of Rangers.
One common assertion by Rangers supporters is that Rangers was “demoted to Division 3” as a “punishment”. This confuses consequences with punishment. It is beyond doubt that Rangers supporters have experienced a punishing period since liquidation but Rangers being placed into Division 3 was not a punishment. It was a consequence of Rangers being liquidated and ceasing to possess a football licence to play. Even if one adopts the Rangers supporter narrative that it is the same club, it is clear that whatever league they were to play in with their newly granted licence did not constitute a punishment. But it is within this context that Rangers supporters view Rangers’ ‘journey’ from the lowest ranks of the senior game to the top division and a Scottish Cup Final via a memorable semi final win against Celtic – whom it considers to be its unbroken rival – as the culmination of a Lazarus-like rise from a “forced and unfair demotion”. “We are back and we are the People” Rangers supporters exclaimed.
Meanwhile an equally powerful alternative narrative exists among many supporters of other Scottish clubs. This narrative views Rangers as tax dodgers and financial dopers who cheated its way to success for large parts of the last decade, denying clubs like Hibernian and its supporters their day in the Hampden sunshine by spending beyond its means, avoiding paying tax and engaging in prohibited dual contract practices with players and officials to camouflage its illicit practices. Rangers did this, the narrative claims, to the extent that once a CVA was rejected by club creditors, the club died in debt, was then reborn after the club’s assets were bought and after employees of the in-liquidation club had tuped over or left for other clubs as free agents. This all occurred while Rangers supporters continued to absolve themselves and their liquidated club from blame. Rather than confess and admit to their sins and show a degree of humility, grace and contrition, hubris and arrogance engulfed Rangers (club and fans) to such an extent that never forgetting the hurt “others have caused” has taken hold of many Rangers supporters like an obsessive quest for some imagined and twisted form of justice. Meanwhile, supporters and clubs like Hibernian have suffered their own hardships, such as paying taxes and living within their means, which, in Hibernian’s case, resulted in experiencing a genuine relegation.
It is against this tinderbox background that the Scottish Cup Final occurred. Yet there is more to it still than two competing narratives of whether or not Rangers is a new club. In the aftermath of Rangers’ 2011 implosion and descent into liquidation, Scottish football authorities, who had by now given newco Rangers a football licence, also shoehorned Rangers into the senior leagues giving the club preferential treatment over other non-senior clubs who had a football licence for longer and who may have desired the position gifted to Rangers in the senior leagues. The question of SFA licences doesn’t end there. The Scottish Football Association also provided Rangers with a licence to compete in Europe in 2011/2012 despite evidence strongly supporting Rangers’ financial ineligibility (due to an outstanding tax debt). Furthermore, rather than seek vital reassurances from Rangers (for Rangers supporters as much as the rest of Scottish football) that its tax affairs were in order, the SFA forwarded a planned press statement on the matter to Rangers for prior approval. As the Offshore Game Report states, it was not released in the end after consultation with Rangers. The report notes:
“It is difficult to imagine any regulator, in any other sector, running press statements past the people they were regulating for approval. It is even more difficult to understand how a regulator can be seen to be impartial if it drops public statements it was planning to make about a company they regulate on the request of the company (p.11).”
Thus, the debt ridden Rangers secured the chance to millions of much needed pounds and ill-deserved funds with which to keep the lights on and, in doing so, prevented clubs like Hibernian from gaining European opportunities, cash and exposure. As if to rub salt into provincial clubs’ wounds, the SPL commission into dual contracts chaired by Lord Nimmo Smith judged Rangers not to have gained a sporting advantage allegedly after only partial evidence was provided to it by the SFA. As the Offshore Game Report notes, the Nimmo Smith inquiry was not fully informed of material facts, with the SFA president, Campbell Ogilvie, being the only witness to give evidence in person about the introduction and administration of the EBT scheme. Before becoming the SFA president, Ogilvie was one of Rangers’ longest serving administrators during the setting up of the tax dodging (EBT) scheme and had been a recipient of an EBT while a Rangers employee. The Offshore Game Report notes that Ogilvie denied any knowledge of the trusts (see pp.4-5). At the very least, this appears to represent a major conflict of interest and provides no reassurance as to fairness and transparency in the administration of the Scottish game.
“It is difficult to imagine any regulator, in any other sector, running press statements past the people they were regulating for approval. It is even more difficult to understand how a regulator can be seen to be impartial if it drops public statements it was planning to make about a company they regulate on the request of the company.”
Rangers fans have been unquestionably loyal and have suffered enormously in recent years. Poor governance, financial mismanagement and a curiously compliant Scottish mainstream media have done them no favours at all. But clubs including Hibernian have suffered at the hands of Rangers’ previous practices, and supporters of Hibernian, along with supporters of other clubs, feel Rangers has been treated as a special case by the Scottish football authorities. The SFA has presided over a shameful period in which it has fudged vital regulatory issues and misdirected fans of Scottish football clubs in what appears to be a “protect Rangers at any cost” project. It is against this background that the events of the 2016 Scottish Cup Final occurred. In the aftermath of the cup final violence, in which many of its own supporters engaged, Rangers (club and fans) now appear to be cultivating a contemporary victimhood narrative that alleges they are being dehumanized by sections of Scottish society. Such claims serve little purpose other than to alienate further much of Scottish football. What does the future hold? Financial and operational transparency in and from its football governing body would be a start.
John Kelly is a member of the Edinburgh Critical Studies in Sport Research Group at the University of Edinburgh. His publications include peer reviewed journal articles, authored books and edited collections such as “Hibernian FC: The Forgotten Irish?”, “Sport and Social Theory: An Introduction” and “Bigotry, Football and Scotland”. His latest book “The Routledge Handbook of Sport and Politics” is due to be published in September this year.
1) See the Offshore Game Report (pp. 9-10) for details where it is noted that Rangers had a tax debt dating back 10 years. The granting of their licence to play in Europe in 2011/12 contravened the Financial Fair Play rules.
2) Campbell Ogilvie was also the club secretary when Rangers refused to knowingly sign Catholic players. This fact alone should raise serious questions about his suitability to chair the body that regulates and oversees fair and transparent football governance in Scotland.