ALAN PATTULLO

The Scotsman - - Sport -

“More than a whiff of du­bi­ety will for­ever cling to the ti­tles won by Rangers be­tween 2001 and 2010”

on the vexed sub­ject of whether the Ibrox club should be stripped of ti­tles won dur­ing the EBT years.

Ex­am­ples of Ibrox chutz­pah are le­gion. But it seems neatly il­lus­tra­tive to note how 20 years ago this sum­mer Rangers made an au­da­cious bid to sign the world’s then great­est player.

That’s 20 sum­mers be­fore they fell at the very first hur­dle of Europe’s sec­ondary knock-out com­pe­ti­tion against the fourth best side in Lux­em­bourg.

Twenty years ago Ron­aldo, the hottest tal­ent in the game, then at Barcelona, al­most signed for Rangers.

Let that sink in as fans of the Ibrox club con­tinue to sift through the wreck­age of a ru­inous 24 hours, when a de­ci­sive 2-0 de­feat by FC Pro­gres Niederkorn was fol­lowed soon af­ter­wards by an­other, some­what more pro­found, re­sult go­ing against Rangers.

But other than re­mind­ing a lot of foot­ball fans why they grew to have such strong views about the club, the so-called “big tax case” find­ing will likely prove less con­se­quen­tial in terms of foot­balling im­pact than the re­sult in Lux­em­bourg.

The anti-rangers lobby formed long ago. But it has been re­in­forced by the seem­ing chi­canery of the EBT years, which now lies ex­posed by the fixed judge­ment of Lord Hodge, who has dis­missed the Ibrox club’s ap­peal against HMRC.

For­mer owner Sir David Mur­ray’s re­ac­tion to date hasn’t amounted to more than a tight-lipped “very dis­ap­point­ing”.

It is very dif­fer­ent to May 1997, when Mur­ray de­fi­antly re­acted to news that Ron­aldo had cho­sen to join In­ter­nazionale rather than head to Scot­land.

“For years people have thought I have been talk­ing rub­bish about where this club was go­ing, but this shows we are now talk­ing about ex­ist­ing on a com­pletely dif­fer­ent plane,” he thun­dered.

“This was no pub­lic­ity stunt. In fact we wanted it to be kept con­fi­den­tial. But it shows that Rangers can com­pete with THE big­gest clubs in the world.

“It shows ex­actly what we are ca­pa­ble of do­ing, though we have lost out in this case.”

Mur­ray was talk­ing to Natasha Woods in a piece for this news­pa­per de­tail­ing how Rangers had been frus­trated in their at­tempt to beat the world trans­fer record with a £40 mil­lion bid, at the same time mak­ing Ron­aldo the high­est-paid player.

The Brazil­ian striker did be­come that, of course. Just not at Rangers.

But such elated rat­tle, from Mur­ray and others at Ibrox, was spouted through­out the years that fol­lowed. Ev­ery­one will have their own favourite memorable dec­la­ra­tion, from “moon­beams of suc­cess” to Mur­ray’s prom­ise to spend a ten­ner for ev­ery fiver paid out by Celtic.

Fans of other clubs had to get used to talk of Rangers hav­ing out­grown Scot­land. It cer­tainly wasn’t for Scot­tish foot­ball’s ben­e­fit that Mur­ray was try­ing to sign Ron­aldo.

Re­mark­ably, Rangers were ap­par­ently pre­pared to let him off play­ing Scot­tish league games to pre­serve him for tough Cham­pi­ons League fix­tures, a com­pe­ti­tion Rangers had am­bi­tions to win.

Such a stri­dent ap­proach is why schaden­freude is widely felt in the Scot­tish foot­ball com­mu­nity when a re­sult such as in Lux­em­bourg is fol­lowed by the one de­liv­ered in the Supreme Court on Wed­nes­day. How could it be oth­er­wise? Dis­taste at how Rangers op­er­ated, the anger from some quar­ters, is very real.

The Ibrox club brought it all on them­selves, putting into prac­tice an elab­o­rate fi­nan­cial scheme by which they re­lied on ad­vice from for­mer tax so­lic­i­tor Paul Bax­en­dale-walker, a du­bi­ous char­ac­ter with side­line busi­ness in­ter­ests in the porn in­dus­try.

More than a whiff of du­bi­ety will for­ever cling to the ti­tles won by Rangers be­tween 2001 and 2010, the pe­riod un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion. There is barely need for an as­ter­isk to iden­tify them in the his­tory books. They will be judged dif­fer­ently in any case. Rangers sup­port­ers know it, Celtic fans know it.

Fans of ev­ery other club know it.

So does this re­ally need to be of­fi­cially rub­ber-stamped? Is there le­gal re­course for this to hap­pen? Are there even strict sport­ing in­tegrity grounds on which to have them ex­punged?

Can a Lance Arm­strong/tour de France-like void­ing of vic­to­ries ap­ply? Arm­strong’s seven vic­to­ries be­tween 1999 and 2005 were ef­fec­tively de­clared null and void by the UCI, world cy­cling’s gov­ern­ing body, for sus­tained dop­ing of­fences. The cy­clist has so far re­sisted pay­ing back his win­nings.

The Scot­tish Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion, per­haps un­der­stand­ably, are shy­ing away from such an ex­treme mea­sure as ti­tle strip­ping, on le­gal ad­vice they claim. The Scot­tish Pro­fes­sional Foot­ball League are still di­gest­ing the ver­dict – with a large mea­sure of Gavis­con one imag­ines.

Chris Sut­ton has al­ready had his say. An un­likely apol­o­gist for Rangers, the for­mer Celtic striker has al­ready in­sisted he doesn’t “give a shit” how their play­ers were paid. They won their ti­tles fairly and squarely on the pitch. Celtic, him in­cluded, came up short in his view.

Sut­ton moved on from all this long ago. He would prob­a­bly ad­vise others to do sim­i­lar.

It was also an era of wide­spread fi­nan­cial dop­ing. Hearts, for ex­am­ple, won a Scot­tish Cup in 2006 when hurtling to­ward fi­nan­cial tur­moil. Gretna, the run­ner­sup at Ham­p­den, should not have got there nor shot through the league sys­tem. They, too, were op­er­at­ing on the never, never.

The 2003 Scot­tish Cup fi­nal has been dubbed the “fraudulent fi­nal” since it was con­tested by two teams – Rangers and Dundee – who were both creak­ing un­der the weight of their enor­mous debt at the time.

So it was a far from savoury pe­riod for sev­eral clubs, and for Scot­tish foot­ball in gen­eral. Even Celtic ad­mit­ted they had in­ves­ti­gated us­ing Ebt-based in­cen­tives to at­tract play­ers.

Many clubs were try­ing ev­ery­thing to gain a com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage while stay­ing just the right side of what they thought was the law – at the time. Rangers re­ceived le­gal re­as­sur­ance that their sub-trust method of pay­ment was le­git­i­mate. Tax avoid­ance rather than eva­sion.

Of course this won’t wash with a huge num­ber of people, for whom the de­sire to see the Ibrox club burned at the stake ex­tin­guishes all other ar­gu­ments. For some, it’s a fight to the death.

But it is surely rea­son­able to won­der what good more le­gal wran­gling will achieve – there are still ap­peals on-go­ing in Italy after the strip­ping of ti­tles won a decade ago from Ju­ven­tus fol­low­ing a more com­pelling case of cheat­ing in­volv­ing brib­ing of ref­er­ees and match fix­ing.

The dam­age has al­ready been done to Rangers’ rep­u­ta­tion. The club will likely go on reap­ing a bleak har­vest from seeds sown so long ago amid large mounds of hubris.

0 The gloom hang­ing over Ibrox this week has not been helped by the dis­missal of Rangers’ ap­peal against HMRC.

0 Ron­aldo: Opted for In­ter Mi­lan.

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