Honours withdrawal would be legitimatized cheating.
Feature by Deedle
Updated Tuesday, 24th July 2012
The Celtic propaganda machine rolled back into action last week.
On three consecutive days Scotland’s newspapers carried interviews with Andreas Hinkel, Tom Boyd and Neil Lennon that were thinly-veiled excuses to publicise demands Rangers should be stripped of all silverware accumulated over the past decade.The perennially boorish Lennon has gone as far as comparing Rangers’ use of Employee Benefit Trusts with drug-taking cyclists at the Tour de France. That Scottish football writers facilitated this shameful exercise should come as no surprise. However, there must be concern that pressure is being exerted on football authorities by forces which have already succeeded in making their influence tell.
In response to the torrent of cant and disinformation, it should be emphasised that the SPL inquiry is simply addressing whether Rangers made payments that were not declared in players’ registration forms. The ‘cheating’ angle is a red herring. Many clubs in England use tax avoidance schemes. Players, managers and senior officials of Celtic have used tax avoidance schemes too. Celtic used an EBT for Juninho and did not declare it in his registration form. While this alone demonstrates the brazen hypocrisy of Rangers’ antagonists, the argument related to ‘gaining a financial advantage’ is specious in any case. Were HMRC to have accepted Rangers’ use of EBTs as valid, then the club would have done nothing wrong. Alternatively, were HMRC to have clamped down on the use of EBTs at an earlier stage, then, due to punitive penalty charges and interest rates, Rangers would have faced a financial disadvantage far exceeding the money originally saved, although the club would have survived. However, action by HMRC seems only to have been launched belatedly and the mere threat of a forthcoming bill was sufficient to force the club into administration and, finally, liquidation. Most would accept that the club has paid the ultimate price and now faces years of relative penury.
The issue of whether Rangers consciously broke the relevant football rule governing remuneration is a moot point which cannot be ascertained until the outcome of the First Tier Tribunal is published. Rangers will have argued that these disbursements were discretionary loans while HMRC will have asserted that they are really contractual payments. Should Rangers have included the payments in SFA/SPL documentation the club would be admitting that tax was due, thus rendering EBTs pointless. There is really no way round this problem which every other club using EBTs will also have encountered.
While the club effectively admitted early last year that the EBTs related to Flo and de Boer were operated incorrectly and offered to settle with HMRC, the SFA only launched an inquiry (subsequently passed on to the SPL) a fortnight after the club entered administration. The pretext for doing so raises worrying questions. Ostensibly, Stewart Regan acted in response to a muddled newspaper interview with former director Hugh Adam which contained several wild allegations and contradictory claims; it was clear he knew very little about EBTs. In contrast, the SFA report into ‘corporate governance’ at Rangers casually dismissed as inadequate several public statements by former directors warning about Craig Whyte.
At the root of this issue is the unmistakable whiff of humbug. The rule on the declaration of payments is in place primarily to safeguard players’ interests. Former Rangers players are hardly complaining and it is hard to see who has been disadvantaged. Moreover, senior football officials will have known all too well about the questions related to EBT use. The authorities did not raise these matters with Rangers until it was far too late for remedial action and the club’s hierarchy had been decapitated. The suspicion arises that the SFA and the SPL essentially tolerated EBT use in regard to player registrations and have performed a U-turn due to pressure from the media and vested interest groups.
There is nothing wrong in principle with insisting that Rangers are punished for genuine wrongdoing. However, in order to be credible, punishment must be in proportion to the crime and bear comparison with that imposed by other football authorities. It is therefore worth considering why it is being demanded that Rangers are penalised far more severely than clubs south of the border which found themselves in similar circumstances. The Rangers support has largely accepted the swingeing penalty of demotion by three divisions for setting up as a ‘newco’, although Leeds, Middlesbrough and several other English clubs were treated far more leniently. However, no reasonable person could possibly tolerate a situation in which Rangers were stripped of league titles and Scottish Cup wins in light of the fact that, quite rightly, no action whatsoever was taken in regard to Arsenal FC which achieved corresponding success when it operated EBTs or, indeed, any other English clubs in the same position. Furthermore, league titles have only been removed previously within UEFA as a result of grave offences involving bribery and match-fixing.
The sheer vindictiveness of the witch-hunt directed against Rangers has been astounding. Therefore, we cannot rule out attempts to rewrite history using the flimsiest of excuses. That Rangers FC is provisionally languishing in Division 3 with a devastated squad, facing a registration embargo and a succession of financial penalties is surely sufficient retribution for alleged ‘offences’. Rangers’ enemies, though, want far more than their pound of flesh.
Enough is enough. Any decision to withhold trophies on the basis of a technical legal debate surrounding paperwork would be tantamount to legitimatised cheating on a massive scale and lose Scottish football any remaining credibility.