The State of the Rangers Union, 2017

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“O, that way madness lies; let me shun that; 

No more of that”

(King Lear)

By Hobbes @hobbes_ff

It’s all very bizarre when you stop and think about it isn’t it? This business of following a football team; the money spent, the time given and the emotions invested. It was the Saturday night of an Old Firm defeat and of course Twitter is full of frustrated and angry Rangers fans. It’s no different to any other Saturday night really. Somewhere there will always be thousands of football supporters incensed that their weekend has been ruined by the events of the day. It shouldn’t come as a surprise. We have chosen a vicarious hobby after all. Our happiness is pinned on the abilities and efforts of people who don’t know or care about us and it is underwritten by a narcissistic need for wealthy men to fritter away more of their own fortune.

And yet we keep going back for more. In search of that elusive grand triumph where we can bask in the achievements of other men as if they were our own, whilst in the meantime using them as a way of expressing dissatisfaction with our own state. It’s a form of therapy and football stadiums the world over are full of people who hate their lives, and their wives, spouses, significant others and possibly their cats.

It’s hard to think of a support anywhere that has been in need of therapy over the last decade as much as ours. As 21st century Scotland increasingly sharpened its focus on 20th century Rangers, it opened up huge fault lines as the support wrestled with an identity crisis associated with our perceived culture and traditions. It continues, unabated, with fans displaying a burning conviction that others should not speak for them. A conviction only matched by the belief that they themselves should speak for everyone else.

O, that way madness lies.

It really is delusional to believe that over a quarter of a million people could or should be unified in thought, word and deed. Or that the most popular sport on the planet shouldn’t be an outlet for social tensions (you can’t call for the separation of sport and politics whilst fawning over St Pauli or Livorno for sticking it to the man). Or that you should be the arbiter of taste and decency for anyone other than yourself. Or, finally, that there really is genuine sectarian division in an increasingly secular country and it isn’t just a hoary old pantomime that is occasionally indulged by fans and media alike, to inflate the nostalgic meaning of a tribal sporting contest that no-one outside the parish walls gives a shit about.

What do The Troubles or the Glorious Revolution have to do with Rangers in 2017? The answer should be absolutely nothing but, because it once very much did, it would be incredibly naive to think it will ever go away completely. It is also naive to pretend that football rivalry isn’t a symbiotic relationship and that, when Celtic FC give status and support to a group of fans who style, dress and name themselves after the IRA, it is perhaps inevitable that elements of our support will choose to remind them, however they can, that their heroes lost. It might be incredibly cringey (I doubt Fabio Cardoso hates the Provos as much as he hates direct balls into the 18 yard box) but the sentiment is something I struggle to find too much to worry about. It was a victory, an important one at that, and because Rangers fans love nothing more than basking in triumphalism and the Celtic support are never happier than when they are romanticising misery, these tropes will continue for some time yet.

Especially when there is so little to celebrate on the park.

Our current travails will surely only lead fans to seek solace in bigger and older victories but it only masks the most recent development in our crisis of identity and where the need for therapy will be far more acute. Because – and let’s be clear here – we are in serious denial about our loss of footballing status. Many believed the hard times were over when the boardroom mess improved and we returned to the top division in some style. It was, however, just the start.

As horrendous an experience as it was visiting all the grounds of the lower leagues like a charity fun run, we were in a way protected from the harsh reality that would await us. Only in the cups would we need to face our old rivals whilst in a seriously handicapped state and we got off relatively lightly in that respect. However the hubristic return (‘Going For 55’) merely exposed us to the wildest elements. From August 2016 we were back to being pegged against Celtic’s stock. As it has always been, our fortunes are inextricably linked with one another and they, having been stockpiling for years, released the funds and disappeared over the horizon.

The board’s expectation, shared by the most reasonable of us, was to finish a clear second and maybe win a cup. Given the budget afforded to both Warburton and Caixhina, this was perfectly feasible and plays into the standard, and tested, football economic theory that wages have a high correlation with final league placings. However it is perhaps not as simple as first thought.

Realistically, how possible is it for a Rangers team to suffer 4 to 6 Old Firm defeats a season, shrug them off and approach the next match free of pressure? These defeats, and Celtic’s overall dominance, is traumatic at Ibrox in a way that it simply isn’t for Hibs or Aberdeen. Right from the off we compare ourselves to them and, especially in such artificial circumstances, the pressure becomes intolerable. It requires us to treat Celtic as an outlier and focus on beating the rest consistently. There are two myths that influence how we view this.

Firstly “This is Rangers” and we should, at the very least, always dominate non-Old Firm games like we did in the good old days. Last season Rangers underperformed against the ‘other 10’ averaging only 1.94 points per game. Since Souness arrived (adjusting for 3 points for a win for all games) we have only had a lower figure in three of those seasons, but incredibly two of them were title-winning campaigns (89/90 and 93/94). Many fans reasonably believe we should be taking at least 72 points from 34 games against the rest (2.12 points per game) however our 9IAR side (96/97) barely managed more (2.13). We seem to be demanding a performance level that some of our best sides struggled to achieve even when we were at our most dominant. It’s as if we didn’t experience European humiliation in the 90s or ever suffer the ignominy of dropping points to the likes of Hibs and Hearts. It happened to the best Rangers teams, they just knew that they had enough quality to be the strongest over the course of a season and, more importantly, so did everyone else. As long as Celtic dwarf us in terms of economic power it seems rather optimistic that we would retain the traditional swagger and self-belief that powered us through dips in the past and enabled those important momentum-building runs.

The second myth that I have heard propagated a lot since the full-time whistle a week on Saturday is that the gap was just as big when we were on top and yet Celtic still managed to lay a glove on us quite often during that period. It really, really wasn’t. Obviously we only have one, hopefully anomalous, year to go on but Celtic enjoyed a ridiculous average of 2.79 points per game last season. Only once in the last 30 years have we managed over 2.5 points per match and in that season we only won the league in the final minutes on goal difference. It was hardly a season of dominance. We can argue that the overall quality of Scottish football is a lot weaker than it was when we were on top but the gap is what it is and it hasn’t ever been this big.

To peg ourselves to this team, as we are naturally accustomed at doing, is likely to be extremely counterproductive.

But let’s say we manage it. A few seasons that look like 02/03 but without the titles: A healthy second but only the odd League Cup to speak of. What next? There is an obvious ceiling here that no bear really wants to talk about. Their Champions League income is far in excess of what we dreamt of when we helped invent the thing and it will be a regular means for them to keep increasing that gap by £10-15m a season. If and when there is more significant investment in the club then Celtic are perfectly placed, as they did in the summer of 2016, to put the foot down and up the gears. Unless the economic structure of European football changes dramatically or they start to get reckless with their next choice of manager or their hitherto profitable recruitment, we are effectively priced out of a title challenge for as far as any of us can see. We can talk all we want about the need to ‘concentrate on our own business and we will be fine’ but football is not performance art. It’s not masturbation. It’s literally all about the strengths and weaknesses of two contestants. Any realistic plan to reach the summit of Scottish football is as dependent, if not more, on their mistakes as it is on us getting our own house in order.

This could well cause a collective nervous breakdown in the Rangers support, if it is not already well underway. The above reality is too much for some to even contemplate. Repeating the mantra that “This is Rangers” apparently will be enough as will turning up to games as a support expecting to win. I have read that the mere thought that we may not defeat a side with better players is not befitting of a Rangers fan. Many will no doubt feel great umbrage as they are reading this. I will be a ‘defeatist’ with no point in going unless I ignore evidence and believe in whatever makes me happy. However, I don’t actually play for Rangers. Neither do you. I’m more than happy to continue putting money into a club that has given me a great deal of enjoyment in the past but I’m not sure that my doubts are the reason that Tavernier can’t mark his man at the back post anymore than your blind faith will bridge a vast gulf that is increasing rapidly.

This version of PTSD is perfectly understandable but it underlies again why the pressure at this club currently cripples confidence in a way that simply doesn’t happen for anyone else vying for 2nd place. Aberdeen as a club has adjusted to their post-relevance status. 2nd is great, a cup win calls for an open top bus, no pressure – they take what they can get. Our biggest problem is that Aberdeen and Hibs know that they are Aberdeen and Hibs. It just hasn’t dawned on us yet that, for the foreseeable future at least, we are too.

For any Rangers fan of my generation this is too much to take in. My first memory of Rangers is Souness arriving. I was 17 before I knew what it felt like to go through a season without winning a trophy. I was 21 before I experienced two seasons on the spin without a title. Rangers football club is synonymous with many things but above all it is about winning. It’s simply inconceivable for fans, even in the these difficult moments, to look ahead and not try to convince ourselves that sporting gravity will take hold and the 55th title will arrive eventually. It’s simply what we have grown up knowing. ‘It’s what Rangers do’.

It’s what Liverpool did. Ask any of their fans my age how certain they were of their next title in the summer of 1990. Many of them will still feel that title is just around the corner, roughly in the same place that it has been parked for nearly 30 years. Fans of clubs who made their name in the late 20th century all share a faith in the almighty god of sporting inevitability. ‘And, so it is written, thee who have been on top many times before will take their righteous throne again, Amen.’

Hopefully Thy Will will indeed be done but there will be nothing inevitable about it. It will be down to hard work, significant investment and careful decision-making at our end combined with a calamitous series of hubristic fuckups at theirs. And of course, dear boy: events. Even Celtic’s position of dominance is all relative. Success in Scotland doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in the real world and Rodgers could go 3 treble-winning seasons undefeated and it won’t land him a big job so long as they are at the end of consistent drubbings in Europe. Some level of inertia is probably likely and could well lead to the kind of reckless panic that we require to get back in the game.

Either way we aren’t in control, and it is this that is at the very heart of the football fan neurosis. When we spend so much of our spare time and money watching other people do what we love but can’t do, it produces a level of impotent rage that could power a nation. It has always fuelled the peripheral energy around the game whether through letters pages, phone-ins and now Twitter and it provides a stage where fans can actually be actively competitive: they can be proven correct. The sweet sensation of calling out a dud player/manager/chairman/kit man right from the off is matched only by backing an unpopular choice and seeing him come through for you and this is now the real quiz. This is where punters can genuinely revel in their own glory.

But it can easily distort the whole point of it all. Backing a new Rangers manager to be a failure relative to our history is a pretty safe bet in the current climate. General frustrations are easily vented by holding the club, as it currently is, against our romantic nostalgia and then raging into the wind when they don’t match up. The club was rescued from corporate rape by men who didn’t need to bother, but if Dave King rescued some fans from their burning home, they’d complain that he didn’t take his shoes off first before coming in. The smoke from some keyboards can be seen throughout cyberspace after a bad result but there’s barely more than a begrudging one-liner from the same fingers after a good show. It’s an agenda-driven false equivalence in an attempt to deal with the pain that every fan is suffering. It was not supposed to be like this.

It is like this though and there are some big questions that the club and support need to honestly address if we are ever able to provide an environment that can breed genuine and stable progress otherwise SSN should use the term ‘Current Rangers Manager’ indefinitely at press conferences. The incumbent postholder looks increasingly bewildered, wondering if he missed a class by Vitór Frade at the University of Porto entitled “The Scottish Football Season: August to September”. He is a manager trying to implement a very complex tactical system using a third language in a footballing country that is tactically retarded and with 7 new first team players, the costliest of whom are from a country with no track record of success in Scotland. Given that combination of errors of judgment and natural obstacles within the claustrophobic environment described above, it is perhaps no surprise that we have what we have: signs of quality and good ideas blunted by individual errors and a crippling lack of consistency.

“How do you want these deckchairs arranged Captain Smith?”

It’s probably fair to say that the next guy in charge won’t be spending over £1.5m of our wage bill on any players from Mexico but he will have his considerable limitations too and they’ll be amplified by the scolding spotlight under which he will have to work. Reality will be ignored and he will be reminded on a daily basis that “This is Rangers” in the same way that, whatever the quality of the generation available, England managers are told that “This is England”. Rangers have better players than Progres Niederkorn in the same way that England have a better side than Iceland but in both games they couldn’t find 5 yard passes and it looked as if their jerseys were made of chain mail.

More links get added as time passes and the support approaches starvation. The buildup and tension at Fir Park in August was more akin to a must-win title decider than an opening game of the season. It can’t be like that and yet it will continue to because the necessary recalibration of expectations and identity cannot be done with a fanbase so wedded to the belief that Rangers are either number one or nowhere. Except, of course, the current and future generations; they will hear the stories of old but don’t have them imprinted on the memory like we do. They will have nothing to be in denial about and will be therefore best placed to meet the challenges that we face head on and be better able to help cultivate a revival.

Or instead they’ll just support Chelsea and Real Madrid from afar. They might pop down, or over, for one game a season. Or just be completely detached and follow the whole sport as one giant global show with 23 live games on every weekend. Or instead just follow the fortunes of their favourite player. Wherever he moves, they buy the shirt. Seeing him win the Ballon D’Or will give them more thrill than whatever he accomplished with his teammates that year. Football represented through the individual genius; the natural extension of spending so much time playing FIFA on the Xbox. “My old man and his pals used to spend over a grand a year watching Rangers and came home most weeks absolutely furious. How mental is that?” Extremely so, when all things are considered. But we tend not to consider those things because it is this bubble that incubates hope. The only reason we keep following is hope.

Despite how many letters those crackpots write to UEFA, Points of View, or whoever the fuck will listen to them, our club is still standing, but it’s unquestionably still very damaged. Rangers haven’t died but the teams of our memory have. That era has gone for now. It will hopefully be reborn but it’s still a real form of grief that most fans are struggling to grapple with. Only when there is acceptance can we properly rebuild and not continue to traumatise our potential heroes in the shadows of our former ones.

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