Rangers' fall from grace leaves long list of victims

On Thursday, British Prime Minister David Cameron paid a visit to Scotland. At a press conference, held in camera-sight of Edinburgh Castle, the Tory leader made an impassioned plea for maintaining two venerable institutions with long histories and uncertain futures: the political union between Scotland and England, and Rangers Football Club.

The question of independence for Scotland won’t be decided until 2014 at the earliest, but the fate of the blue half ofGlasgow’s Old Firm is likely to be settled sooner than that.

Cameron said that he wants to see Rangers, which has entered administration, “survive and thrive”. That the very survival of a football team that has won over 100 trophies in its 139-year history is up for any debate — much less one involving the UK Prime Minister — reflects the depths plumbed by the Ibrox club last week.

The case involving Rangers is complex, and growing more labyrinthine with every passing day. Having entered administration at the start of the week, on Tuesday it emerged that the subject of the petition by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) against the club was not the huge historic tax bill — estimated at £49m — accrued under the stewardship of former chairman Sir David Murray, but debts accumulated by Rangers since the takeover by Craig Whyte in May 2011.
At the Court of Session in Edinburgh, the administrators installed at Rangers admitted that HMRC were concerned about “the non-payment of circa £9m PAYE and VAT” since Whyte took the helm at Rangers. Later in the week, it was revealed that a recent £24m loan made by ticket company Ticketus to the club, and mortgaged against future sales of season tickets, had passed through the books of another Whyte company, not Rangers’ accounts as the chairman had previously claimed.

The parlous situation at Rangers has its roots in two related but distinct factors: the massive debts built up by Murray, and the opaque dealings of current chairman Craig Whyte. It was Murray, a businessman whose wealth was estimated at £720m in 2008, who kick-started the debt-fuelled bubble in Scottish football that brought Celtic to its knees in the early 1990s.

Under Murray’s stewardship, Rangers invested big as players of the calibre of Brian Laudrup,Paul Gascoigne and, infamously for £14m, Tore Andre Flo graced Govan. At one stage, the club’s debts stood at a vertiginous £80m, bankrolled in the hope of European glory that never fully materialised. (Somewhat ironically, Walter Smith did achieve runner-up slot in the Europa League in 2008 on a veritable shoestring.)

When the tsunami of the global financial crisis hit, Murray, who had invested heavily in property and mining, was washed up. With Lloyds banking group demanding repayment of an £18m loan, there began a torturous search to find a buyer for the club. Despite being one of the most famous names in world football, no suitable candidate emerged until last year, when Motherwell-born businessman Craig Whyte took the club on for a nominal sum and a tax bill just shy of £50m.

“I think Whyte’s strategy all along has been to take the club into administration, to sink the club and relaunch it as ‘New Rangers’ free of debt,” says Tom English, chief sportswriter at Scotland on Sunday. Currently, Rangers is in the hands of Duff & Phelps — a firm that previously advised the club, and were appointed by Whyte who, as the secured creditor, retains significant control over the administration process.

If Rangers are to avoid the liquidation that many commentators now believe is Whyte’s desired endpoint, the club will need to agree a company voluntary agreement (CVA). “But the level of indebtness is so great that you would need HMRC and other creditors to agree to accept a couple of pennies in the pound at the very most,” says the administrator of Rangertaxcase.com, an investigative website that has been publishing details of the club’s murky financial affairs, including the £49m tax bill arising from David Murray’s ill-advised, and subsequently illegal, use of Employee Benefit Trusts (EBTs).

Whyte, as secured creditor, is protected to the tune of £18m: come what may, the current Rangers chairman, who was previously disqualified as a company director for seven years in 2000, will see a handsome return on his investment. But what happens to Rangers is less cut and dried.

Keen to send a message to the football world that paying tax is not an optional extra, HMRC are unlikely to accept a CVA that sees the taxpayer receive just a fraction of the debt owed. It would take a bid in the region of £70-£80m, way in excess of anything mooted so far, to reimburse all Rangers’ creditors.

What would the ramifications be for the green half of Glasgow if Rangers were to go the wall? Tom English believes that, whether they choose to admit it or not, both sides of the Old Firm are mutually dependent: “(If Rangers were gone) Celtic would win the league by huge margins every year. Player recruitment would suffer, the fans would get bored, Sky would definitely renegotiate the TV deal (the SPL’s £80m deal with Sky and ESPN is predicated on four Old Firm matches a season).”

It’s a point reiterated last week by Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond. The ScottishNational Party leader said that Celtic and Rangers “need” one another. “The most die-hard Celtic supporter understands that Celtic can’t prosper unless Rangers are there,” he said.

The Celtic Park hierarchy poured scorn on Salmond’s comments, stating that any supposed reliance on their arch rivals was “simply not true”. However, many Celtic fans are more circumspect, fearful of the prospect an SPL without Rangers.

There is also a sense of deja vu among the denizens of Glasgow’s East End. Back in 1994, after years of trying to match Murray’s exorbitant spending at Rangers, the club were on the brink of bankruptcy before businessman Fergus McCann stepped in. McCann’s almost singular focus on building a sustainable football club at a time when Rangers were marching to a record-equalling nine SPL titles in a row prompted criticism from fans, but his approach has been vindicated.

More recently, Celtic embarked on a renewed austerity drive. Big-money foreign signings are out, young prospects with a high re-sale value are in. What rebuilding manager Neil Lennon has done has largely been funded by the sale of Aiden McGeady to Spartak Moscowfor £9.5m. On the very day Rangers were in court with HMRC, Celtic announced pre-tax profits for the second half of 2011.

While a McCann-style white knight is unlikely to appear on Rangers’ horizon, Rangers remains an attractive investment opportunity — if an agreement can be reached with HMRC.Andy Kerr, president of the Rangers Supporters Assembly, has called for a fan takeover of the club, citing the Barcelona model as an inspiration. Elsewhere, former Rangers directorPaul Murray is hoping to put a consortium together. Any prospective owners will have to buy Whyte out and settle a tax bill that some reckon could rise to as much as £75m including penalties. If Rangers really are “too big to fail”, the other option — allowing Rangers to liquidate and reform as a new club yet retain their SPL status — calls to mind another phrase made famous by the credit crunch: moral hazard.

Excessive borrowing fuelled Rangers’ success over the last 25 years, with HMRC used as a de facto private bank. Between 1999 and 2002, for example, the club spent over £50m in transfer fees. Rewarding such reckless behaviour would set a worrying precedent at a time when many clubs are struggling to pay creditors, the taxman among them.

The other alternative is bankruptcy for Rangers. Whether the SPL decided to reinstate the ‘new Rangers’, or, much less likely, to relegate the club to the bottom of the football pyramid, it would be the end of the SPL as we now it, at least in the medium-term.

Tom English finds no crumbs of comfort in Rangers’ current travails: “There won’t be any revolution in the game just because this has happened, just a lot of people losing out.”

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Independent, February 19

Cillian Sheridan: 'They were probably expecting an unbelievable player, then I turned up'

Just before Christmas, Cillian Sheridan was invited to appear as a pundit on Sportscene, BBC Scotland’s flagship football show.

In studio, the on-loan St Johnstone striker’s analytical skills were more Garth Crooks than Alan Hansen — “I’m rubbish at talking about football,” he says candidly — but it was his sartorial choices that provoked most comment: Sheridan, on his BBC debut, appeared wearing a bright red yuletide pullover, complete with green Christmas trees.

As a consequence, for a brief moment, the Cavan man’s jumper was the hottest property in Scottish football. A tabloid even arranged a photo shoot in which the rangy striker, who was described as being “on trend for 2012”, modelled the finest Christmas knitwear.

Reclining on a wooden chair in a busy café on Woodlands Road, the bustling main artery connecting Glasgow city centre with the bohemian West End, Sheridan smiles as he recollects his first — and possibly last — visit to BBC Scotland: “I brought the jumper with me to the show. I asked (the producers), ‘Can I wear this?’ They said it was okay so I put it on.” The producers, you sense, were less accommodating when the former Celt’s phone rang twice live on air. “It was a shambles. I doubt they’ll ask me back again,” he laughs.

The Sportscene episode epitomises Cillian Sheridan: insouciant, irreverent and imminently likeable. As followers of his refreshingly honest, and often very funny, Twitter feed will testify, this is a man who sports a tattoo of a moustache on the index finger of his left hand and could seldom be accused of taking football, or life, too seriously. As he says himself, “I don’t get worked up about things, it’s not my style.”

In a week dominated by the dyspeptic transfer window — characterised, once again, by average players demanding exorbitant wage — Sheridan feels, in some respects, like the antithesis of the Sky Sports-era footballer. There are no rings on his fingers, he wears a few days’ worth of stubble across his prominent jaw line and speaks with a casual ease seldom evinced amid the media training and PR consultants that are part and parcel of the modern game. Sheridan’s is the relaxed attitude of a young man who practically fell into football. While many of his contemporaries in the current Ireland squad began their careers in the League of Ireland, the Bailieborough man was signed by Celtic as a schoolboy. Sheridan only took up soccer seriously at 16. That year he was also a Cavan minor, where his impressive performances in midfield led the Brisbane Lions Aussie Rules team to offer him a chance to move Down Under.

The financial rewards of football proved too great, however: after a spell at Dublin side Belvedere Boys and breaking into the Ireland under 17 set-up, Sheridan plumped for Celtic Park. But Gaelic football remains his true love: during the summer he is often to be found in the stand at Breffni Park watching Cavan in the Ulster championship. “I see the start and the end of the season. They’re normally out before I go back,” he quips.

Life at Celtic, at least initially, was good. Under former manager Gordon Strachan, he swiftly graduated to the senior side, making his Champions League debut as a substitute against Manchester United in 2008, aged just 18. Two weeks later, Sheridan started the return leg of the same clash. But when Strachan departed in 2009, to be replaced first byTony Mowbray and then Neil Lennon, his first-team options dried up. Neither manager ‘fancied’ the striker, who was farmed out in a succession of loan deals to Motherwell, Plymouth and St Johnstone. In similar situations, ego-driven young footballers are wont to grow restive, but not, it seems, Sheridan: “I was never bitter towards (Mowbray or Lennon). I never said ‘I should be playing’.”

Faced with silently rotting in the reserves at Celtic Park or a merry-go-round of frustrating six-month loan deals, Sheridan made a surprising decision: he joined Bulgarian club CSKA Sofia. It was a brave move that seemed to pay immediate dividends as Sheridan began life in Bulgaria by starting, and scoring, regularly. But when the manager was sacked after two months, the striker found himself out of favour and isolated far away from his friends and family. “When you’re not playing over there it’s hard,” he admits.

Self-deprecating, perhaps to a fault, Sheridan suggests CSKA may have had unrealistic expectations of the young Irish targetman when they signed him two summers ago. “I went over the day after starting against Argentina (in a 1-0 defeat at the Aviva in August 2010), so they were probably expecting an unbelievable player. Then I turned up.”

After the sojourn in Sofia, Sheridan feels at home back in Scotland. He lives near Glasgow University, and commutes to Perth, where St Johnstone are based. Under new managerSteve Lomas, the Saints have maintained their strong early-season form — they currently stand fifth in the SPL — with Sheridan, who has teamed up effectively with co-striker Fran Sandaza, chipping in with some important goals, including the equaliser in Sunday’s draw atHearts in the fifth round of the Scottish Cup.

Despite having three caps to his name, the lanky striker doesn’t talk up his chances of figuring in Giovanni Trapattoni’s plans for the European Championships. “Realistically I’d only (get into the squad) through injuries. And even then when fellas do pull out there are other fellas that are playing in the Premiership who weren’t in the first squad who will be ahead of me.” When it comes to football, Sheridan is nothing if not phlegmatic.

He might not be booking flights to Poland but his performances before Christmas led to paper talk of a move away from McDiarmid Park. Sheridan, who was injured when the transfer window opened, chose to repay St Johnstone’s faith, renewing his loan deal until the end of the season. It was an example of another trait rarely associated with footballers: loyalty.

Such fealty is even more remarkable given that CSKA Sofia — he is still contracted with the Bulgarian club until 2013 — routinely pay his wages over eight weeks late. “It’s a bit unusual alright. I’ll get two months’ wages and then nothing for two months,” Sheridan says in his soft Cavan drawl.

Wages, or more correctly their absence, has been a major issue in Scottish football this year: Edinburgh club Hearts have been sanctioned by the Scottish Premier League for consistent late payments to players, one of whom, Ryan Stevenson, went on a very public strike. Sheridan, in contrast, describes his ambiguous financial situation as simply “annoying”.

The hope now is that St Johnstone will prove a springboard for a permanent move — and a secure pay packet — perhaps elsewhere in the SPL or, his favoured destination, England. After six moves in less than four years, there’s a sense that the peripatetic striker would like to settle down, preferably somewhere a bit closer to Cavan than Eastern Europe.

Sheridan regularly returns home to visit friends and family. Both his parents are teachers in Bailieborough and, if it wasn’t for football, he would have probably followed in their footsteps. One aspect of the profession in particular still appeals: “Teachers have the best holidays you can get! We only get June off, but they get three months for summer as well as Christmas. Pretty nice.”

In the overexcited world of football, Cillian Sheridan is one player who definitely knows how to take it easy.

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Independent on 12/02/2012.

Stokes and Miller in tune with Hibernian rhapsody

Edinburgh is proving a happy hunting ground for two Irish internationals, as I reported in The Sunday Independent a few couple of Sundays ago:

“I doubt I’ll ever tire of Edinburgh,” bestselling crime writer Ian Rankin once said of his hometown. With its spectacular views, historic old town and lively nightlife, the Scottish capital certainly has plenty of attractions — but it doesn’t take the forensic mind of Inspector Rebus to figure out what drew Liam Miller and Anthony Stokes to the city.

After a couple of years spent more on the bench than on the pitch, the two Irish internationals were just happy to be wanted at Hibernian. “It’s been great from day one, to be honest,” remarks Miller, who joined Edinburgh’s green half in September after a few anxious months without a club following his departure from Queens Park Rangers. Team-mate Stokes concurs: “It’s great to be back playing regularly. I’m really enjoying it here.”

As for Hibs, well the feeling is mutual. The Irish pair have been two of the main reasons the Easter Road outfit are currently running Celtic close for second spot in the Scottish Premier League and have a great chance to finally end their 108-year hoodoo in the Scottish Cup. Miller’s dynamic performances in the heart of midfield have won several man-of-the-match awards, while Stokes, with 14 goals already this season, including the first as Hibs came from two goals down to draw with Aberdeen on Wednesday, is showing the kind of form that brought him a £2m move from Arsenal to Sunderland while still a teenager.

Both players have settled in well off the pitch, too. Miller lives on the outskirts of the city with his wife and young family; Stokes has an apartment close to the centre of town. “Next to Dublin this is probably my favourite city in the world,” the striker, who turns 22 in the summer, says. “I love where I live. Plus I’m just five minutes away from the ground. When I was at Sunderland, it was a 45-minute drive in the morning just to get to training.”

Miller and Stokes know each other from their Sunderland days. Originally signed by Roy Keane, the pair later found themselves surplus to requirements at the Stadium of Light.

“It was really frustrating at Sunderland towards the end,” says Stokes, stretching his legs across two chairs as we talk in an anteroom at Hibernian’s training ground about 15 miles east of Edinburgh. “I remember coming on in a cup game (against Northampton Town). We were two down at half-time, and I scored two in the second half. Next day I was asked to go on loan. It didn’t really matter what I had done on the pitch, I wasn’t going to get my chance there.”

The rangy, Dublin-born Stokes exudes a youthful insouciance, speaking openly and at length about most subjects. His compatriot Miller, who turned 29 last week, is more circumspect, sitting bolt upright with his arms folded across his chest. Unlike his Ireland and Hibernian team-mate, the Corkman is less willing to discuss his time at Sunderland, saying only that “it had its ups and downs”.

Miller, who began his career at Celtic, dismisses the suggestion that the SPL lacks quality: “The Premier League is probably the best league in the world but football in Scotland is at a very decent level.” The diminutive midfielder could easily have spent his career in Scotland — then Parkhead supremo Martin O’Neill wanted to build a team around him but Miller elected to sign a pre-contract with Manchester United instead. Does he have any regrets about leaving Celtic? “None,” he says without blinking.

Stokes has previous SPL experience, too — he first came to prominence after scoring 14 goals in 16 games while on loan at Falkirk, a spree that persuaded Keane to take him to Sunderland. John ‘Yogi’ Hughes was manager at Falkirk Stadium then, and Stokes had no compunctions about renewing past acquaintances when the tough-talking Scot took over at Easter Road during the summer.

“I thought there was no point staying at Sunderland rotting away, not playing football,” Stokes remarks of the decision to come to Hibs. “I knew I needed to be somewhere that I had a good chance of playing every week. As soon as the gaffer asked me up here I knew it was a good move. I’m just glad to get back up here and settle myself down and start enjoying my life and my football again.”

Stokes has never lacked self-belief but his Hibs career was almost over before it began when Hughes publicly reprimanded his new striker following an alleged brawl in an Edinburgh nightclub in September. The Dubliner admits he returned to Scotland with a “reputation” earned during his time at Sunderland but denies any wrongdoing. “I was in the club about five minutes. They said in the paper we were there for two hours drinking champagne. It’s nonsense. It was half past eleven and I’d just arrived and I hadn’t even had a drink. The tabloids just dig for stories. If they can’t find something they make it up.”

Currently second behind Rangers’ Kris Boyd at the top of the SPL scoring charts, Stokes says he has cut down his drinking, although he still goes out “every two or three weeks”.

“If I score two or three goals, I think I am entitled to go out and have a few beers. I don’t see why footballers should be singled out and told, ‘No, no you shouldn’t be doing that.’ We earn good money but you have to have some normal lifestyle especially when you’re 19, 20.”

Miller, too, has had past brushes with authority — most notably in 2008, when Roy Keane transfer-listed his fellow Corkman, citing a “lack of discipline” and “poor time-keeping”. But under Hughes’ tutelage the midfielder is fast maturing into a vocal on-field leader. “I’ve been used to having older people around me in the team. But it’s a young side here and now I’m one of the older heads,” Miller says of his newfound responsibilities.

While Stokes and Miller have been busy stamping their own authority on the SPL this season, it is the recent surprise arrival of another Irish international that has everybody in Scotland talking. “To have a player of Robbie Keane’s calibre up here is special. He is a quality player and I’m sure he will bang in the goals,” says Miller.

Keane’s presence should ensure that the SPL does not fall off Giovanni Trapattoni’s radar and both Miller and Stokes are hopeful of staking a claim for a regular berth in the Ireland squad as we head towards the qualifiers for the 2012 European Championships. “I’d like to think that if I keep playing as well as I’ve been playing and keep scoring goals then I’ve a chance of being in the squad,” Stokes remarks.

Ireland’s senior striker has made no secret of his intention to return south when his loan arrangement with Celtic runs out in the summer. Do Keane’s international team-mates on the other side of the Central Belt hope to return to top-flight English football someday? Miller refuses to be drawn on the question, but Stokes admits that, while he may never tire of Edinburgh living, the lure of the Premier League may prove irresistible in the long-run.

“Of course, I’d love to play in the Premiership again. I’ve learnt from my mistakes. But first I have to settle down and show people that I can do it consistently. Before I came to Hibs people were saying that if I don’t score goals here it will be the end of me. But I always knew that if I played regularly I would score goals. Now I’ve got my confidence back, got the half a yard of sharpness back and I’m flying.”