Opinion 24th March 2017

An ugly history could repeat itself in Scottish football

It has been four months since The Sports Integrity Initiative published its report Doubt remains over Rangers’ 2011/12 UEFA licence and ten months since The Offshore Game’s (TOG) Doing SFA for Fair Play report and, as yet, no answers to the questions posed have been received from the Scottish Football Association (SFA). In fact, more questions have arisen on the subject during those months. Recently, a well respected blogger indicated that the SFA were in receipt of a Schedule 36 notice requesting that they inform Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC) about financial information concerning Rangers FC.

Receipt of this notice should have triggered warning bells at the SFA offices, as it normally predicates serious financial issues at the business under inspection, but still no rethink on the club’s suitability for a UEFA licence took place. At the very least, answers to the questions raised by The SII, TOG and Rangers Tax Case (RTC) should be made public if for no other reason than to reassure the sports fans who are now calling into question the integrity of the sport in Scotland.

Who should be answering the questions? 

Most reporters who have covered the issue have directed their attention to the public faces of the football authorities in Scotland, Stewart Regan of the SFA and Neil Doncaster of the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL), but is that the correct target? Do they have the authority to reply? The question must be asked as these organisations are run on behalf of every club in the country.

These are the bodies who can force the questions answered but, not only has no club spoken out on the subject, but all have refused to respond to all the points put before them in writing on three separate occasions. Why? Not since the late Turnbull Hutton of Raith Rovers FC questioned the role of the SFA and SPFL in the situation – stating “It is corrupt” – has any club Director seen fit to engage with fans regarding their concerns about the subject.

One club, Celtic FC, has actively blocked a formal approach (Resolution 12) through the Annual General Meeting (AGM) by shareholders of the company to have the subject raised with UEFA. The club used delays and promises of private meetings with the shareholders to such an extent that the situation has arisen where UEFA Statutes of Limitation now prevent the European football body from pursuing sanctions on the issue. A cynic might believe that that was the aim of the club.

So why do we have this resistance from the clubs against giving the fans answers? Do we in fact have two separate leagues being run by the SFA and SPFL? Is the one watched by the fans as it is played out on the pitch now of lesser importance to the one played out in the boardrooms?

In these financially difficult times for the leagues of smaller nations, difficulties exacerbated by the cash-flooded English Premier League (EPL), the game played at boardroom level is crucial to the future of the sport. However, we need to ensure that it does not override or corrupt the game played by the team they run. One must question whether we are now at a point where that risk is dangerously close.

To what extent is this combined effort of the clubs to protect one club’s existence, albeit a major club, creating the conditions that might tempt our administrators to ‘adjust’ the possible outcome of matches to ensure the financial health of the game? One such condition, I believe, is the need for a major Scottish club currently in financial distress to access the increased income that participation in European competition would bring. The club is The Rangers FC (TRFC), the spiritual successor of the very club that the UEFA licensing doubts of 2011 refer to.

The demise of Rangers FC in 2012 is blamed in part on that club’s failure to proceed past the first round of European competitions in the 2011/12 season. Much speculation surrounds the part which the European income played in the plans for survival that were implemented when the club was sold by Sir David Murray.

Are we about to see history repeated? The Ibrox club is currently surviving with the help of soft loans from the Directors. When The Rangers FC reported its accounts last autumn, the auditors issued a ‘going concern’ warning that the club would need to raise additional finance to see out the financial year, despite a £3.5 million injection from the same Directors. This must raise doubts on the club’s ability to meet the requirements set out in UEFA’s Club Licensing and Financial Fair Play (CLFFP) Regulations. With the team currently sitting in third place in the Scottish Premiership, which would allow it to qualify for European competition, are we at risk of a repeat of what occurred in 2011? Has anything changed at the SFA since then?

The SFA will no doubt repeat its mantra of self regulation for the clubs and operating on a position of trust regarding the club boards, but should the fans find that acceptable? This spring is peppered with court appearances for the club and, in particular, its chairman David King. Of course, pending court appearances should not be used to make judgement on character and trustworthiness. We are all innocent until proven guilty but we all must be wary about the level of trust that we place in this Chairman, as his past is one full of warnings to the unwary.

In 2011 a court case ended a major investigation by the South African tax authorities, an investigation that saw charges of fraud, perjury, tax evasion, money-laundering, contravening Exchange Control Regulations and racketeering brought against him. In summing up the case, the judge described King as a ‘glib and shameless liar’ and a ‘mendacious witness whose evidence should not be accepted on any issue unless it is supported by documents or other objective evidence’.

In 2015, King became Chairman of Rangers International FC (RIFC) despite these accusations and the fact at the time he was serving a six month suspended sentence for perjury. At the beginning of March 2017, the Takeover Appeal Board upheld the decision that King had breached the Takeover Code and acted in concert with others to gain a controlling stake in RIFC. King has now until the second week of April to put together an offer to purchase all the remaining shares at 20p/share. If this fails to happen, then there will be action to place ‘pariah’ status upon him and the others that make up the ‘concert party’ with the knock on effect that severe financial restrictions will face these Directors, the very Directors responsible for the soft loans that keep the club operating day to day. In turn, the club could suffer further financial difficulties as it applies for a UEFA licence.

As we approach UEFA’s 31 March marker for licensing conditions, are we about to see the actions of the SFA display decisions based on trust of this Director? Should we assume that they will see no obstructions to the awarding of the licence?

History tells us that we should watch closely the actions of the authorities in their dealings with King. They have already been responsible for misleading the public with regards to their treatment of King. Despite King failing the SFA’s own ‘fit and proper’ criteria, which states that no person having held a directorial position with a club having undergone administration and liquidation in the preceding five years should be permitted to be a Director, they continued with the assessment of him. King and TRFC Director Paul Murray were both directors of RFC when it was put into liquidation in 2012.

Not only did the SFA continue with its assessment of King, but it subsequently misled the public on the outcome of its judgment. In 2015 the SFA announced that King had been given approval. Did they find his suspended sentence acceptable and the judge’s ‘glib and shameless liar’ and ‘mendacious’ labels unimportant? Perhaps they did not.

Despite an announcement, Dave King only became Chairman of RIFC and not of TRFC1. The outcome of a planned court case brought by Mike Ashley of Sports Direct against the SFA perhaps suggests that deception was involved. On the day of the case, Ashley dropped charges ‘after receiving more information from the SFA’. This information has not been made public and places questions around the situation of the SFA’s approval and the failure of King to become Chairman of the football club.

With all that surrounds King and TRFC’s relationship with the football authorities, surely any judgment on the upcoming UEFA licence application must be open to the public for scrutiny. No claim of ‘sensitive information’ as has been utilised in the past, should be used to keep the information from the fans. Keep the figures secret of course, but there is no excuse for hiding the process by which the decision is made.

The overriding question is, of course, why do we not hear from the clubs who are at risk of losing their rightful UEFA place because of the trust shown by the SFA, which appears to be misplaced? Who is it that is really driving in this car crash of football integrity in Scotland?

1. Editor’s note: Companies House shows that King is a Director of RIFC, but not of TRFC, which manages the football club. His UK company history is available here.

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