A new blog has recently emerged onto the field of Scottish football writing – The Rangers Standard.
As it says in its manifesto:-
“The Rangers Standard is a project aimed at promoting positive and innovative thinking about the club and its role in Scottish football and society.
This is an opportunity to examine the club’s history and development, re-claim neglected or forgotten parts of its heritage, and reflect on how the Rangers community develops from here and how that future might be shaped by the concerns, hopes and visions of committed supporters.
We will encourage debate on all aspects of the club and will not shirk from confronting the hard topics such as sectarianism, national identity, and misgovernment by the custodians of the club in the recent and not so recent past.
We welcome well-constructed arguments and spirited polemic: the contributions of non-Rangers fans will be accepted provided they are constructive.”
In its guidelines for those seeking to contribute it states:-
“4. In time we will accept articles from non Rangers fans but these must relate in some way to the club or issues surrounding it and must be constructive.”
The piece below was written for the Rangers Standard, but failed even to achieve the accolade of a rejection. Whether it was too long, too short, too dull, too negative or insufficiently constructive I do not know. Nonetheless I wish the project well. You can never have too much good writing.
Sadly though I cannot add the Rangers Standard to Labour Hame, Scotzine, the Open Justice Project, the Helensburgh Advertiser (many years ago) and the Scottish Football Monitor amongst the places from where my words of wisdom have been inflicted on an unsuspecting world.
Having written 2,000 words on the topic, then I am not letting them go to waste – so here it is! Enjoy!
The concept of the “strong leader” is one which has been studied in detail over the years. I want to use this piece to look at it in footballing terms.
My favourite team, Albion Rovers, for many years was owned and run by Tom Fagan. He wheeled and dealt, ducked and dived, and bobbed and weaved. His total control over a football team which paid its ballboys with pies, not cash, and where used footballs were dipped in talc to make them appear new, was always an exercise in keeping the team’s head above water, rather than domination.
As this piece is written for the Rangers Standard, I looked back at the history of the eponymous team. I am sure readers will excuse me for any errors coming from an outsider’s perspective.
The greatest times in Rangers’ history have come under a “strong leader”. Bill Struth from 1920 to 1954 led a team which dominated Scottish football. After his departure, and whilst trophies were won, though with less regularity, the next really successful period was a short one, being Jock Wallace’s tenure from 1972 to 1978, where the dominance Celtic had under Jock Stein was finally broken, leading to three league titles and of course the Cup Winner’s Cup triumph in Barcelona.
The next “strong leader” was Graeme Souness, whose appointment by David Holmes in 1986 led to a football revolution in Scotland, which brought both good and bad consequences. Partly because of the ban on English clubs playing in Europe, many top English internationals such as Woods and Butcher, and many more came to Scotland, paving the way later for such as Paul Gascoigne. Players of the quality of Brian Laudrup too came to Scotland. The better quality helped raise the standards of the Scottish game, but very soon, after the arrival of the next “strong leader” Sir David Murray, this escalated into an arms race which, in the same way the Cold War led to the bankruptcy and collapse of the Soviet Bloc in its existing form, resulted in the demise of Rangers as a top division club.
It seems clear from outside though that, at the various points in Rangers’ history, the “strong leader” whether manager or owner, has been able to garner almost total support from the fans. This has come by virtue of his position, and not necessarily as a result, at least initially, of his achievements.
It seems to me that the “strong leader” idea, whereby one man is the most active and dominant person in the organisation, and as such gathers the supporters behind him, has been most prevalent and consistent at Ibrox.
As a contrast, I want to look at a handful of other clubs.
First – Manchester United. The shadow of the Munich Air Disaster of 1958 still hangs over Old Trafford and helped to perpetuate the aura around the Busby Babes, both deceased and survivors. Sir Matt Busby, as manager and survivor, became untouchable in Old Trafford terms, and was very much the embodiment of the “Strong leader” even before he led his club to the European Cup win in 1968. Indeed, when he stepped down from the manager’s role, his successor, Frank O’Farrell, seemed doomed to fail from day one, and he never got out of the shadow of Sir Matt, now cast from the boardroom.
It was only with the arrival of, and indeed after on-field success was achieved by, Sir Alex Ferguson that there was a new leader to fill the gap left by Sir Matt. Undoubtedly Sir Alex was king of Old Trafford for many years, but since the takeover by the Glazer family it is clear that his position as the “strong leader” has been diminished. This has been shown by the vigorous and continuing campaign against the Glazer family’s ownership of the club, as exemplified by the yellow and green scarf campaign.
Despite the continued presence of Sir Alex, he has taken second place to the moneymen, but no one of the Glazer family has stepped into that role.
Sir Alex, who is clearly an enormously shrewd and principled man, has had to tread a fine line. His staunch socialist principles and trades union roots suggest that he would be a vocal critic of the current owners. However, he may feel that a greater loyalty to the club prevents him speaking out against his bosses (as dismissal would surely follow).
Has the lack now of the “strong leader” harmed Manchester United? It could be argued that last season showed evidence of the initial crumbling of the hugely successful outfit. This season will provide further evidence either way.
Secondly – Hearts.
There are two leaders at Tynecastle who, I think, qualify for the epithet “strong” over recent years. Wallace Mercer ran the club from 1981 to 1994. Whilst the club almost won the league in 1986 under his control, he was never universally popular at Hearts, and after his failed attempt to engineer the merger of Hearts and Hibs in 1990, his popularity in both halves of Edinburgh plummeted. Hearts never regained the heights of the mid 1980’s team under him, and indeed did not do so until 2005 when Vladimir Romanov completed his takeover.
Mr Romanov, whilst seen as eccentric and outspoken, and thus a delight for the press, saw his team under George Burley head the SPL, until Mr Romanov sacked his manager.
Whilst Hearts finish consistently in the top half of the SPL, they have never regained the heights Burley briefly showed them. Romanov, especially with his Soviet Naval background, is assuredly a “strong leader” but one barely tolerated by the fans. They follow Hearts in spite of him, not because of him.
Third – Celtic.
Looking from the 1960’s onwards, the line of “strong leaders” at Parkhead starts with Jock Stein, who dominated the club through leading his team to the European Cup and to the multiple league titles.
When he left, the Kelly and White ownership did not provide the leadership needed and the managers failed to ascend to the heights previously occupied by Stein. There are similarities with events at Old Trafford.
It was only when Fergus McCann arrived at Parkhead from Croy, via Canada, that a leader to replace Stein was found. He resuscitated, if not resurrected, Celtic during his five-year tenure. He disposed of Lou Macari as manager ruthlessly and, despite not being universally accepted by Celtic’s fans, he deserves the credit (or blame) for the continued existence of Celtic.
When he sold up in 1999, he was replaced as major shareholder by Dermot Desmond. He has been the complete opposite of a “Strong leader”. His visible role is almost non-existent and his public pronouncements rare indeed. He is clearly a huge influence behind the scenes, but that does not match the profile of the strong leaders I have referred to above.
Whilst, since Fergus McCann left, there have been successful managers like Martin O’Neill and Gordon Strachan, the board structure has prevented anyone in the manager’s office achieving a Stein-like status (and none have come close to his achievements either) but the owners and Chief Executives have not taken that role either.
Celtic seem therefore, since 1999, to have lacked the “strong leader” as I have defined it. Even when Mr McCann was in charge, there was a great deal of scepticism about him, and it is fair to say that his reputation at Parkhead amongst the supporters is far higher now than when he left.
The Celtic support too has seemed reluctant to commit to a leader until they have put their cards on the table and shown that they are worthy of being followed. Some of the managers of recent times, such as Mowbray and Barnes, have never cut the mustard, and the executives behind the scenes, even including Celtic legend Kenny Dalglish, have been met with criticism.
Celtic fans however seem generally united in supporting the team, rather than the owner or manager.
Fourth – Dundee United
The leadership at Tannadice starts and ends with one name – “Jim McLean”.
As Wikipedia describes him, “He may be best remembered by fans as the man who took an average club, with no major silverware and little experience in Europe to a Scottish League Championship, 10 domestic cup finals, a UEFA Cup final and many seasons of European football.”
From taking up the managerial reins in 1971 to laying them down in 1993, and indeed until he left the chairmanship role in 2000, Dundee United and Mr McLean were synonymous. He was the one man in charge for almost thirty years, and his support would have followed him everywhere. However, even with the many achievements he had, the murmurs of discontent became louder amongst the faithful and he probably overstayed his welcome, similarly to Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest.
Finally – to return to Ibrox.
After Sir David Murray took over the club, he also slipped into the “strong leader” role on the departure of Graeme Souness. He was a vocal and visible presence at Ibrox, and for much of his tenure, at least from outside the Rangers family, seemed to have almost universal support.
However, as financial issues started to arise, his backing by the fans became a bit less whole-hearted, and his attempted share issue flopped (at least on the basis that it was the bank which ended up funding the issue rather than the supporters). There was still full support for the team, but backing the owner’s finances, especially where it was not going to be money directly invested in players, led to the “strong leader” façade starting to crumble.
As soon as he made it clear that he was looking to sell up, then his position became open for attack. After all, how can he be a “strong leader” when trying to get out of the door?
After tortuous processes, finally a new owner appeared on the front steps of the Stadium. Craig Whyte is now seen by most as an asset-stripper, at best, and a crook, rogue and charlatan at worst. We are told there are ongoing criminal investigations into his takeover, and I am sure that more will ye emerge about him and his period at Rangers.
It was remarkable though that, with the help of some very good, and no doubt expensive, PR, he managed to get the backing of most Rangers fans, despite the concerns being voiced about him before and during his acquisition of the club, from supporters of Rangers and elsewhere. The fact that he could parade the SPL trophy within a week of the takeover cemented his position, and, unlike the other clubs mentioned above, exemplified the Rangers way, which is to give unilateral backing and support to the leader, until he proves himself unworthy of it.
It took some time for Mr Whyte’s support to dwindle and indeed many sensible Rangers fans were still happy to voice their support for him until close to the onset of administration in February 2012.
History has repeated itself, as far as support goes, with Mr Green. He is now undoubtedly the man in charge at Ibrox. Before his takeover, he was seen as, at best, second choice behind the Blue Knights and when Walter Smith led his consortium onto the battle field in June he became third choice. Yet he was the man who stuck it out and produced the money.
For all of the questions and misgivings there still are about him and his plans, it is clear that he has the almost universal backing of the Rangers fans, as shown by the excellent turnout at the matches played so far.
Sometimes backing the “strong leader” because of the chair he sits in works; sometimes surely it would be better to see if they prove themselves to justify the support.
It is clear that, at Ibrox, to adapt the old phrase it is not “My Country, Right or Wrong” but “My Club, Right or Wrong”. There is far less of the scepticism and indeed challenge to “authority” than seen at the teams I have mentioned above. That is not to say that either of the approaches is, in all circumstances, the correct one.
There is much to be admired in such unconditional support – the question that remains to be answered is whether the “strong leader” now in situ will justify the faith and support he has already had invested in him.
There is no doubt that the Rangers faithful are as fully behind their teams as the supporters of Manchester United, Hearts, Celtic and Dundee United (and Albion Rovers!) but the additional unconditional support of the man in charge risks, as happened with Mr Whyte, disaster if the recipient proves unworthy of the backing.
Posted by Paul McConville