Rangers, axiomatically tied to the consciousness of football in Scotland, secured further headlines when they accepted Mike Ashley’s loan on the 25th October. Ashley, the pantomime villain who has been churning the anger of Newcastle fans for years now, previously owned 5% of shares in the Glasgow club.
With the wolves snarling at the door, the board needed an emergency loan to avoid administration and preferred the £2m offer from Ashley (worth £4bn) to that of South African businessman Dave King. As the level of competition on the pitch is finally starting to close the gap on the adversity off the pitch- much of their own making- the next period at the club is unlikely to be straightforward.
Ashley’s involvement is highly divisive among fans, conditioned to have a strong mistrust for boardroom shenanigans at the club after years of preposterous mismanagement. Ashley’s business ethos – for it is his business Sports Direct that motivates most things he does each day – has often been to swoop in and take advantage of a stricken business.
He hopes to sail the prosperous winds of Rangers’ resurgence until they are playing in Europe again, ensuring optimal exposure for his business assets. He has owned the naming rights for the famous old ground, Ibrox, since the summer of 2012 when he was sold them for a £1.
Fervent Rangers fans of a wary persuasion, hold this is an indicator that Ashley will strip the club of its identity in order to maximise the number of Sports Direct hoardings, with little interest in the wider picture of their beloved club. The latest loan has brought the sportswear tycoon a 9% stake in the club. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be that significant, but it is his ready supply of cash and an alliance with Sandy Lansdale- 26% shareholder- that has allowed him to move to the forefront of proceedings.
Newcastle and Ashley are inextricably linked, thanks to a steady flow of negative headlines, as he has consistently proved indifferent to the noisy protests of fans. Lately, he has largely ignored the fury over Alan Pardew’s continued reign at the club.
Similar magnanimity is likely to be shown to Ally McCoist according to the club’s manager, who has said that he has been assured of his future at the club after his erstwhile boardroom ally, Graham Wallace, resigned as CEO in the wake of Ashley’s share deal.
Needing ratification from the SFA if he is to underwrite a share issue and increase his stake above 10%, due to having an interest in more than one club, Ashley is understood to be prioritising patience at both of his clubs. For Ashley, the future will likely bring further profits from sports retailing thanks his deal for 49% of Rangers’ merchandising revenue, with an option to increase.
It is unlikely that the fans groups, Sons of Struth, proclaimed boycott of his stores will severely worry Ashley when the clubs reach is still remarkable despite their troubles. Another fan group, the Union of Fans, expressed their dismay at the “corporate pillaging” of the club, with concern over the ruthlessly pragmatic business dealings of their new quasi-owner. Corporate ruin though is not likely to be something Ashley wants to see anytime soon, as his interest is in Rangers continuing their ascent until they reach the glitz of Europe, with its attendant marketing bonus.
Although Rangers will be relying on the benevolence of Ashley, their problems will likely continue until they address their startling profligacy with money. Since dropping down to the bottom tier of Scottish football after their administration over two years ago, they have retained the second-highest wage bill in Scotland- McCoist has been trousering £800k a season to see off the likes of East Stirlingshire and Montrose. It is likely they will need to find £10m by the end of the season to service debts, something they will likely need Ashley’s help for.
His general propensity for parsimony will likely be a welcome addition at this most reckless of football institutions. The club ought to be taking their cues from the bright young prospect, Lewis Macleod, who still drives a Corsa to save on insurance premiums.
A future in hoc to Macleod is, at the moment, a cautious pipedream such is the promise he has shown, leaving fans painfully aware of his allure for larger clubs south of the border. Perhaps placing more faith and importance in youth before now could have halted the £70m losses Rangers have incurred in the past two seasons.
With the lowest attendance at Ibrox in 20 years for the St Johnstone League Cup match and low season ticket sales, both partially thanks to the anger over off-the-pitch dealings, it seems the path ahead for Rangers will be as fraught as they’ve become accustomed to.