For Avoidance Of Doubt

The hysteria regarding Rangers’ use of EBTs during the noughties has reached fever pitch following the decision last week of the Supreme Court that these EBTs are actually taxable monies after all.

It is no surprise that those with a bitter hatred of the Ibrox club have jumped on the title stripping bandwagon, calling for 14 titles to be taken from Rangers’ proud history. Lots of heated exchanges have taken place on and offline between Rangers supporters and fans of other clubs. Celtic have thrown petrol on to the fire by demanding a new review of titles won in the EBT years be undertaken by the football authorities – an ironic gesture in a week where the club’s majority shareholder has been in the headlines connected to “industrial scale tax evasion” conducted by a bank he owns substantial shares in.

There is mounting pressure on the SFA and SPFL to strip the titles and it is worth noting that this is exactly the agenda. In other words, there will be no acceptance by many of any other outcome. If this was a criminal case, it would be the equivalent of a lynch mob trial. Rangers must be stripped of titles, end of. The clamour for this is so intense that it is virtually impossible for Rangers to get a fair and impartial review. 

Putting the bitterness, jealousy and hatred aside, it is clear to rational minds that there is scant requirement to have a review, let alone one which could result in titles and silverware being erased from Rangers’ tally sheet of trophies won.

I have blogged this before but it is worth repeating: the use of EBTs was a business decision, not a moral conundrum. They were used to help allay tax liabilities and their use was considered legitimate at the time they were being used. No attempt was made to evade tax in their use. In fact, the implementation of EBTs was a transparent action that displayed a clear money trail. So there was no intended laundering or evasion taking place. 

Avoiding tax is something done by many organisations and individuals and is not seen as a bad thing unless exploitation of loopholes is done on a scale that renders huge profits as untouchable. In recent times we have seen certain high-profile companies receive negative publicity for using these loopholes to reduce their taxes to negligible sums. 

The way in which Rangers used EBTs has since been determined to be flawed but there is no taint of criminality to this. There was no intention to cheat anybody. It was effectively just a bad decision. 

Falsifying attendance figures for the sake of deceiving the taxman by declaring less revenue would be tax evasion. This legendary practice was carried out for years but not at Ibrox. 

I am no fan of David Murray but I think his use of EBTs was just a business decision that proved to be flawed. That said, if there are to be punishments (which I disagree with), then why not apply them to Sir David Murray himself rather than Rangers? After all, we have fit and proper qualifications for directors of football clubs. What better way to keep football clean than to demonstrate that rigorous sanctions and punishments will be doled out to any director who engages in business practices that damage their club? 

In short, why punish football clubs for mistakes and malpractice carried out by club directors? 

The financial mismanagement and overspending at Ibrox has already resulted in years of misery for Rangers FC and its fans. Do the authorities really want to continue in pursuing a witch hunt that has already ripped our game apart instead of cleaning up Scottish football by addressing the real heart of the problem?

The EBT saga is a wake-up call to the authorities governing our game. 

The slack use of F&P criteria regulations means that every so often we have rogues and scoundrels coming into football, who use clubs like disposable toys, bask in the publicity and notoriety they get from being club owners, then walk off into the sunset leaving broken clubs as detritus in their wake.

There is also a straw man argument that club shareholders and directors who are involved in business scandals that do not directly involve the clubs they are connected with should be exempt from SFA/SPFL scrutiny – an argument that is often very selectively put forth by fans who engage in whataboutery. For example, people want to attack Craig Whyte and Dave King for alleged shady practices outwith football but it is perfectly OK for Celtic’s majority shareholder Dermot Desmond to be involved with Rietumu Banka as “it’s nothing to do with Celtic.” Oh, really?

I have no intention to engage in whataboutery here; in fact, my argument is that it is time to end the relentless point-scoring and mudslinging engaged in by fans, journalists and pundits. Journos and pundits in particular should know better. Football clubs often attract a certain type of owner and by this I mean men (mostly) who are flamboyant businessmen used to dealmaking that sometimes falls shy of legality. This doesn’t mean they are crooks, just that they make decisions that sometimes backfire – a case in point being MIH’s use under David Murray’s leadership of the now infamous EBTs.

It should be pointed out that these EBTs were not illegal in that intent to defraud HMRC was the motive. I am sure that Dermot Desmond may make the same argument about the fine imposed upon Rietumu Banka. Again, it is all about business decisions and the imperative in business to make a profit. The ethical, moral and legal context of these decisions have to be considered but with all due respect, your average fan is neither informed enough or qualified to pass judgment on them. By judgment I mean labelling people as crooks and conmen.

You won’t find many choir boys owning football clubs. That has always been the case. Nonetheless, there is a crying need for probity and transparency. It could be argued that David Murray’s use of EBTs was an attempt to transparently deal with the tax liabilities of those who had them. And in Dermot Desmond’s case, it is well-known that he will not associate with or invest in businesses which are not run in an efficient and accountable manner. The point is that no matter how successful in business someone is – and no matter how powerful they are and how much of a reputation for sound business practices they have – nobody should be above scrutiny by the game’s governing bodies when it comes to stewardship of football clubs.

We should not be comfortable with the concept of clubs which are national institutions being at the mercy of wealthy sugar daddies. No matter how slick they are in business, their poor decisions can pull the clubs they own down with them. The debacle at Ibrox is evidence of this. However, it is imperative that a line be drawn under the EBT fiasco. 

Anybody who knows me knows I have no great respect for David Murray. I think his custodianship of Rangers correctly attracts much criticism and rebuke. Yes, including the unwise use of Employee Benefit Trusts. But Rangers FC should not be punished any more for this man’s flawed decision. To be honest, neither should he.

It is time to move on. Scottish football is in a parlous state. Clubs and their fans devouring each other is not what the game needs at any time, let alone now. And the talking heads in the media should think very carefully of their responsibility before their “words of wisdom” inflame the situation further.

Even more importantly, the SFA and SPFL must massively tighten up the rules governing fair practice in regards to owners, investors and directors of clubs. This includes rigorous screening of any undesirable people getting involved officially or otherwise in the game. 

This might not involve people having to join a choir before they can be accepted by the football authorities. But it is time we all sang from the same hymn sheet when it comes to who is fit and proper to run clubs which mean so much to so many.

In the process, we can throw away the whataboutery and come together for the good of our game.

If we don’t, the war we are heading for will leave a wasteland that will take years to recover from.

 

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