Happy anniversary guys.
This day has a special significance for many of us.
It’s the day when everything we’d been saying, writing, predicting, came to pass. I had been writing about it, by then, for about four years. Others had been waiting on it much, much longer.
This is not the story of what happened at Ibrox; it is the story of what the governing bodies knew about what was going on there under Whyte, and how our national game’s leadership even attempted to help him facilitate his scam.
It is based on an article of a similar name in my now defunct site On Fields of Green. I will include in this piece some thanks to those whose research made it possible.
For some of you, the stuff in here will be known, although I suspect even you are in for a big surprise. For others it will be a shock to the system.
This is what Scottish football lived with. And still does.
Let’s talk, then, about the Long Spoons.
According to the parable, the Long Spoon has special significance in both Hell and Heaven, where they are the common utensils at the dinner table.
In Hell, the Damned starve. They cannot eat because they cannot hold the long spoons in such a way as to get food into their mouths.
In Heaven, everyone eats because the Saved used the spoons to feed each other.
The 14th Century phrase that “he who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon” is another favourite of mine, implying that you ought to keep your distance when dealing with bad people.
Let me tell you a story, and before I start I want to pay tribute to the guys at the CelticResearch twitter feed, as well as the individual known as Charlotte Fakeovers, for some sterling work in dragging this particular tale into the light.
These guys have done incredible work, but for various reasons, including the fact that the CR guys don’t write a blog, the whole thing has never been threaded together in a single article, and placed in the context of those times and now.
The irony, for me, is that had Doncaster not tried to raise the dead by claiming that the NewCo and the OldCo are the same, this matter would have been receding in the rear view mirror when I first wrote this piece. What his comments did, back in 2015, got everyone digging away, looking for information, trying to piece together things that might have been left in the past, at least awhile.
And what they found was incredible.
This story begins on 25 August 2011, on a Thursday evening. Rangers had just drawn 1-1 with Maribor, confirming their exit from the Europa League. They’d already been knocked out of the Champions Cup, and in light of that the Maribor result was calamitous.
A few weeks later, according to Whyte, Neil Doncaster and Ralph Topping flew to London and met him. At that meeting, Whyte spelled out to them, in graphic, ghastly detail that the club was certain to go into administration, and that liquidation was a probability. He told them he believed obtaining a CVA from the club’s creditors would be virtually impossible.
At this point, it would be useful to consider a particular fact.
Outside of the Big Tax Case, Rangers liabilities due to HMRC at that moment would have been very low, if there were any at all. Yet, if Whyte is telling the truth, he had already taken the decision to liquidate the club, and the SPL’s two directors were well aware of that fact. They knew Whyte had decided not to pay his bills, and that all manner of creditors – including the tax payer – were going to be shafted.
They left London knowing that the second biggest club in the country was on the verge of total collapse.
Not administration. According to Whyte, that was never in the offing.
His club was going to the wall and there was no avoiding it, and he didn’t even intend to try. All he cared about was making sure the governing bodies were on board with the plan when he did. That’s why he called for the meeting in London that night.
A lot of people have said that Whyte’s word cannot be trusted on this or on any other issue but in this case there is much documentary evidence in the public domain which proves it. The most important fact is that Neil Doncaster was certainly in the know about the depth of Rangers’ predicament from, at least, 5 October.
The Charlotte Fakeovers twitter account compellingly laid out the details of the email exchanges between Collyer Bristow’s Gary Whithey, who was acting for Whyte, and Rangers, and the SPL’s lawyers at Harper MacLeod, where the various scenarios were discussed, and the SPL’s “willingness” to play ball was confirmed.
So, whether Doncaster and Topping met Whyte in London – as he has suggested – or whether the dialogue was limited to emails and phone calls is unimportant.
What is certainly not disputed, or up for debate, is that the SPL’s chief executive knew, in early October, what the rest of Scottish football would not have confirmed for another four months; that Rangers was holed below the waterline and plans were afoot not only for an administration but for Whyte pulling the plug entirely.
The lawyers at Harper MacLeod made a strange suggestion during this exchange of emails; they proposed a “draft document” laying out the precise path the club and the governing bodies might take, in order to smooth Whyte, and Rangers’, path.
Rod McKenzie said, in those communications, that he had fully briefed Doncaster on the situation, and that the suggestion for a roadmap document had been the CEO’s idea.
With all this going on, you’d have thought Doncaster might have briefed the other members of the SPL board, and the clubs themselves.
Indeed, when the clubs attended a General Meeting on 31 October they were still none the wiser, and it appears that the SPL board was not any more informed.
In simple terms, Neil Doncaster had opened negotiations with Craig Whyte and Rangers over how best to “handle” an unprecedented scenario involving debt dumping on a grand scale via the liquidation of a major club, and their subsequent re-instatement in the league … and he had done this in almost complete secrecy, without bothering to notify the vast majority of his fellow board members or the clubs themselves.
At the 31 October meeting, plans were being discussed in relation to the existing TV contract, with Sky and ESPN.
At that time, that TV deal had three further years to run, but with one caveat; the league had an “opt out” which could be exercised in the summer of the following year.
That opt-out was being considered, as part of a proposal whereby the SPL would form its own television station, Fans TV, negating the requirement for further broadcasting agreements which would play second fiddle to the vast EPL deals.
This would have been a radical, and potentially lucrative, step forward for the leagues, one that would have freed the organisation up to better consider the wishes of fans, in terms of match scheduling, and might have allowed some of the clubs to negotiate their own, separate, contracts for regional or transnational broadcasts.
At that point in time, anything, and everything, was possible.
The guy taking the lead in these proposals was Rod Petrie of Hibs, who was battling hard for Fans TV, and it seems he was winning the argument. A resolution might even have been proposed at the 31 October meeting, but a follow up study had not yet been completed.
It was decided to put the discussion off until the first phase of that study had been given proper consideration by the clubs. The meeting broke up without a decision on Fans TV, but Petrie and others had good reasons to feel optimistic about it.
A new meeting was convened for 21 November.
Sometime after the 31 October meeting, the SPL board met, and it was at this meeting that “certain circumstances in Scottish football” were finally laid out to them.
At that meeting Doncaster recommended the signing of a brand new TV contract with Sky and EPSN, which had been proposed as the alternative to the Fans TV idea. These “certain circumstances” were said to be of the sort that might place the Sky/ESPN offers in some jeopardy, and Doncaster said that the clubs ought to agree them “without delay.”
According to Doncaster, the facts that had emerged at that SPL board meeting had left its members with only one real choice, if they were to insulate themselves from potential trouble.
First, what were these new facts, and how did they come to light?
It is patently obvious to anyone with a fraction of intelligence that this new information could only have been related to the financial situation facing Rangers, and it does not take a genius to work out that there was only one way in which such sensitive information, relating to a member club, could have been divulged to the board and that was via Neil Doncaster himself, who had already been briefed by Whyte, and who had commissioned the roadmap document laying out the process by which the administration and liquidation of Rangers would be handled by the league.
In short, having already considered the scenarios and consulted Rangers, Doncaster then “filled in” his board. What did he tell them?
One is tempted to suggest that his silence up until that point made it unlikely he’d have shared more with them than he thought they needed to know.
In light of what came later, the one thing we can say with total certainty is that it is absolutely inconceivable that he told them Whyte’s club was actively laying the groundwork for a liquidation and NewCo, although he would certainly have known this to be the case.
It may even be that his telling them slotted nicely into his roadmap.
We know, for example, that discussions with SPL officials had already been “factored in” to Whyte’s plans. Indeed, he had already commissioned MCR to put those plans together, and that according to their draft document those meetings had been scheduled for 4 – 5 November.
Did they take place? Unknown. Were they before, or after, the SPL board meeting? Unknown. But at that meeting, Doncaster told his fellow officials – including Celtic’s Eric Riley – something, and it was sufficiently serious to spook them.
Was it a little or a lot? Did he fully put them in the picture, or did he obfuscate and tell them only what he wanted them to know? Unknown.
But the result is certainly clear; the board decided that the Fans TV proposals represented too great a risk, and that Sky’s deal needed to be signed at once.
If we surmise that Doncaster told the clubs only that Rangers were in financial trouble, why was the Sky deal more attractive than Fans TV at that time?
There’s an easy answer to that.
Sky might have balked at signing a five-year deal had they known Rangers might be facing a financial squeeze, and be unable to properly compete for the title. This is not an unreasonable scenario, and there were obvious implications for the viability of Fans TV too.
That option was going to be expensive to fund, and the clubs had already come to a provisional agreement about how much each would kick in. We know that one club had already expressed reservations about the funds it was required to set aside towards them, and that had placed the proposals on a knife edge.
Was that club Rangers? Possibly.
It might just be that Doncaster told the board only that Rangers was in grave financial difficulty and might be unable to pay its share at all. As their club was one of the two lynchpins of the game here, and thereby mandated to pay a major part of the start-up costs, that, on its own, would certainly have been enough to wreck the prospects of a deal, without further disclosures being necessary.
Whatever he told them, the board decided to put its support behind Resolution 1, the renegotiation of the Sky/ESPN deal, and to recommend it to the clubs.
On 21 November, the clubs reconvened for the final discussion of, and decision on, the Fans TV deal. Instead of being allowed to evaluate the merits of that proposal they were told that the board was not in favour of it and that a decision had been made to recommend proceeding along the lines of renegotiating with Sky.
Some of the clubs questioned the decision, and it was only then that they were told of these “certain circumstances” which had forced the change of tack. They were told that they, and their wishes, had simply been “overtaken by events.”
Their reaction was fury at not having been given this information sooner. Indeed, some at the meeting wanted to know why these “certain circumstances” had not been made known to them on 31 October, which suggests some awareness on their part that things had been happening behind the scenes prior to that date.
The deadline for renegotiating the Sky deal was 10 days later. That contract extension was agreed upon, and duly signed and sealed. The announcement was made to a frothing media on 31 November, and it seemed like a masterstroke of negotiation.
It committed Sky to Scottish football’s immediate future, and a renewed payment structure which would be worth £50 million by the time it expired.
The transfer window in December 2011 provides a nice insight into what was happening within Scottish football at that time. By then, there was not a single person in the game who was not aware, on some level, that Rangers were in serious trouble.
The SPL hierarchy certainly knew. The SFA were also in the loop by this time. Doncaster knew that an administration event was certain and that liquidation was going to be the end result. He, and Regan too, would have been well aware that creditors of all shapes and sizes were going to be stiffed royally in such an event.
Yet they put Rangers under no pressure to limit the scope of that scandal. They sold Jelavic, but there were other players of value they could have off-loaded and the governing body had a moral responsibility to push them in that direction.
They knew that, in sporting terms, it wouldn’t matter, as there was going to be a hefty points penalty the moment the club confirmed what everyone by then knew … but to have done nothing to minimise the damage to all the various public bodies and small traders and local companies that would later wind up being forgotten … that was lamentable.
People have always assumed that Whyte chose Duff and Phelps as administrators well in advance. It’s not true. His whole scheme revolved around the team at MCR, Paul Clark, David Grier and David Whitehouse, all of whom moved to D&P after the takeover, and were finally reunited with him on 14 February 2012. He wasn’t particularly bothered about the company itself. It seems clear that he wanted his “Duffers” in place, to make sure things went smoothly.
We all know what happened next. On Valentine’s Day, just two months after the window shut, the roof well and truly fell in. Whyte claimed to have done all he could to save the club. Doncaster and Regan got in front of the cameras and said they’d consulted the Rangers chairman and the club was in no danger of going to the wall.
They were bending the truth until the elastic snapped, because both men would have been well aware, by then, that liquidation was an outright certainty. Whyte had made that clear, in various communiques.
Almost immediately, we started to hear talk about how Rangers needed understanding, and even help, from the rest of Scottish football.
Some people think revelations about the “Old Firm clause” In the TV deal only surfaced after the club started to slip into the abyss, but in fact someone was briefing the press about that days before Whyte put the club into administration.
Ewan Murray, writing in The Guardian at the time, knew that little salient detail four days before that event as he wrote in his column on Friday 10 February, in an article entitled “Any Rangers financial meltdown could hurt the rest of the SPL as well.”
The BBC were reporting the clause the day after administration, and by then it was no longer a secret.
In fact, it never was. As we’ll soon see, the briefing had been going on from the minute the new TV deal was agreed on 21 November 2011 … and ten days before it was signed.
The CelticResearch site has stated that “select journalists” were being briefed about the clause at an early stage, and that one of them, in particular, was “pushing the line” hard.
He was Jim Traynor, then Sports Editor at The Daily Record, who ended up working at Ibrox, for Charles Green, and later launched a PR company, with endorsements from Walter Smith, David Weir, Ally McCoist and other Ibrox figures.
The Record, of course, ended up leading the way in the campaign to have the club admitted to the SPL. They ran with a story on 14 June, which they claimed had come from Sky themselves, saying the company was ready to tear up its contract with Scottish football if Sevco were not granted access to the SPL, or the First Division at the very least.
The story said Sky would not tolerate Rangers’ absence from the top flight for longer than a year.
CelticResearch believes, with good cause, that, in fact, The Record was encouraged to put that spin on things by the man who, himself, gave them the story. CelticResearch has never believed that story came from Sky.
They think it came from Neil Doncaster himself.
CelticResearch are correct in their assertion that the notion of Sky leaking such information is ridiculous. Apart from the lunacy of threatening their own paying customers with a “take or leave it” scandal that would have turned Scottish football into a wilderness, Sky has never interfered in the running of the game, save to change fixture dates for their audience.
This was confirmed, in fact, during the recent discussions about bringing forward the winter’s break, when Motherwell’s chairman confirmed that Sky were consulted “as a mere courtesy”; they have never had operational vetoes over what football does.
The commercial consequences of doing so – tens of thousands of cancellations and the immense reputational damage, which would have impacted on their negotiations with the EPL and other leagues – would have laid a minefield impossible to navigate.
Indeed, one day later The Daily Record’s story had actually impacted negatively enough on Sky that the paper was running another one, saying Sky sources were sweating at the outpouring of anger it had caused.
Despite this, The Record stated, again, that Sky was ready to tear the contract up, doubtless encouraged to “hold the line” by its “fearless” sports editor.
Just two days later, Sky themselves issued a statement flatly denying The Record’s stories, and re-affirming their commitment to Scottish football.
The “Old Firm” clause was not one they had even the remotest interest in enforcing. They made it clear that there would have to be some renegotiation of terms, should Sevco have to start at the bottom, but that the idea of pulling out of the game entirely was not being entertained.
The clause was a busted flush, then, something they never actually considered viable. CelticResearch and others actually doubt that it would have been legally enforceable.
Which brings us to the most crucial question of all; why then was that clause ever in the deal?
According to Neil Doncaster, it had been in every Sky deal with Scottish football, as insurance against the clubs moving to the English setup.
But does that stand up to scrutiny?
In 2002, when the SPL rejected Sky’s offer of £45 million, to set up SPL TV, it was Celtic and Rangers who scuppered that deal, by voting against the SPL TV proposals. The deal that followed was with the BBC, not with the satellite companies. It last until 2004, when Setanta came in with a hefty offer which the clubs voted to accept.
Celtic and Rangers voted against the deal too, believing the offer wasn’t enough.
The two Glasgow clubs fought side by side on the issue of TV contracts, for years. Every broadcasting company in the country was well aware of that, and therefore the commitment of both clubs, to staying in Scottish football, was secure at the time those deals were signed.
The notion of either club being relegated, or running aground, was fantastical back then.
In short, there is no reason whatsoever for the inclusion of such a clause in any television deal in the ten years before November 2011.
On the day of the SPL meeting, 21 November 2011, where the SPL clubs were scared off Fans TV, and the agreement to accept Sky’s offer was struck, but before it was actually signed, the journalist Ewing Grahame spoke to Neil Doncaster, and the Chief Executive specifically brought up the “Old Firm” clause, and pushed the idea that it was now a new addition.
Grahame reported the story as one that “bound Celtic and Rangers” to the league.
Actually, it did not such thing as Doncaster and Grahame were well aware, but it had stopped dead any possibility that they would do it without Sky as a partner … and that’s the crucial thing, that’s why that clause was never needed in the first place.
In short, the accepted wisdom says that if Celtic or what was then Rangers were ever to leave Scotland behind that it would be the TV companies themselves driving the deal forward for marketing reasons and the promise of higher revenues.
With no chance of the clubs simply deciding to go one day without the TV companies’ approval and support, with relegation for either club considered virtually impossible and a liquidation event publicly, at least, no more than a flight of fancy, what would have been the rationale behind the inclusion of such a bizarre clause in the first place?
It makes no sense. It fulfilled no purpose, because, as we’ve seen, even when such circumstances arose Sky didn’t seriously entertain activating it.
There are two other scenarios where the idea of the clause might have originated.
The first is that the clause was in the contracts to block league reconstruction.
This is ludicrous, and doesn’t stand up to investigation.
For one thing, league reconstruction would not have happened overnight. Secondly, one only has to look at the number of times in which various clubs – including Celtic and Rangers themselves – were in favour of expanding the leagues.
At no time during any discussions about league reconstruction, over the nine-year period between 2002 and 2011, was there any suggestion that it would negate a broadcasting agreement depending on Celtic and Rangers playing each other four times.
Doncaster’s disclosure of the clause got headlines because it was a bolt from the blue. It was something that had never been considered before.
The other scenario where such a clause might have been inserted was to do with the SPL split, introduced in 2001 after the league went from 10 teams to 12, for a scenario where one of the two clubs finished outside the top six.
This is where CelticResearch doubts that such a clause would have been legally enforceable, and therefore unlikely ever to have been put in a commercial contract. Such a rule would have been a blatant violation of sporting integrity, and a commercial interference in the running of football that no governing body would ever have allowed.
At no time between 2001 and 2011 was there any cause for Sky or other broadcasters to have insisted on an “Old Firm” clause in their commercial contracts with the SPL.
Those of us who have studied this in detail have no doubt that this clause was specifically inserted into the SPL TV contract in November of 2011, and that it happened in one of two ways;
Either Neil Doncaster himself informed Sky and ESPN of the seriousness of Rangers’ financial plight, and made sure they put that clause in there.
Or Neil Doncaster was asked, by the broadcasters, what Rangers financial position was, and he told them that it was serious but not critical, and they inserted the clause either with his support or simply to protect themselves just in case.
The latter part seems unlikely, for the reasons already stated. Sky themselves never seriously entertained the idea of cancelling the SPL TV deal. Why would they have insisted on that clause if they had no intention of utilising it in the event worst came to worst?
What many of us believe is that Doncaster, either along with other members of the SPL board, or acting on his own, insisted on the clause, for the purposes of leveraging the member clubs into accepting the Ibrox NewCo as a member of the SPL.
We further believe that the nature of that clause is such that he could not have laid out the full facts as he knew them – namely that Craig Whyte’s team at Ibrox were actively considering liquidating the club and had been laying out a roadmap to that effect – either in his discussions with broadcasters or with the member clubs.
To have told Sky or the clubs that Rangers’ position was likely to lead to the setting up of a NewCo would have destroyed any chance that Sky would have extended the deal – which still had two years to run – or that the clubs themselves would have opted to support signing it, with all the implications in any scenario where Sky did decide to withdraw.
It is absolutely inconceivable that Neil Doncaster gave either organisation the full picture, as he was aware of it at the time.
The implications of this are staggering. Commercial contracts would have been signed by organisations who had no way of knowing that the ground beneath their feet could crumble to dust.
It means that both the SPL and the SFA were not simply reacting to a crisis that engulfed them in the summer of 2012, but that they had, in fact, helped bring that crisis about.
From the period of November 2011 until February 2012, Rangers was a club heading for the rocks, in a very deliberate manoeuvre executed by their chairman and members of his board, and one in which the SPL and the SFA were knowing participants.
Had the club been forced to start administration proceedings when the scale of their troubles became known – from October onwards – and had the governing bodies treated them like any other club, tens of millions of pounds in losses would have been prevented and any number of creditors saved from the effects.
The moral scandal of this is damning, and the stains won’t wash off for a hundred years.
All of this, of course, is to say nothing for the way in which Doncaster and Regan talked the game down before and after the clubs voted, in language so flagrantly negative and incendiary that the SPL still couldn’t find a sponsor three years later, when I first wrote this piece.
The irony of them now locked in a dispute with Ibrox over the current league sponsor, cinch, should not be lost on anyone reading this.
In the aftermath, Doncaster provided Sevco with a written guarantee that the Lord Nimmo Smith inquiry would not strip the historical titles on which the Survival Myth depended.
He even wrote them a “side letter”, as revealed by Paul Larkin’s site The Front of the Bus, in April 2014, where he reminded them that those guarantees should never be made public outside of an official legal proceeding.
And he played a part in limiting the scope of that investigation so it didn’t touch on the Discounted Options Scheme, which itself is a key part in the scandal of Rangers being awarded a European License for season 2010-11 despite being in material breach of regulations governing “tax liabilities payable.”
Sometime after that, CelticResearch revealed the scandal of the “production cost subsidies” written in to the revised TV contract that Doncaster and Lawwell signed in London after the liquidation of Rangers and the decision to make the NewCo start in the bottom tier.
That deal, signed in August 2012, guaranteed that the league itself would meet the extraneous costs relating to broadcasting requirements for the NewCo’s games where matches were shown at grounds which lacked proper media facilities.
Doncaster claimed this was a necessary part of the agreement, without which Sky would not have signed a new deal, a claim which fell apart when a fan read over SPL guidelines and found that they placed the responsibility for meeting those costs on the host clubs, and not on the broadcasters. Doncaster had given away £750,000 of Scottish football’s money so that Sevco fans could watch their team play the likes of Brechin and East Stirling on the telly.
This, naturally, brings us to the question as to what Celtic’s involvement in the television deal scandal of 2011 might have been.
Eric Riley was on the SPL board at the time, and was the club’s representative at most of the meetings.
I said earlier that I thought it unlikely at best that the SPL board was fully aware of what was going on at Ibrox, and further, that I was sure the clubs were kept in the dark. I stand by both of those assertions. Two clubs resisted, entirely, the pressure to drop Fans TV and to sign the SPL TV deal put in front of them on 21 November 2011.
One of those clubs was certainly Hibernian, as Rod Petrie had been the primary driving force behind the Fans TV proposals, and worked tirelessly to get them voted through.
I believe the other club was probably Celtic, operating, perhaps, for selfish reasons, in that they believed the deal did not represent as much potential upside as Fans TV, with its possible avenues for overseas agreements on a club by club basis.
Peter Lawwell certainly helped keep Doncaster from the wolves. He was at his side in London when the TV deal was “saved”, and took much of the credit for doing it, whilst sparing the chief executive the certainty of the noose.
How much Celtic guess, far less know, about the events of November 2011 is hard to say, but their conduct in relation to Resolution 12 and their certain knowledge of the Five Way Agreement is troubling, and will continue to be.
In the aftermath of the 2012 administration, and the subsequent liquidation of Rangers, many of us held out hope that the crisis would lead to serious reforms and changes within the game. They never came. Celtic and the reformed league bodies, which became the SPFL, as well as the SFA, continued to be run by the people who got us to that crisis.
In the meantime, Sevco continues to spend its way to the same fate that befell Rangers and nobody in the governing bodies or amongst the clubs seems to care.
Scottish football has yet to learn what to do with the long spoon, it seems.
Thanks to the guys at the CelticResearch twitter feed, to Ecobhoy and a bunch of others on TSFM and to Mark Murphy, at TwoHundredPercent.net for his own article on this scandal, which utilised much of the work done by the others and more. In 2015, and now, I considered this piece to be a team effort; no more than an amalgam of the efforts of an amazing bunch of folk, who all fought valiantly to get the truth out there.