Eamonn McCann - Where did it all go wrong for Rangers?

It’s hard to believe now that for most of the last century, Scotland was dominated politically by the Conservative and Unionist Party. Throughout the same period, Rangers were the major force in Scottish football.

Now the Tories have to scramble and scrape not to get into double figures but to get into figures at all. And Rangers have sunk like a stone into the depths of Division Three.

“This is a big club,” newco chief executive Charles Green continued to insist last week, even as he laboured to secure entry into, er, Ramsden’s Cup in time for a clash with Brechin City at Glebe Park at the weekend.

Rangers’ fall from financial grace has been so precipitous that, on the witching day of June 14th, the club was reduced to making its creditors an offer they couldn’t accept - three pence in the pound and no further questions asked.

The details of the downfall – tax fraud, phony contracts, false accounting etc – have been recounted often enough to be embedded in the minds of millions of football followers: some Celtic fans have total recall of every jot and tittle. Mickey McDaid has even mastered the basics of company law and accountancy, the better to savour the flavour of the saga.

The fundamental reason for Rangers’ reduced circumstances, however, has nothing to do with company law or accountancy but with the fact that the club was able to sustain its status as a footballing colossus for only as long as the ideas and ethos which it encapsulated held hegemony over its area of operation. It is because the roots of the problem run so deep that it may take more than honest new management and a succession of mea culpas to rescue the fallen giant.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, Scotland was the most Protestant country in the world, and probably the most literate. The immigrants who then began to drift in from Ireland – first in a trickle then, after the Famine, in a torrent – were sharply differentiated from the society they were joining – or at least intending to live alongside. They were Catholic, many of them Gaelic-speaking, as big a proportion semi-literate at best. To an extent that was never true south of the border, Catholicism in Scotland emerged as a specifically Irish phenomenon – now presenting cut-price competition for a disciplined Protestant working class with, already, a well-developed sense of its own place and entitlements.

Celtic was founded in 1888 with a conscious perspective of giving expression to the sense of identity of the Catholic-Irish community. Within five years the club had, astonishingly, established itself as the leading side in the – admittedly still semi-organised - Scottish football set-up.

The underdogs, or at least the underdogs’ colour-coded representatives, were suddenly top of the pile. Celtic’s first honorary president (jointly with the archbishop of Glasgow), Land League leader Michael Davitt, exulted: “The Celtic club is the pride of the Irish race”.

Small wonder that many in Scotland who associated themselves with the kirk, the Queen and the Tartan establishment felt a jolt of angry disbelief at what seemed the overthrow of the natural order of things. It was inevitable that any side which came forward to put a halt to the upstarts’ swagger would become a focus for Protestant loyalty – and Loyalism. Rangers stepped up to the mark.

The club had been founded in 1872. It was now, 10 years on, that the “no Catholics need apply” signs were erected around Ibrox. The establishment of a Harland and Wolff shipyard brought a fresh influx of Belfast Protestant shipyard workers, hardening attitudes and helping give Glasgow sectarianism its razor’s edge. The ideological character of Rangers which was to persist for more than a hundred years was set by the material circumstances of the time.

Competition between the separate sections of the working class for jobs, status and access to resources constantly replenished resentments and reinforced division. There was nothing ersatz or merely symbolic about the howls of hate exchanged at Parkhead or Ibrox on Saturday afternoons. The social function of football was to give unrestrained raucous expression to the underlying tensions of workaday life, the champions of each tradition going out uniformed to do battle on their supporters’ behalf.

And thus, with the occasional, soon-corrected stumble off the narrative line, things were to remain until the 1960s when, the world over, old certainties began to fragment and fade. Traditional industries declined, dragging down old elites. The Conservative and Unionist Party went into its free-fall phase. The role of religion receded. The influence of the Orange Order on business, the professions, the civil service, the judiciary etc began steadily to weaken. Rangers “constituency” was shrinking.

Celtic’s triumph in the European Cup in 1967 and the completion of the nine-in-a-row run of League titles brought the football dimension of this harsh new truth home to Ibrox.

Donald Murray took over the Club in August 1988, with a stated perspective of transforming it into a major force in Europe.

That meant ditching some at least of the old baggage. Continuing to keep Catholics out would strike virtually everyone in the game in Europe as quaint, disgraceful and flatly unacceptable.

Within a year of Murray taking control, Rangers signed Catholic ex-Celt Mo Johnson. As the radical commentator Michael Lavalette observed at the time, detaching the club from its sectarian history - at least in terms of its official persona - was not necessarily reflective of changed attitudes but, rather, a necessary element in “re-branding Rangers for the European market”.

It was pursuit of European success which also prompted Murray to borrow massive sums from the Bank of Scotland using the assets of the club as collateral.

The money helped lure top-flight players to Ibrox. For a while this seemed to work.

Rangers re-established themselves as number one. Nobody apart from Murray and a tight-knit coterie around him - as well as, presumably, account managers at the Bank of Scotland - knew that the club was meantime sinking ever deeper into what Americans might call the doo-doo.

The arrival on the scene of Sky TV marked the definitive end of an era, by no means only in Scotland. The game was now to be presented not as a passionate sport reflecting real rivalries but as a form of light entertainment to be packaged for a mass audience vulnerable to advertisers.

Another aspect of the same transformation saw Margaret Thatcher using the Hillsborough disaster as an excuse to insist on all-seater stadia and the banishment of donkey jackets, Bovril, reverence for the proletarian origins of the game and so forth.

Ticket prices soared. The target audience was the upwardly mobile, the city slickers and politicians on the make. (Is there a minister in any jurisdiction in these islands who has not discovered a devotion to one club or another?)

Scottish football has found the going particularly tough in this new environment. Sky’s money, naturally, flowed mainly to the most profitable areas so that, as in the capitalist world at large, the rich grew richer while the poor were pushed into relative penury.

This process was to reach its apogee, or nadir, last season when Sky handed Wolves, who finished last in the English premiership, almost twice as much as Celtic, champions of Scotland.

It was in a desperate effort to escape this contradiction and keep up – or catch up – that Rangers compounded their already unsustainable burden of debt by deploying Employee Benefit Trusts – devices for dodging tax. Between 2001 and 2011, no fewer than 60 players were signed on this fraudulent basis.

At every stage, the stance and behaviour of Rangers’ bosses has been largely in line with the attitudes and practices of the economic elite around them.

As we know now, the banks, including the Bank of Scotland, were up to their oxters in chicanery. And Sky’s biggest shareholders, the Murdoch crowd, indulged every variety of villainy that they thought they might make money from.

The devious schemes devised at Ibrox inflicted great damage on football. But, for many ultra-respectable individuals and institutions, Rangers’ way has been the rule.

It is evident that while the ideas in which Rangers are steeped – and the ideological content of the Celtic-Rangers rivalry – may have arisen not from football at all but from the condition of Scottish society, they operate in the modern era not as mere expressions but as among the main sources of sectarianism in Scotland. Marx referred to this phenomenon as “the relative autonomy of ideology”.

It provides the key to understanding why Rangers came to grief and why the task of restoration is likely to prove beyond the best efforts of those who have come forward to shoulder not only a daunting debt but the heavy burden of history.