Tuesday, July 24, 2012
ESPNsoccernet: July 25, 8:59 AM UK
Rangers saga approaching finish line
At the time of writing, Rangers - as we shall now refer to Scotland's newest club - were still not on the start line for the new season. They were in their tracksuit, warming up out of sight of the track officials. Everyone knows they will be in the race. It's very likely they will win. But for the time being, we have to play along with the idea that they will watch the whole thing from the athletes' village. Except, in that scenario, it's very unlikely this race would be shown on television.
After much meeting and voting, and much more embarrassment for just about everybody who has made a decision or statement during this whole ugly mess, Rangers have a reservation in the Third Division. However, they can't take their place until they obtain membership of the Scottish Football Association, specifically the spot vacated by the club that went into liquidation. For that to happen, all parties - Rangers, the administrators who oversaw the dismemberment of the old club, the SFL, the SFA and the SPL - must be in agreement.
So we enter another round of brinksmanship, with the SPL now holding a gun to Rangers' head. A closer look, however, reveals that the safety is on. And there are no bullets in it.
The SPL say they can't agree to SFA membership because they feel the sanctions imposed on the new club for the various rule breaches of their predecessor are too lenient. And, they add, trying to disguise their words with a cough, "we want a share of their media rights".
They may have a point in the first instance. The headline punishment - a 12-month embargo on the registration of players over the age of 18 - is not as tough as it looks. Once they are in the SFA, Rangers have until September 1 to sign players good enough to get them out of the Third Division. So far they have Lee McCulloch, a former Scotland international, but training at their Murray Park complex this week were Ian Black and Craig Beattie, both in their late 20s and apparently willing to sign away the rest of their best days to be well-paid pilots of Rangers' journey through the lower leagues.
Black was one of the better midfielders in the SPL when at Hearts, while Beattie is a former Scotland striker and a team-mate of Black's last season. Hearts could not afford to keep either of them once their contracts expired and the Edinburgh club is still owed £800,000 by Rangers for the sale of Scotland left-back Lee Wallace.
Both these players would cruise through a 36-game programme in the lower leagues, as would Fran Sandaza, the most prolific striker in the first half of last season in the SPL and another who Rangers have been sweet-talking while they wait for the green light.
If they can close these deals before the end of August, a strong core of SPL-quality players bringing through the academy graduates around them will be unstoppable next season, regardless of the fact that the embargo prevents them signing anybody during January. The same team would be short-priced favourites in the Second Division, but Rangers will also have the chance to sign free agents after the summer 2013 window - allowing them to use their massive financial advantage over their peers in the lower leagues.
However, whatever teeth are missing from the embargo, it's hard to buy the SPL's objections as anything other than a money-grab. There appears to be some value in the rights to show Rangers' matches in the lower leagues and the SPL, having lost one of its cash cows for the next three years at least, is determined to keep its jaw clamped on the tee for as long as possible.
After a terribly unsavoury summer, there was football this week - good, honest, politics-free football.
St Johnstone kicked off their qualifying campaign in the Europa League with a 2-0 defeat by Eskisehirspor in Turkey. In high temperatures, the Perth club almost held it together until half-time, but lost deflected goals either side of the break.
They can't concede in the home leg if they are to get to extra-time, but they are a miserly team and that target does not look beyond them. Scoring twice could be a problem, however, and Steve Lomas' rebuilt forward line will face a significant challenge. Neither Gregory Tade, signed from Inverness Caledonian Thistle, nor Nigel Hasselbaink, from St Mirren, are prolific finishers. Teenager Steven May, who tore up the Third Division on loan at Alloa Athletic during the second half of last season and came off the bench late on in the first leg, may well see more action in the rematch.
The prize of a date with Marseille in the next round should be incentive enough.
The Rangers mess and the fall-out from it has frozen the transfer market in Scotland but Hibernian made another decent move. For a side that narrowly avoided relegation and surrendered to their great rivals Hearts in a one-sided Scottish Cup final, the recruitment of two of last season's loan players may not seem like good business. However, after signing James McPake, the centre-back who captained the team while on loan from Coventry City, Pat Fenlon persuaded Wolves to let him have Leigh Griffiths back, the white-topped goalscorer who made double figures in a poor team.
Fenlon has also picked up Tim Clancy, from Kilmarnock, to partner McPake, and Paul Cairney, a 24-year-old midfielder who served time in the First Division with Partick Thistle. Already it looks like Hibs supporters will be spared the humiliation they endured last season.