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Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Fire and brimstone; Romanov ruin

Neil White

In this week's North of the Border, newco Rangers get to keep their trophies but oldco get a hefty fine, while Vladimir Romanov has some financial issues.


Lord Nimmo Smith reported on Rangers player registration practices before liquidation. The SPL set him on the case some moons ago and tensions were so high on either side that the poor guy couldn't win. This was Scottish football's Rodney King moment. I suppose Rangers are the LAPD in that scenario. I'm not sure who Rodney King is. Maybe the rest of the teams. I don't know if the metaphor goes that far. It all ended with the old club being fined 250,000 and Smith issuing a firm ruling that the club broke rules in its failure to disclose to the league details of payments made to players. The ruling also decided that this rule breach did not give Rangers a competitive advantage and so none of the trophies they won during the era in question were removed from the records. This verdict was open to more interpretations than the ending of Inception. Some Rangers supporters, and many of the shot-callers now at Ibrox, hailed a vindication and some demanded a retraction, an apology and a parade with dancing girls and elephants. Many of those who believed there was more depth to the wrong-doings claimed a cover-up. They rightly pointed out that the fine is very likely to remain an abstract concept at best. Most remained baffled to the point of speechlessness that Rangers had broken the rules but not gained a competitive advantage. In all that was written on the ruling, Richard Wilson of The Herald best cracked the code for the layman. Had Rangers disclosed these additional payments to the league - the sole issue on which Nimmo Smith was ruling - no competitive advantage would have been evident on the field. The response to all of this reminds us that the cold eye of the law has no place in Scottish football, where the currency is fire and brimstone.


Another week, more financial news from Scottish football. This time, a 7 million loss for a Third Division club, more pollution at Hearts from the Lithuanian banking sector and an object lesson in how the distribution model of the SPL has made relegation a life-threatening experience. Rangers, of course, took the big hit in their figures for the last seven months of 2012. They have had huge attendances and as the club were quick to point out, their position in the bottom tier has limited "revenue streams". They are already accumulating sponsorship revenue and this alone could make their current model a break-even proposition by this time next year. However, the danger remains in the level of expenditure on the playing side. The decision made to win the Third Division with SPL players - they had to pay above market value to persuade such as Dean Shiels, Kevin Kyle and Francisco Sandaza to play in the Third Division - looks hard to reverse now. As a result, it is more likely Rangers will eventually enter the SPL with a burden of debt and a fiscal necessity to reach European competition, which doesn't talk to a great deal of learning. At Hearts, owner Vladimir Romanov claimed all his accounts had been frozen by the authorities when his bank went into administration. He was, he said with a typical flourish, thinking of operating a taxi. Initially this was not seen by everyone as being a critical situation for Hearts, who owed most of their 20m-plus debt to UBIG, an umbrella investment group also ran by Romanov. Well, it was. Romanov and Hearts director Sergejus Fedotovas resigned this week from the board of UBIG, along with all the other members. It looks like the often unfathomable funding stream from Lithuania to Gorgie has been cut for good and Hearts - still owned by Romanov, evidenced by his sacking of yet another manager, John McGlynn, this week - will have to find a buyer fast. This remains a story that is surrounded by a fog that no reporter of a sporting or financial background has navigated through, but it is hurtling toward a perilous climax. Finally, Dunfermline Athletic, relegated from the SPL last season, appear at least as close to the edge than Hearts ever have been. Their players finally made a complaint to their union, PFA Scotland, after the latest in a long series of partial or late wage payments. The SFA has raised an issue with the club over non-payment of Scottish Cup gate receipts to Hamilton - these are usually split and shared on the day of the fixture. The chairman of the club, Gavin Masterton, has announced he will step down after a share issue aimed at raising the 500,000 required in order to maintain cash-flow until the end of the season. That was all this week. The club accounts show a debt of over 8m, although this is largely to individual directors, including Masterton, and a company he runs to operate and lease the stadium to Dunfermline. While the outgoing chairman has insisted the club is debt-free and under no threat, all evidence points to an escalating crisis at East End Park.


The semi-finalists of the Scottish Cup were revealed over the weekend, and by the start of the week we knew that Celtic will play Dundee United and Hibernian will meet Falkirk for a place in the final. Celtic did exactly enough to win 2-1 at St Mirren and little more. The champions' focus on a possible double will be sharper after their European campaign is completed, but there was a trailer for a late-season reboot for James Forrest, the young winger whose season has been punctuated by injury. In the quarter-final he was a direct threat on the right and supplied both Celtic goals. Dundee United had a mixed week. A quarter-final win over their neighbours, Dundee, would usually make up for any amount of bad news, but the absence of Johnny Russell was made worse when a scan revealed a fractured fibia. The 20-goal striker has targeted a return for the semi-final in mid-April, but that seems crazy. It's more likely he is done for the season. At the same time, news broke that Rangers are talking to the United captain, Jon Daly, about a contract for next season. Rangers will almost certainly be a third-tier club (pending negotiation over league restructuring) but Daly is 30 and the money on the table may be the best of all his options as a free agent. The financial gain versus the lack of competitive stimulus is a common conundrum for the SPL players courted by Rangers as they progress through the lower leagues. Hibernian have not won the Scottish Cup since 1902, but with Leigh Griffiths on form they have a trump card to play against any opponent. The striker, on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers, scored a hat-trick in their win at Kilmarnock and has 22 for the season, more than half of his team's goals. Griffiths takes a lot of heat for the trouble he finds off the pitch, but he has having a hell of a season in a team in which he is first among equals. Actually, the rest of them aren't even his equals. Hibs got Falkirk in the draw, the last remaining non-SPL team as they won a 170,000 bounty for beating Hamilton in the all-First Division quarter-final. This featured the goal of the round, one of two from Blair Alston. He hit a bouncing ball from 22 yards as a corner was cleared and it just flew into the top corner. It was very exciting. Falkirk should have their own ace, Lyle Taylor, for the semi-final, despite a terrible foul on him in the dying moments of that match. Taylor has been the star of the second tier playing with 25 goals and counting in a very young mid-table team.

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