Monday, 8 October 2012

Savouring Succulent Lamb: Review of 'Downfall' by Phil Mac Giolla Bhain

Rangers FC are an abominable institution who deserved everything they got. Your response to that statement is a good gauge of how much you will enjoy this gripping, entertaining and informative piece of sports journalism from Phil Mac Giolla Bhain.

Mac Giolla Bhain is a Scottish-born Irishman who was educated in the West of Scotland. For those that do not know, Scotland's West is home to a peculiar religious divide which also afflicts the north east of Ireland. The division between Scottish Protestant and Irish Catholic continues to express itself, often over several generations, by football, with Rangers being the team of the Orange tendency and Celtic that of the Green. A particular kind of ethnic sectarianism has blighted many aspects of Scottish society, from Church of Scotland ministers writing overtly racist tracts against the presence of the Irish in Scotland in 1926, to the common question of "What school did you go to?" asked by a prospective employer.

It is in reference to this background that 'Downfall' must be understood. This is not a simple tale of a sports club going bust. The story of the so-called 'Famine Song', detailed in the book, also informs further understanding of both the mindset at Rangers and the author's own motivations for writing the book.

This book deals directly with the issue of Rangers going into liquidation, and how it was dealt with by Scottish media and society. The author's assessment often makes uncomfortable reading, especially for those of a Rangers persuasion.

The text consists of re-published articles from the author's own website, which was first with a number of scoops when it came to the saga unfolding at Rangers' Ibrox home. Organised into sections which deal with Finance, Media, Fans and the Scottish Football Association, the book provides a complete detailing of the story of how the most powerful club in Scottish football, one of the most influential institutions in Scottish society, fell dramatically from its perch.

This approach sometimes hampers the narrative flow of the story, with the ordering of the various articles often requiring a measure of mental rewind. On balance though, this approach does work well, allowing the themes of the whole episode to emerge more clearly.

The basic reason why Rangers got themselves into such a financial mess that they no longer technically exist, at least in their original form, is convoluted. It revolves around giving players two contracts, one which the game's governing body and HMRC knew about, the other that they did not. Without going into too many specifics here, it was a major, huge tax dodge.

Added to that was the excessive spending carried out by former chairman Sir David Murray. This spending made Rangers Scotland's premier club, but never brought them the European success that they so craved. Mac Giolla Bhain's assertion that much of this spending was driven by a deep need to match the single European Cup success of city rivals Celtic is an interesting one, in which one sense that there might well be some mileage.

Another theme is the hubris of the Ibrox club, first under the chairmanship of Sir David Murray, and then under the control of Craig Whyte. Many involved with Rangers simply seemed to see things like tax bills as something that the little clubs paid. Rangers could do what they liked, how they liked; as Scotland's Establishment Club they were simply too big to fail, a bit like a bank.

The fact that they did fail, and then the plan by the game's governing bodies to shoehorn them back into the Scottish Premier League and the the Scottish First Division, rather than forcing them to start at the bottom of the league, is testament, as the author states, to fans of other clubs.

The book goes into some detail about how ordinary fans of those other clubs, sick to the back teeth of Rangers and their behaviour, organised protests so that every club chairman in Scotland was in doubt about what would happen if Rangers were allowed to get away with it, yet again.

What is particularly entertaining is when the author lets himself off the leash of journalistic neutrality, a stance he is fastidious about in much of the book, and indulges his clear dislike for Rangers and everything that it stands for.

Many people, inside and outside Scotland and Ireland, will have their own views on Rangers. In the experience of this reviewer and many other people, it often seems that there is not much they stand for beyond an overriding hatred of anything remotely Irish and Catholic. Songs about 'wading in Fenian blood' which also commemorate members of the British Union of Fascists like the odious Billy Fullerton testify adequately to this mindset.

The mindset at the club is one of entitlement, exemplified by the way in which the game's governing body in Scotland often features figures like Campbell Ogilivie, also simultaneously a Rangers director. Anyone who is not for the predominant position of the club is clearly against them, and not just against them but probably has an agenda. It is a mentality that sees fans play the man rather than the ball when it comes to breaking bad news about their club. Mac Giolla Bhain makes great play of his Irish ethnicity, and it was this ethnicity which prevented many at Ibrox from listening when he first started digging into the facts of the story.

The fact that this mindset seeps into Scotland's media, to the extent where most of the press corps seem to be 'Rangers men with typewriters', is something that 'Downfall' deals with admirably. Mac Giolla Bhain details how Scottish sports hacks fed on 'Succulent Lamb' from the Ibrox table. Rangers were Scotland's establishment club, in every way. From the 20th century policy of signing no Catholics, to Sir David Murray's use of his establishment contacts and the club's status to spin never ending lines of credit, Mac Giolla Bhain documents in clear detail the hubris of a club which thought it was invulnerable.

Mac Giolla Bhain's analysis of why no massed fans' group emerged to protest about the way things were being done at Ibrox is also interesting. His opinion is that the blue hordes are basically supine in their deference to authority and bovine in the way that that authority can herd them where it chooses.

The fans chose to believe the stories told by an aggressive Ibrox PR department about men such as Craig Whyte, and they were helped in it by a Scottish media pack who were so in the pocket of the Ibrox hierarchy that no serious investigation at all was conducted by any of them into any of the claims made by the club. This is the story that Mac Giolla Bhain tells, and it will be interesting to see if any alternative narratives from the blue side of Glasgow make it into print to contradict him, especially when it comes to his assertions that there is a widespread acceptance and encouragement of a culture of institutional sectarianism in the Scottish mainstream media.

Scottish football is not the only sporting arena where this kind of journalism flourishes. Other sports clearly have a culture of accept anything we are told, make friends with players and management and never write anything negative. English football's media coverage is better, but certain personalities still wield ridiculous levels of control over what can be written and by whom. The 'Succulent Lamb' savoured by Scottish football journalists has its equivalents elsewhere.

That is perhaps the key strength of 'Downfall'. It lifts the rock in terms of media practise in Scotland and will hopefully provide the inspiration for other working journalists to take more serious interest in what goes on in their sports. It also shows the value of new media such as blogs in holding the powerful to account, when more established media is more concerned about potential sales rather than digging out uncomfortable truths.

Zack Wilson is the author of novel 'Stumbles and Half Slips', published by Epic Rites Press, available from

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