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Archive for November, 2012

Well, this is a turn up for the books.

After a lengthy delay, the First Tier Tax Tribunal that sat to consider the former football club’s use of Employee Benefit Trusts has issued its verdict. And the club has won on a 2 – 1 majority decision.

The full document issued runs to well over 100 pages and is written in the kind of legal and tax jargon that few of us fully understand. The names of those giving evidence have also been changed, giving a comic look as we read of Mr Magenta and Mr Scarlett. And two very different interpretations of the evidence and the law are contained within the document.

But the bottom line is that the decision has gone the former Rangers’ way.

Now, a few words for the many fans of the football club in liquidate who have visited this blog over the last couple of days. My policy is not to delete comments that disagree with me. I like a bit of debate. But I do delete those with bad language and sectarian epithets, so most of that time Follow Follow readers spent here is for nothing.

(Just to clear up a few matters for you. I’m an atheist not a Roman Catholic. I went to a non denominational school, not an RC one. My parents are married. And I’ve never had intimate relations with a non-human animal. So now you know.)

Back to the matter in hand. What does this decision actually mean?

Well the first thing to say is that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) are considering an appeal against the decision. That would mean another hearing and a further lengthy wait for a decision.

It should also be pointed out that the decision announced does not totally clear the former Rangers. It rules that tax was due on some, but not all, of the payments made. So the tax liability will be much reduced, but will not be zero. Unfortunately no figures are included so the exact amount that is due is unknown.

So in effect the former football club now has debts that are much lower than we had thought. But it still owes far more that it will ever be able to pay and so the liquidation process that is being overseen by BDO will continue. There are no degrees of dead – this decision doesn’t make the club slightly less dead.

The other big issue relates to Lord Nimmo Smith’s delayed inquiry on behalf of the Scottish Premier League into the contractual position of players of the former club. In short, that inquiry will look at whether payments were made to players outwith the contracts lodged with the footballing authorities.

Now far from clearing the former club, the FTT ruling issued actually makes a guilty verdict more likely.

It is now confirmed that so called side letters do exist. These are letters from the Trust acting on behalf of the club to individual employees, players and managers included, confirming that they will not need to pay back the loans made to them.

It is important to remember that the tax issue and the footballing issue are separate, Even if they payments made were legal under tax law they could still fall foul of football’s regulations. A successful tax appeal does not make the Nimmo Smoth inquiry go away.

And what about those who received the loans? Well, they could find a letter from liquidators BDO in the post sometime soon asking for repayment. But, they will argue, we have letters stating that we will never have to pay the loan back. And so there may be a few more court cases to come as that legal knot is untangled.

In relation to the former football club we are left with a lot of What Ifs? What if Craig Whyte had paid his bills – would the club have survived? What if the £10.5M payment David Murray tried to negotiate with HMRC had been agreed? Could he have continued to run the club rather than selling it to Whyte for £1?

We will simply never know.

Finally, to all of those who are calling for an apology from me, here it is. I apologise for stating that the former club would lose this appeal. I got that wrong.

But this ruling is not the end of the matter. There may well be a further HMRC appeal. And even if there is not there could still be footballing consequences to come from the use of EBTs.

As always, nothing to do with the affairs of the former Rangers football club is straightforward.

 

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Two competing plans for a restructuring of Scottish football have been revealed in recent days. But do we really need to shake up the league structures? And would either plan be an improvement on what we have at the moment anyway?

I’ve always been a believer in a well planned approached to major change projects. It’s the qualified project manager in me, you see. And my approach always begins by working out the case for change. Why do it? What problems are we trying to solve? What will a successful solution look like?

And if there is no case for change, then keep what you have. This season’s SPL is looking pretty good so far. Plenty of competitive matches, lots of goals and several clubs with gates up on previous seasons.

I don’t think any of the basic questions have been asked by anyone in Scottish football. Rather there is a rush for reform without thought.

We currently have a Scottish Premier League with 12 teams run by the SPL. Below that are three divisions of 10 teams each, run by the SFL, the Scottish Football League. And overseeing the game is the Scottish Football Association. Now before considering the exact number of divisions needed and how many teams should be in each, I think there is a far more fundamental question that needs to be answered.

Why do we require three separate governing bodies to run Scottish football?

Back in 2009 the former First Minister of Scotland Henry McLeish carried out a review of our national game. He produced a two part report in 2010. He called for a radical restructuring of the professional game, something which mysteriously seems to have been placed on the back burner ever since. I wonder why?

The Scottish Football League was first to produce its plans for a new league structure. It proposed three leagues with 16, 10 and 16 teams. Quite how such a disparity in numbers between them can make any sense is beyond me. On what basis can such a varied structure be justified?

The Scottish Premier League has now unveiled its counterproposal – two top divisions of 12 teams each under a new corporate banner. And below that the other 18 teams can do what they like, presumably.

So how would this SPL scheme work? Well, in a spirit of making things as complicated as possible, it seems. Here are the highlights:

In each league, teams initially play each other home and away. A split would come after those 22 games, following which the bottom four clubs in the top division and the top four from the second tier would play a further 14 games home and away to determine which four clubs secured top-flight status.

The top eight teams from the top division play each other again. Similarly the bottom eight in the second division play again.

Then presumably you take away the number you first thought of and declare the final positions for the season.

It all seems unnecessarily complex to me. I’m a believer that league systems should be as simple as possible and be based around some basic principles. Each team should play the same set of fixtures. That’s what leagues are all about. Each team should play each other home and away the same number of times. And each team should have an equal number of home and away fixtures overall.

I’m not a fan in splitting leagues half way through. And I definitely don’t want to see two divisions split into three as proposed. Think about it. The team in 9th place in the top division could be many points better off than the team in 12th at the half way stage. It could have won each of the two games between the two teams. Yet they would both start the second half of the season again on zero points. Where’s the fairness in that?

This new half season play off system also ends automatic promotion to the top division. All the champions of the second tier win is the chance to play in the middle league in the second part of the season. There could easily end up being no change in the membership of wither league, no promotion or relegation at all.

And how can a club sell season tickets to fans when it doesn’t know who it will be playing in the second half of the season? It could be top tier sides or those that start the season in the second flight.

No, it’s all too muddled. And, to go back to the purpose question, what exactly is it trying to achieve?

In practical terms it would seem that neither of these two plans is likely to attract the levels of support required for implementation. And that, horrifically, means that some sort of compromise between the two could yet be created.

There only seems to be one degree of commonality between the two plans – and that’s a reduction in the number of divisions from four to three. On what basis has this been decreed the ideal model for Scottish football? And has anyone anywhere bothered to ask football fans what they think?

Scottish football needs to change. But let’s start at the top and get rid of the many committee men who have been mismanaging the game for years while accepting the privileges that come with their positions.

Let’s set up a new governing body that includes independent directors, as McLeish proposed, to come up with a plan for the future.

And then let’s devise a simple and straightforward league structure that makes sense for Scotland.

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Celtic Football Club has had a habit over its 125 year history of producing wonderful moments at the most opportune times. But there has surely never been a birthday party with a gift like a victory over Barcelona. If it had happened in a comic strip it would have been called unbelievable.

Barcelona came to the East End of Glasgow in great form. The current crop of players is undoubtedly one of the greatest club teams that the game has ever seen. They play a brand of football that few others have ever attempted, let alone matched. It is, quite simply, a joy for football fans to watch them play.

A look at the two sides before kick-off could only lead any impartial observer to conclude that the Catalans were massive favourites. They had Lionel Messi, the greatest player in the world today and one of the top three players in history. Xabi and Iniesta, perhaps the best midfield partnership that the game has seen. Fabregas and Villa were only on the bench, tremendous players but unable to break into the first eleven. Some £60M worth of talent held in reserve!

The home side started without club captain Brown, top striker Hooper and left back Izaguirre, three players who would have definitely started if fit. Also missing were the likes of Rogne, Forrest, Stokes and Lassad. Neil Lennon must have had a difficult time coming up with a tactical plan for such a massive match with so many players unavailable for selection.

The famous atmosphere at Celtic Park on European nights is always very special. But on this night it was something quite incredible. The occasion, the colour of the full stadium display, the thunder as the Champions League theme tune was drowned out by 60,000 voices roaring in unison. An atmosphere unmatched anywhere in world football.

To quote the Barcelona manager Tito Vilanova: “We’ve been lucky to play in some great stadiums in recent years, in England for example. But I’ve never seen anything like this ground tonight. It was spectacular and I congratulate Celtic.”

So on to the match. From the start Barcelona passed and moved. They played the beautiful game as only they can play it. Their star players were bright and lively, causing problems for the Celtic defence. But the home side defended stoutly and resolutely. They worked and worked to deny space and chances. And when needed goalkeeper Fraser Forster was at his best.

But Celtic made chances too. And it was Victor Wanyama who opened the scoring on 21 minutes, a powerful header from Charlie Mulgrew’s corner finding the net and sending the vast majority of the crowd into ecstatic celebrations. For the second match in a row Celtic led Barcelona.

Now, exited as I was, I also felt a lot of trepidation. Remember David Narey scoring against Brazil and how it stirred them into a four goal response? But the defence stayed solid. And, very importantly, Celtic were able to keep the lead intact until half time on this occasion.

In the second half Barcelona became increasingly frustrated by their lack of success. How often do you see this great passing side resorting to hopeful high balls into the box? Yet that’s what happened here. The Celtic defending was dogged and determined and Forster made more saves, a one handed stop from a Messi shot perhaps the most impressive.

An injury to full back Lustig gave Neil Lennon a decision to make with less than twenty minutes left. And he made the brave judgement that another striker was his best option. So eighteen year old Tony Watt, whose transfer fee would not pay the wages of a Barcelona first teamer for a week, was given the chance to shine. How many managers would have brought on another defender and tried to hang on to the 1 – 0?

Just minutes later Xabi misjudged a long kick out from goalkeeper Forster and it was young Watt who ran through on goal. With the calm nerve of a veteran he cracked the ball unerringly into the corner of the net and, almost unbelievably, Celtic were two goals ahead. Bedlam resulted.

Now I was a believer. Celtic were about to beat Barcelona. What a feeling!

But the great Messi finally got his goal right on 90 minutes, ensuring an agonising four minutes of injury time for the Celtic faithful. Surely the triumph would not be snatched cruelly away? Barcelona pressed ever forward but could not make another chance. I’ve never seen a goal kick greeted with the type of cheer that erupted seconds before the final whistle was blown.

And then it was over. Celtic 2 Barcelona 1. Incredible.

It is almost impossible to describe the wild celebrations that followed. The likes of AC Milan and Manchester United have been defeated at Celtic Park in recent years, so the fans are used to big results. But this was on another level. This was the great Barcelona. This was phenomenal. It wasn’t just Rod Stewart who was in tears.

For Celtic manager Neil Lennon this was a quite amazing triumph. In only his second year as a manager he has achieved something that many others will never equal. His tactics were perfect, his bravery rewarded. He deserves every moment of celebration, every piece of praise that he gets. We all know what this man has been through, what he has suffered for the club. Legend is the only word for Neil Lennon.

For every player involved this was a game they will remember throughout their career, indeed their lives. Every last one of them was immense and there were no failures. But several stood out, giants who gave everything for the cause.

Fraser Forster was a colossus. His two performances against Barce have been stunning and Joe Hart must surely be worried about his England place.

Adam Matthews, just 20 and playing out of position at left back, was quite tremendous. He tackled and harried, blocked and marked. He worked himself to a standstill.

Victor Wanyama in midfield did not look out of place amongst the stars he faced. Number 67 has learned all about Celtic very quickly and his growing reputation is deserved. £15M, Sir Alex? No thanks.

Georgious Samaras wasn’t fully fit after an injury in the first game against Barcelona. But he ran all night long. He chased and carried the fight to the opposition. You could see fear when he ran at their defence.

And Tony Watt. What can you say about Tony? At just 18 years old he is big, strong and fast and showed again that he knows how to finish. Will he ever score a bigger goal in his career? Let’s hope so.

This was a game that was won by desire and heart. By great tactics matched with iron discipline and sheer hard work. Celtic did not choose to sit back; they were forced back by a superb attacking side. But every man did his job and the team came out on top.

There is still a feeling of disbelief among Celtic supporters that this amazing result was achieved. But victory was secured and the record books now show that Barcelona came and were beaten. The collection of megastars played well, but not well enough to take the spoils.

In the incredible 125 year history of a club formed to feed the poor in the East End of Glasgow there have been many great moments. 25 May 1967 in Lisbon still tops the list – but the birthday party victory of 7 November 2012 will now feature near to the top of the highlights reel.

 

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I wrote this piece back in 2008 and posted it on Myspace. This was four years ago, in the days before Facebook and WordPress were commonly used.

It serves as a preview for the Champions League clash between Celtic and Barcelona this week.

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The date: 20 February 2008. The place: CelticPark in Glasgow. The result: Celtic 2 Barcelona 3. These are the bare facts, but they don’t tell the true story of the greatest game of football l have seen at CelticPark.

The first game I attended at the ground we Celtic fans call Paradise was in 1973. I don’t know exactly how many games I have attended in the last 35 years, but I would guess it numbers in the hundreds. I’ve seen many of Europe’s premier teams come to visit over the years: Barce themselves three times recently, AC Milan twice, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Liverpool and Real Madrid to mention just a few.

But none of these great teams have produced the football that Barcelona’s superstars treated 60,000 fans to last night. They played the beautiful game the way it should be played. The passed and moved at a frightening pace. They created chances almost at will. And when they didn’t have the ball they worked hard to harry Celtic’s players and to win possession back.

Football these days is dominated by the money that the bigger teams generate from TV money. The top teams from the big leagues (Spain, Italy, England and Germany) have a huge structural advantage that allows them to attract world class players at will. And Barcelona has assembled a squad of superstars that rivals any other side in the world.

Many teams now play one man up front away from home and adopt a primarily defensive attitude. Some play two up with a more attacking philosophy. But Barcelona fields three attackers home and away. That’s the way they play the game. And what a three they had on display.

Ronaldhino, the brilliant Brazilian, Twice voted World Player of the Year, who always plays with a smile on his face.

Thierry Henry, the French superstar renowned for pace and goal scoring. Formerly of Juventus and Arsenal, where he became their all time leading goalscorer, Barce paid £16M for his services last summer.

And Lionel Messi, the mercurial 20 year old Argentinean superstar in the making, who made his international debut at 18. Diego Maradona himself named this young man as his successor.

The atmosphere at Celtic Park was incredible last night. A crowd of 60,000 packed in on a cold Glasgow night, with the vocal Catalan minority adding to the atmosphere created by the always passionate home crowd.

There is a real bond between these two clubs and this was evident in the cordial mood that prevailed. Barcelona and Celtic have become good friends through recent meetings, and the clubs share a similar heritage. Both domestically represent the hopes and dreams of minority communities, Irish and Catalan respectively, against establishment teams. Barce describe themselves as “Més que un club” (More than a club), an appellation that could equally describe Celtic. And both teams have a proud history of playing attractive attacking football.

The teams entered the arena like gladiators to the sight and sound of a crowd in full song. There is no better sight in world football than a CelticPark crowd with scarves held aloft singing You’ll Never Walk Alone. The noise almost deafening, the emotional outpouring of a defiant song that we have made our own seeing many in tears and electricity almost visible in the air. The Barce fans applauded the Celtic anthem as it ended and the game began.

Barce started superbly, passing and moving, playing the football they are famed for. Celtic at times looked unable to cope but somehow survived the early pressure. And then the impossible happened. Celtic drove forward and a cross into the box was headed into the net by the striker Jan Vennigoor of Hessalink for the opening goal, bringing joy to the vast majority of the crowd. Could the impossible be happening?

But the home fans were silenced minutes later when Lionel Messi cut into the box to shoot into the top corner pf the net for the equaliser. Momentarily stunned, the home fans burst into song once more as the game kicked off and shortly they had another headed goal to celebrate. This time midfielder Barry Robson, making his first start for Celtic, met another cross to head superbly over the Barce keeper. Again wild scenes of celebration followed.

Barce seemed to have control of the ball for almost all of the remainder of the first half but couldn’t make the breakthrough. Half time came after a breathless forty five minutes of attacking football with Celtic ahead by 2 – 1. A short break to catch breath and to wonder what might happen next and the teams emerged for the second half.

Celtic were unable to get much possession and Barce’s superstars sprayed passes left and right with a precision and pace that astounded. Wave after wave of attack carried them towards the Celtic goal and only some good defending and superb goalkeeping kept Celtic ahead.

But they couldn’t keep the relentless Barce players out forever and a misplaced pass gave the ball to Ronaldinho. He rolled the ball forward to Henry who advanced down the left, cut inside and unleashed an unstoppable shot high into the far corner of the net. A superb equaliser and one that even the home fans were forced to admit was fully justified.

The pattern of the game was set, with Celtic unable to test the Barce goalkeeper more than once in the entire second half, while the Celtic goal was under almost constant threat. Near the end another lovely piece of skill from Messi saw him create a little space in a crowded box to fire home the winner for his side.

Celtic fans have seen many great finishes from their team, with late goals a speciality. But this time there was no fairytale ending and Barcelona held out for a deserved 3 – 2 victory. Indeed the quality of their play probably deserved a much bigger margin of victory.

Both sets of players were applauded from the pitch by the fans, who had enjoyed a superb match. The Barce fans continued to sing and were applauded from the pitch by the home fans. And the Barcelona players applauded the Celtic fans as well as there own before they left the pitch.

I drove home unable to shake a very strange feeling. I hate to see my team lose a game, ever. But last night I had to admit that they played well yet had been beaten by a better side. And a side that played football with a style and verve that a true football fan could do nothing but admire and applaud.

I felt truly privileged to have watched some of the best players in the game playing at top form. This was nothing less than a football master class.

The greatest game of football l have seen at Celtic Park.

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Tomorrow sees the third round of the Scottish Cup, or the William Hill Scottish Cup as I suppose I should call it to give the sponsors their due. Sixteen ties between Scotland’s smaller clubs will take place to see who makes it through to the fourth round draw, where they will be joined by Scotland’s top sixteen clubs from last season.

But the crucial question that should be asked by serious students of Scottish football is perhaps not an obvious one. It is “Who are Livingston playing in the third round?”

Why is this so important?

Well, have a look at last year’s First Division table. We see that Livingston finished the season in fifth place. Now let’s look at the regulations for this year’s Scottish Cup.

Round Three

The clubs which, in the previous season, were members of The Scottish Premier League and those clubs finishing in The Scottish Football League First Division league positions one to four, shall be exempt from playing in Round Three of the Competition.

So Livingston should be playing in the third round, right?

Well, no. They have a bye and will enter the competition in the fourth round. But why?

The answer is quite simple. One of the clubs that finished in the top sixteen last season no longer exists. The former Rangers Football Club is now in liquidation and is no longer a Scottish league club.

The spare place in the Scottish leagues was taken by new club “The Rangers” who joined in the bottom tier. And as a third division club they came into this year’s Scottish Cup in the second round. A narrow 1 – 0 win over non-league Forres Mechanics saw them progress and they now have a third round tie against higher league opponents in Alloa Athletic to look forward to.

Now if, as some erroneously claim, “The Rangers” is in fact the same football club as the former Rangers FC, would this be case? Well, no. If the two were indeed the same then, as the rules make clear, a bye to the fourth round would have been secured. And Livingston would have been in the draw for the third round rather than having a weekend off.

So there you are. Proof according to the SFA, which runs the Scottish Cup, that “The Rangers” are not the same football club as former SPL club Rangers FC.

QED as they say. Quod erat demonstrandum.

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