The Untouchables

The long, drawn out attempt to strip Rangers of titles reaches its climax this week. If it goes our way, as it should, then one of the most embarrassing periods in Scottish football history will finally come to a rather inglorious end for those behind the attempt to belittle the club further. If it somehow goes against the club, then we are set for a court room drama that will make A Few Good Men look like a half-hour, light entertainment yarn.

For certain SPL clubs there isn’t, and never has been, any doubt about Rangers’ guilt on this issue. The actions of a fair few of them over the summer showed the level of contempt in which they held a fellow member club, and the lengths they were prepared to go to kick it when it was at its lowest ebb.

They demanded contrition – yet were very short on that particular commodity when the verdict of the First Tier Tax Tribunal went in Rangers’ favour.

That verdict effectively meant that Rangers Football Club, a 140 year old sporting institution, had been hounded, vilified and cast to the backwaters of Scottish football on nothing more than a lie. Yet even when faced with the truth of the legality of the Employee Benefit Trust scheme, they still refused to back off with the pathetic attempt to humiliate the club further.

You would think that after such a major ruling our cries of protestation at the continued attempt to strip titles would be met with understanding by our unbiased and balanced media. Yet, in a lot of quarters, there is an accusation of ‘paranoia’ at the mere suggestion there is an agenda towards Rangers within certain quarters of Scottish football hierarchy & Fourth Estate.

Jim Traynor’s revelation, however, that a high ranking, unnamed editor shouted: ‘It’s a fucking government conspiracy’ on hearing the ruling of the FTTT has shown that a) many had presumed guilt on the EBT issue and b) many whose job it was to be impartial were revelling in Rangers’ woes.

Traynor’s revelations validate the concerns of many Rangers supporters, and expose accusations of paranoia within the Rangers support on this issue as nonsense.

What is also nonsense is the notion that these events are ‘unprecedented’. More than once I’ve been presented with the legend that the SPL and SFA are victims in this too. I mean, how could the other SPL clubs and footballing authorities know how to react to this situation when it has never happened before?

It’s a valid point, until you realise that a club running into trouble with the tax man isn’t unprecedented.

Arsenal Football Club fell foul of HMRC back in 2005 for the use of off-shore benefit trusts, and the reactions of The Premiership, The FA and media compared to the reactions of the SPL, the SFA and our footballing journalists are startling.

Arsenal were hit with a tax bill of £12 million. Arsenal chairman Peter Hill-Wood said at the time: ‘The Revenue are crawling all over us. We thought we had acted perfectly legally ... but now maybe the rules have changed. We are not the only people who have been doing this.’

The use of the scheme only came to light after documents were presented in the divorce hearing of Ray Parlour, which showed he only paid a rate of 22% on a salary of £1.5 million in season 2000/01. HMRC acted on this information and issued Arsenal with a considerable, back-dated bill.

Arsenal paid the bill in full, rendering it impossible to make any judgement on how HMRC treated Arsenal compared with Rangers on any settlement attempts. But what can be asked is why it took a further five years for HMRC to act on the EBT issue with Rangers when the club published them annually in their financial accounts?

The fact that Arsenal were stung on this issue contradicts the popular theory that HMRC’s case against Rangers was a ‘test case’, and the reason they were being so dogged on their attempts to extract the full, monumental amount was because it would ‘open the doors’ to other clubs using the scheme. The Arsenal case pre-dates the Rangers case by five years. HMRC had their test case. They had challenged Arsenal and they’d paid up without contesting, yet waited half-a-decade before pursuing Rangers. Why?

That, however, is not the main beef with the Arsenal case. You need to look at the other major stakeholders to draw real comparisons with what has happened up here in Scotland during Rangers’ run-in with HMRC.

Did the other member clubs of The Premiership protest that Arsenal had lived beyond their means and benefited from the use of a tax avoidance scheme on the park? No.

Were there any accusations of ‘financial doping’ from other clubs and their supporters? No.

Was there an influx of bitter Spurs fans, and fans of other Premiership clubs, taking to the Blog-sphere and calling 606 to tell the world that Arsenal Football Club had been involved in cheating ‘on an industrial scale’? No.

Did an anonymous blogger start a blog called ‘The Arsenal Tax Case’ and update it regularly with sensitive information whilst uploading pictures of leaked documents? No.  

Did mainstream media commentators and journalists take the opportunity to make Arsenal the pantomime villain and invite bile and vitriol to be aimed at the club without fear of reprisal? No.

Did the FA and Premiership decide to look into the use of this scheme to see if Arsenal had a case to answer and pronounce to the world before that investigation that what Arsenal had indulged in was a ‘step short of match-fixing’? No.

Did the BBC adopt an aggressive and patronising stance towards Arsenal when covering them? No.

Did Channel Four send Alex Thomson to doorstep The Emirates stadium? No.

In season 2003/04, Arsenal Football Club set an achievement that will arguably never be repeated in modern day football: they went through an entire 38 game league campaign undefeated. They were literally ‘untouchable’.

Yet, despite manager Arsène Wenger and star players such as Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp and the previously mentioned Ray Parlour all benefiting from off-shore benefit trust schemes, was there a clamour in England to strip Arsenal of this wonderful achievement when revelations of the scheme became public? No.

There has never been the slightest suggestion that Arsenal ‘cheated’ their way to that title, or others during the period they operated the off-shore benefit trust scheme. That particular side is celebrated and heralded as one of the greatest ever in the history of English football.

Compare that with how Rangers are viewed for using a similar, if not identical scheme in this country and it becomes apparent that our fears that this investigation is not based on ‘sporting integrity’ are not without foundation.

The Arsenal were untouchable. If there is any genuine sporting integrity in this country, those behind the movement to strip Rangers of titles will find out that our achievements carry a similar status.    

Colin Armstrong is a former columnist for the Rangers News and match-day programme. He has also written for When Saturday Comes and contributed to the book Ten Days that Shook Rangers.

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