In a week that has seen 5 Newcastle United players go on loan to Rangers, commentators have started to express concern, without directly saying why.
Caretaker manager at Rangers, Kenny MacDowell, has come out and been interpreted as being told that he has to play the loan players if fit, although this is disputed by Derek Llambias, if he can be believed after the Keegan tribunal. If true, why is this a problem?
I have been following the Rangers saga since Ashley started to get involved. In summary, he has a stake of 8.92%. Having also made loans to the club, the SFA have stepped in to oppose his increasing that stake. Since being investigated by the SFA, the sports retail company in which Ashley is a major shareholder, has stepped in, the loan to Ashley personally being repaid but substituted by other debt to the retail company.
The rules that the SFA have invoked are that of dual ownership of football clubs and whether what is happening at Rangers is in the interests of Association Football. There may be speculation about another rule being breached, that of whether it can be stipulated that loan players have to be played. The simple answer to that is who is doing the stipulating, the loaning club or the board of the hosting club.
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Simultaneously, at Newcastle, the top item on the agenda for the last month has been the appointment of a manager, or as Lee Charnley pointed out recently, Head Coach. It is claimed that the latter role dominates in Europe. Charnley identified that it is the board’s remit to recruit players. It remains to be seen how closely those above the coach are to be involved in team selection, with suspicions over weakened selection for club matches being denied.
Scottish football has been bitten before, hence the SFA rules having been reviewed in recent years. There has been an increase in foreign ownership generally. In the Scottish case, most relevant is perhaps Heart of Midlothian and their former owner, Vladimir Romanov.
The current loan moves are reminiscent of Romanov, who also owned Lithuanian club FBK Kaunas and Belarusian club FC PartizanMinsk. One of the features of that association was a number of players being loaned to Hearts. Despite a reputation for meddling in team affairs, the similarity may stop there.
Ashley does not yet have formal control over Rangers despite he and the company in which he is a major shareholder, having a stranglehold over the club’s liquidity. Where Romanov allowed club debt to build, Ashley’s stewardship has seen cost containment and a return to profitability. Where Romanov had ambitions for Europe through cups or league, Ashley’s regime ostensibly has none above Premier League survival. Ashley also stuck with Pardew for 4 years, both otherwise experienced managerial turbulence.
Amid talk of whether Ashley could be bailing out of either Newcastle or Rangers, there is another model which Ashley could be following. Like Romanov did, Giampaolo Pozzo owns clubs in 3 countries. His flagship was initially Udinese, the empire expanding to incorporate Granada in Spain and now Watford. Conceivably, Pozzo could own 3 top flight clubs come August.
Clearly, the SFA have much to ponder as the hearing date on March 3rd may uncover. What exactly are Ashley’s intentions, now that he has ‘saved’ Rangers from financial meltdown?
As mentioned above and in previous articles, Ashley may not necessarily plan on one club or the other. He has a variety of options. There could indeed be some sort of transition of players between clubs to ensure maximum success, as indeed Pozzo has experienced in getting potentially all of his stable into their respective top flights.
With a cosmopolitan squad already, Rangers add Irish and Slovenian internationals, a Burundian and Swiss with age group caps and a promising defender. That sort of experience should be enough to ensure a play-off position in the Scottish 2nd tier. The impression is given, should the model persist, that Rangers could become a feeder club for giving experience to players who have potential to play in the Premier League.
Is this really the case?
Taking a different perspective, and meaning no offence, there are two big teams in Scotland when functioning normally. History tells us that Rangers and Celtic dominate major honours. Scottish football wages are dwarfed by the Premier League. A relatively small increase in human resource can secure Champions League riches.
On the other hand, South of the border, revenues are buoyant, profits in the order of £50m per year are secured by Premier League survival. To challenge for the Champions League means challenging oil billionaires. The wage bill for the top 5 clubs is still higher than Newcastle United’s total turnover.
At the other end of the table, 2 out of 3 promoted clubs nearly always struggle to survive. Some like Southampton, Swansea and Stoke invest to push on, others like Hull and West Brom cling on by their finger tips. There is a perverse incentive not to invest.
If survival can be almost assured by Christmas, where now fringe players are being loaned in the quest for promotion, why should it not be the top players to help progress in the Champions League or just to secure Champions League access?
Newcastle United are already a stepping stone for players like Carroll, Cabaye, Ba, Remy. As a feeder club, surely a feeder club with access to Champions League football must be even more attractive to aspiring footballers.
From Ashley’s perspective, costs can be cut with one scouting system for two clubs. £10m, £25m or even more from UEFA progress, adds to Rangers’ profitability and perhaps even more importantly, Europe wide exposure to his leading brand.
Subject to overcoming a few minor hurdles, the biggest of which is arguably an impoverished SFA, Ashley could be on his way to having another feeder club, giving exposure to the riche of the Premier League, the riches of Europe and the riches of brand promotion. The question becomes, who is a feeder club to whom?
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