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The future of Scottish football: Hedge your bets

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Fall from grace: Rangers lost to Malmo in the third qualifying round of the Champions League in 2011 and things have not got brighter since. Press Association
Lynne Cameron
Fall from grace: Rangers lost to Malmo in the third qualifying round of the Champions League in 2011 and things have not got brighter since. Press Association

It's not long since Glasgow Rangers were one of the largest and best-known clubs in the world.  With 54 league titles, they were arguably Scotland's most successful ever football team, regularly playing in Europe.

Just four years ago they were playing in the finals of the UEFA Cup, taking on Zenit St Petersburg at the Etihad Stadium.

Yesterday they started, literally, from scratch.  Reformed in Division 3 after the original club's spectacular financial collapse, The Rangers - as other clubs fans insist on calling them, in a pointed dig at the loss of their history - entered Scottish football at it's lowliest stage: The opening round of the Challenge Cup, a competition open only to lower league sides.

They struggled to an extra time victory at Brechin City, a second division club in a small town between Aberdeen and Dundee in what, on any other day, would have been a major triumph for Brechin.  Such is the topsy turvey nature of the Scottish game now that this, technically, was a giantkilling.  A Division Three side claiming the scalp of a team fromt he league above them.

Brechin's Glebe Park ground is famous for having a hedge running along it.  It's a far cry from the Nou Camp, the Estadio Jose Alvalade or the Etihad.  It's unlikely at those grounds you'd need to send a ballboy up some shrubbery in order to retrieve a stray match ball lodged on top of it.

If ever there was a metaphor for the state of Scottish football, it's that forlorn image.

The Rangers story has become one of the most ugly farces in football history.  From the club's financial skulduggery that saw the Ibrox side left with debts of more than Dh750m, to the desperate horsetrading between the Scottish Premier League, the Scottish Football Association and the Scottish Football League over who would, and wouldn't, take responsibility for punishing them - and, significantly, who would get Rangers' TV rights to their games now they are outwith the SPL.

Then there's the schizm between clubs and supporters, the former keen to keep Rangers within touching distance (subject to suitable punishment) to ensure they can still capitalise on the ancillary revenue their presence generates, while fans wanted to see them penalised in the most severe terms available.

Where the story goes from here remains to be seen.  The SFA, SPL and the newco formed to replace Rangers are still at loggerheads over how much more punishment should be dealt out to the side over the transgressions it's predecessor made, a situation which took a further ugly twist last night when Rangers' new owner, Charles Green, suggested that bigotry was at the heart of the continuing drive to punish Rangers further.

Hurling about the B word in this situation carries with it its own problems, as any long-term observer of Scottish football can confirm, and it risks dragging the usual west coast sectarian nonsense into an already messy situation.

But he's right in another of his comments - that this remarkable mess is unprecendented and has dragged on.

"It seems to me the whole of Scotland have wanted to kick this giant club while it was down," he told the BBC.

"I think justice has been done. The club were fined 10 points, it received an £190,000 fine, it was then put out the SPL, it was then put down to the Third Division, it has had to pay all the Scottish club debts, which wouldn't normally happen for a newco to be obliged to pay oldco's debts.

"We're also now paying European debts and there is still potential cloud hanging over the club from the SPL over EBT issues."

What has emerged is this awkward situation where Rangers are being regarded as a new company when it suits - with no history, no titles, starting from square one as the newest member of the SFL, a club barely a few weeks - rather than 140 years old.  Yet this new company is also to be punished as if it were the old one, being docked the titles that it supposedly doesn't have in the first place, and the SFA refusing to grant them membership unless they accepted sanctions for the old company's football debts.

An SPL investigation into how the old club paid its players held up approval for the club to join the league so long, they had to be given a conditional membership to allow the Brechin game to go ahead yesterday.

And the media rights deal is the most telling.  Clubs wanted Rangers sent to the bottom of the pile, yet still wanted access to all the supposed wealth that their presence in the top flight would generate - to the extent of threatening to withhold contractual payments from the SPL to the SFL if a deal was not done, claiming it would sabotage their TV deal with Sky and ESPN in the UK.

Viewed in those terms, there does seems to be a substantial amount of 'having cake and eating it' going on in the Hampden corridors.

Justice must be seen to be done, of that there is no doubt, and yesterday's game gives cause to think - or hope, depending on your point of view - that Rangers' rise back to the top flight will not be the cakewalk their supporters expect.  But the vested self-interests already shown by the various parties in all of this suggest the longer it drags on - and it will - the greater the long-term damage to Scottish football there's likely to be.

In Scotland there's a saying - the ba's on the slates, meaning something's unobtainable or out of reach.  In the case of a satisfactory outcome to this whole mess, the ball might not be on the slates yet, but it's certainly on a hedge...