The friendly lady at Glasgow’s Waterstone’s store was intrigued as I purchased a copy of what will probably be the biggest-selling sports book in Scotland this year.
‘Oh, we’ve only just decided to sell that book,’ she said, conspiratorially. ‘Was there a problem with it,’ I asked her. This was a little bit disingenuous of me, as I knew that there had been plans to serialise the same book in the Scottish edition of the Sun the previous week before the newspaper’s editor abruptly pulled out of the agreement because he’d recently discovered that the author ‘had been tainted with the sickening brush of sectarianism’. That the paper’s switchboard and assorted on-line facilities had encountered a meltdown through the unprecedented volume of adverse responses to the proposed serialisation may also have played a part in the editor’s sudden volte-face. Subsequently, the book’s author has been threatened, the publisher has had his home address revealed on the internet, and even the journalist employed to edit it for serialisation has been subjected to on-line abuse. And so, before attempting to examine the book’s merits, some context is required. This is especially so for those who may be uninitiated in the tastier elements of the religious, political, social and cultural tribalism that has characterised the rivalry between Glasgow’s two biggest football clubs, Celtic and Rangers.
There is little that is not extraordinary about Downfall: How Rangers FC Self Destructed. It charts the gestation and birth of the most momentous story in the history of Scottish sport. A more accurate, but much more prosaic, sub-title might have been: how was one of the richest and most powerful institutions in Scottish society brought to its knees and destroyed while the rest of us were looking the other way? There is little too that is ordinary about the book’s author, Phil Mac Giolla Bhain, a Glaswegian of Irish descent who has chosen to live in Donegal for the best part of the last 20 years and who, along the way, elected to use the Irish Gaelic version of his surname. Mac Giolla Bhain is a prolific and respected freelance journalist and author in Ireland and there are some who feel that his chosen surname is also extraordinary. Three years ago Mac Giolla Bhain began to post blogs about the approaching perfect financial storm that was about to hit Rangers and which would eventually engulf it within two years. If Mac Giolla Bhain had been employed as a staffer on any of Scotland’s dozen or so national newspaper titles he would be a certainty to be crowned sportswriter of the year, news reporter of the year and journalist of the year for his work on the Rangers story. Yet not even the merest hint of his name will be breathed at the annual industry awards bash early next year. The reasons why not are not dissimilar to those that have prevented any review of Downfall yet having appeared in any Scottish newspaper at the time of writing. There are some valid reasons for this and some that are less palatable.
Even the monks in the Cistercian community at Haddington must know by now what has befallen Rangers. Like the rest of us, they may even have been moved to speculate why. What remains of the old Rangers is currently in the process of being liquidated after collapsing beneath a debt burden that would have sunk a few African republics. The entity that has risen from the ashes of Rangers (1872-2012) has been permitted to start again in the fourth tier of Scottish football. There they have become a travelling theatre troupe playing to full houses in Elgin, Peterhead, Berwick and Forres. Any time soon Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will rule on whether the old company is liable for almost £100 million in unpaid taxes and national insurance contributions. The relationship between old Rangers and new Rangers is being debated by an independent tribunal of three high court judges and this may yet determine if they will be stripped of prizes won during the period when they were allegedly depriving the exchequer of its dues.
Several reasons have been advanced to justify the Scottish media’s antipathy towards Mac Giolla Bhain. The three principal ones are these: that he is an obsessive with anti Rangers’ agenda; that he has an agenda against the mainstream media in Scotland; that his book doesn’t really deserve to be reviewed because it’s not really a book. The last of these deserves to be dealt with first. Downfall is largely a collection of the author’s blogs during the three-year period up to August this year. These fall into two main categories; those in which he explains Rangers’ increasing financial problems and predicts the Armageddon which will eventually finish them; and those in which he excoriates Scotland’s seemingly complacent and pliant mainstream media for choosing to ignore the gathering storm until it broke upon them and they simply had no choice but to cover it.
Thus far in my professional career I have managed to resist the temptation to blog or take to Twitter. Hardly a day passes, it seems, when someone isn’t being abused by on-line trolls or being vilified for transmitting unsavoury and unkempt sentiments using these mediums. It’s not that I’m adopting a supercilious attitude to these; it’s simply that we seem to have become a nation of very fragile and sensitive people and I would soon be in the stocks for saying the wrong thing, and most often at an hour when drink will doubtless have been taken. There can be no doubt though, that Mac Giolla Bhain’s blogs contain journalism of a very high standard. He has obviously cultivated an assortment of contacts well-placed within the banking industry, HMRC, Rangers, Strathclyde police and the Scottish Football Association, all of which he deploys artfully. Thus he revealed a number of genuine exclusive stories about the Rangers story with which any Scottish editor would have been proud to put in his paper. Yet nor can there be any doubt that the author harbours a deep-rooted and bitter dislike of Rangers. We can only guess at the source of these grievances. As to the charge that he is an obsessive, well, aren’t all good journalists supposed to be obsessive, dysfunctional and unfit to be permitted into polite society?
Here, I am obliged to mention that Mac Giolla BHain and I have history. Last year he took exception to a column I had written for the Observer in which I expressed frustration at the tendency of some Catholics in Scotland to wallow in victimhood and who seek constantly to portray Scot-land as still being essentially anti-Catholic in nature. Mac Giolla Bhain immediately took to the on-line version of the Guardian effectively to dismiss me as ‘an uncle Tim’ type of character who was blind to the creeping anti-Catholicism in our midst. It was a reasonably-argued piece but I still hold to my theory and simply fail to recognise the Scotland that the author and others, such as the composer James MacMillan, describe. If Scotland is indeed anti-Catholic then it chooses to manifest it in curious ways; what with its Catholic schools, and Catholic political leaders; not to mention two well-received papal visits.
Mac Giolla Bhain’s animosity towards Rangers is palpable but he reserves most of his venom for the nation’s mainstream media. This is his book’s greatest strength and its most obvious flaw. There is no doubt that the sports desks on each of Scotland’s main daily newspapers were slow in reacting to the Rangers story, which began to unfold in 2011 at a tribunal sitting in Edinburgh where the extent of the club’s financial distress was daily being revealed by HMRC. Mac Giolla Bhain though, is on shakier ground when he attributes this to a series of Faustian pacts that various sports editors and football writers made with Sir David Murray, whom he accuses of suborning the integrity of Scottish football with his wealth and access. If Sir David did use his influence and charisma to induce some journalists to overlook bad news about his club and spin straw into gold then he was only doing what Celtic’s great manager Jock Stein did to great effect in the 1960s and 1970s. Having said that, there are a handful of football writers who, having been exposed for swallowing the Rangers PR machine’s empty blandishments, are still failing to heed the lessons of their original failures. They must know that Rangers’ former and current owners have spent hundreds of thousands of their supporters’ cash on PR firms. The very least some of these reporters could do is make them work a bit harder for such vast sums.
When I was sports editor in chief of the Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday I was fortunate indeed to have writers of high calibre working alongside me. We were all influenced by men such as Hugh McIlvanney, John Rafferty and Ian Archer and we sought to bring intelligence, drama and humour into the sports pages. There had to be risk-taking too and ultimately a desire to ensure that the quality of the writing on the back pages was at least the equal of anything in the news, politics and features pages. Ultimately, though, our main priority was to sell newspapers and to out-manoeuvre the opposition titles by all legal means possible. If any of those writers had refused loftily to investigate Sir David Murray and a story had thus gone begging to the opposition then my editor would have wanted to know why. Mac Giolla Bhain’s collection of blogs and his analysis of the catastrophe that brought down Rangers ought to be required reading for the sportswriting community. Their coverage of the Rangers story was not their finest hour and, as the story still has lots of life in it there is yet time for them to provide the rigorous analysis and investigative digging that has been largely missing in the last two years. But before the so-called ‘citizen journalists’ are consumed by their own self-importance they must know that few of them will ever be constrained by the laws of defamation and the scrutiny of the Press Complaints Commission. That is not to say that blogs are somehow immune from legal action; simply that they have too few readers for it to matter. Corroboration is often a choice and not a necessity and they rarely rely on their online output to pay the bills. If such luxuries were available to the mainstream media then popes, princes, presidents and potentates would fall daily.