Revolution at Ibrox: How fan ownership wrestled Rangers FC from Mike Ashley’s clutches

Back in 2012, an ill wind of change was blowing over Scottish soccer. Outside the ancient, bricked front of Glasgow’s Ibrox stadium, a more literal gale was blowing, as if to mock the powerlessness of the 1,000 fans gathered to protest the takeover of Rangers by Charles Green. Leading them was John Brown, a defender of the club in his playing days who had taken that job description into retirement, standing aptly like a Calvinist preacher as he gave a fire-and-brimstone sermon about the dangers that lay ahead.

Few people listened. This was Rangers, a club associated with all things establishment in Scottish society: Presbyterianism, Freemasonry, monarchism, wealth, power and glory. Yet the club had come to a sorry state, confusion over a tax scheme allowing a conman to bring an institution that was supposed to represent all those ancient values to its knees. Green was the only show in town, and opposing him seemed worthless. Apart from the gathered thousand, the rest stayed indoors, waiting to see what would happen.

Protest is not something which comes naturally to Rangers supporters. It was clear something needed to be done, but the fans fractured into various squabbling entities, divided by old grievances, and failed to mobilize against the impending disaster.

As any glance into the culture of Rangers or Celtic will tell you, Scots care a lot about history. And they care just as much if it took place on an Irish riverbank three centuries ago as if it took place in a Glasgow pub in 2012. It used to be the former which seemed ridiculous, but now, with the very existence of the club at stake, it’s the latter.

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John Brown was right. Scottish soccer has been left behind in many respects, but it also retained some authenticity in its obsolescence. That’s even more the case for Rangers, which has a strange habit of attracting fanatical devotion from its former players. Not just boyhood fans like Brown, either – there are Slovakian and Algerian wingers who spent solitary seasons at Ibrox who, now playing in the UAE, spend every second tweet talking about the club, donating their own money to effect regime change.

It’s not just money that former players have given, either. The past few months have seen the rise of two groups committed to fan ownership of the club, who quickly became the largest such groups in Britain, swelling with over 20,000 members donating monthly to buy up shares of the club. In Rangers pubs around Glasgow, fans have been gathering, conspiring and debating how to regain control of the club, with former, and in some cases even current, players involved.

It would be impossible to fit in one article all that’s happened since that day in 2012. As one fan put it, the story has gone beyond the point where a film could be made – it would require a full-blown HBO series. Since Brown’s warnings, a supposed savior of the club was arrested and ended up doing time in a Mexican jail. The manager resigned, and then so did the caretaker appointed in his stead. Players were suspended for betting against their own team. The club’s best youth product in two decades was sold for £850,000 to pay monthly overheads. The club’s greatest ever goalscorer and said former manager was banned from a charity game for an ALS-stricken former teammate. The club’s Annual General Meeting took place in a tent on the pitch as fans barracked the laughing owners from the stands.

Most significantly though, after yet another takeover, the club’s new board allied themselves with Mike Ashley, the billionaire owner of Newcastle, who swooped in to plunder as much of the club’s resources as he could. Loans were given to finance an unstable operation, with security granted against anything of worth. A retail division was established so one-sided that the club gets barely a pound for every shirt sold. And then, finally, Ashley attempted to secure a loan against Ibrox itself.

Rangers v Raith Rovers - The William Hill Scottish Cup Fifth Round

Photo: Mark Runnacles/Getty Images.

That proved to be the final straw for the fans. As one of the oldest and most recognizable stadia in the world, as well as a memorial to 66 fans who died in the disaster in 1971, the idea of Ibrox being lost proved too much. It was enough to reunite the splintered fan groups, and early this year, in a crucial game against Hearts (another big club that found itself bankrupt and was saved by fan ownership) the fans gathered to protest one more time.

John Brown was back for that, too. This time, it was different. The 1,000 had grown to considerably more, and the weather was considerably worse. The game was a farce, abandoned after a few minutes of ludicrous play in a blizzard, but something snapped in the assembled masses. Thousands gathered outside with Brown in a demonstration of apoplectic rage rather than concerned defeatism. Fans stormed the stadium offices as the police tried to keep control.

In less visceral matters, the change was even more astonishing. The number of fans contributing to buy shares increased fivefold. New fan-backed shareholders called an Extraordinary General Meeting to depose the current board, and the new groups aided by snapping up any shares they could find to add to the vote for change. A few months ago, those groups could barely scrape together a 1 percent share. Now, the fans were effective kingmakers, with a decisive 10 percent of the vote ready to help depose Ashley’s sympathizers.

As a result, Friday, Mar. 6, 2015, may end up going down as one of many famous dates in the club’s history as Dave King, the new chairman, sweeps in with two other new board members to restore order. It will not be the end – a tiny minority of Rangers fans (and a large number of opposition fans) have questioned King’s credentials due to a bitter tax dispute with the South African authorities — but in the background, the fans groups will roll on, snapping up shares and gaining a larger and larger voice.

Even if King turns out to be the benevolent chairman the club has longed for, the road ahead is a long one. Rangers is an awful team at present – a collection of past-it veterans picking up an easy checked helmed by a man who is working out his notice period. King is bullish, ignoring the new upstarts from smaller clubs and the fact that Hearts has an unassailable lead at the top of the second tier. Aberdeen is just six points behind Celtic in the Premier League’s race for the title, but when questioned at the airport about how long it would take to restore Rangers to its former glory, King briskly insisted, “we can’t afford to be scrapping for third and fourth with the Aberdeens and Dundee Uniteds.”

Rangers Hold Extraordinary General Meeting At Ibrox

Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.

To Rangers fans pining for a return of the club’s former dominance, glory days they never believed would end, that sounds like fighting talk. To use a phrase coined by the club’s former manager, it sounds like a man who has the battle fever on. But while wild celebrations will take place in Glasgow on Friday, there’s a hefty element of caution at having been promised the earth by every crook and incompetent who has passed through the boardroom.

But even in any worst-case scenario, the growing power of the fans offers hope and security. It will also offer hope to another club plagued by Mike Ashley in Newcastle United, as well as anyone else who has a hated owner who appears unmoveable. Some Rangers fans won’t appreciate the comparison, but the process had a strange parallel with the Scottish independence movement, going from a niche, crank viewpoint to a vast portion of people through energetic debate and public meetings.

For his part, Ashley has found himself suddenly opposed by a bizarre coalition, one of Algerian wingers, former referees, brewery bosses, South African businessmen, Gordon Ramsay and thousands of ordinary fans who pledged their own money to remove him. It has been a resounding success, even in the face of an organization that has been pigheaded, malevolent and contemptible, even by the standards of the most arrogant club owner.

Instead of a comparison to the independence movement, fans might prefer a different sentiment: that now, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.