Brazen, enigmatic, troubled – the mysterious Mr Whyte
After nine months of bizarre rule, Rangers fans are entitled to ask where the optimism has gone
Saturday 18 February 2012
During the nine months that he has been the high-profile and widely scrutinised owner of Rangers, Craig Whyte has only become more mysterious.
Some fans must pine for the early days when he emerged from obscurity and was defined by some precocious money-making in his school years and a business background vague enough to leave his true worth unknown. They could project on to this blank figure their craving for a fellow supporter who could call upon his vast wealth to step forward to save their ailing club.
This quality, of being so enigmatic that others are compelled to impose their own judgements, was initially a masterstroke. Whyte employed two prestigious Glasgow PR firms, staffed by sharp, hardened and time-served former newspapermen, and the impression grew of a self-made billionaire whose desire was to rescue the team he had spent his life supporting. Whyte swept into Ibrox last May amid a sense of optimism and, with the team on the verge of winning the title, there was little time to wonder why he would buy Rangers when HMRC was pursuing them for a £35m tax claim and additional penalties of £14m. Scepticism was shelved for another day.
Yet Whyte was a perplexing character even before he completed a deal that made little sense even to lay observers. There was an implication of financial shrewdness in the tale of him leaving Kelvinside Academy, a distinguished private school in Glasgow, with £20,000 in his bank account after dabbling in the stock market. He soon owned a plant-hire company, although it went out of business in the 1990s with £300,000 debts. The failure "hurt my pride more than anything else", but the Motherwell-born businessman was undeterred and by 26 he was reportedly Scotland's youngest self-made millionaire, with interests in security, manufacturing and property.
By the time he turned to Rangers, Whyte sat at the head of a convoluted network of businesses that made estimating his wealth impossible. There were the trappings of affluence, with his family having lived in Monaco until 2006 then returning to Scotland to buy Castle Grant on Speyside. In interviews, Whyte evaded all attempts to value his personal fortune, but the Rangers board raised their own suspicions. One hour and 15 minutes after the sale documents were signed, they released a statement urging fans to be vigilant and to hold Whyte to every pledge. The new owner soon cleared them out, and insisted that he would invest in the team, but a haphazard approach to transfer negotiations during the summer generated alarm.
Whyte's PR people turned any criticism into an attack on the club, and supporters were still eager to believe the old financial worries could now be forgotten. When a newspaper story alleged that Whyte had borrowed money against future season-ticket sales, he denied it and banned the journalist. When a BBC documentary revealed Whyte had been banned as a director in 2000 for seven years and alleged he may have broken the terms of the punishment, he denied the accusation, threatened to sue and banned the BBC.
A drip-feed of revelations about legal disputes, unpaid bills and associations with disreputable business figures began to grow. In a court case against a roofing firm that carried out some work on Castle Grant, the judge branded Whyte's evidence as "wholly unreliable". He has since admitted that four years worth of season-ticket revenues were mortgaged in return for a £24.4m loan from a firm called Ticketus, but said the money was invested in the club. There is no verifiable evidence of him spending any of his own money.
He read a statement on the steps of Ibrox last week, to a rising chorus of boos and abuse. Yet he did not need to make the gesture, and there seems a brazenness to him. He always insisted that he was working to avoid the club going into administration, but it is now clear that £9m in PAYE and VAT has not been paid since last May. The administrators appointed last week also revealed that the Ticketus money never entered a Rangers bank account, instead "passing through" the account of a holding company.
Administration was inevitable after years of reckless financial mismanagement under the previous owner, Sir David Murray, and Whyte may simply be audacious enough to seek a way round the club's current and potential debts. Yet he has been warned not to attend today's game against Kilmarnock. The club's followers are now seeking consolation, which seems the one trick Whyte cannot pull off.
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