The past few weeks since Hogmanay have seen a legion of ex-Rangers players and managers have their say on the current state of affairs in the press. Walter Smith and Graeme Souness were the big two, although they've been repeatedly joined time and time again by other players. They've also been joined by leading economists and philosophers Keith Jackson and Chris Sutton, and to be honest, we could probably end this argument right there.
The only former Rangers man to stand out from the crowd was Barry Ferguson, in his Daily Record column. Ferguson attacked this from the perfectly reasonable angle that a club with Rangers' recent history shouldn't be spending money it doesn't have. He then goes on to point out, quite correctly, that the board have invested a significant amount of money already, and that while the gap is significant, Rangers can't go into debt trying to close it.
Ferguson's argument is pretty sound, but what's been depressingly absent from this conversation is any possible notion that the amount of money used to buy players dictates everything that happens in a football season. We've seen plenty of underdog triumphs in recent years, and plenty more clubs with far higher budgets than their rivals failing miserably. One of them was even in Scotland - big team, played in blue, handsome fans... ach, who was it now?
Here are the facts. Rangers have a board which is prepared to invest money and spend more money than the club is earning, already. However, Rangers are also starved of European money, have little to no income from merchandise, and have few sellable players due to having had to rebuild their squad on a shoestring very recently. Until those three things are sorted, Rangers have no chance of getting near Celtic's level of income. Unless they are, we're going to be looking for a benefactor who is going to pump £20 million or more into the club's coffers, pretty much every season until we are caught up. If you think that's remotely likely to happen, then please leave the number of your dealer in the comments.
What needs to happen is exploring a possiblity that, if you'd followed this pish-poor debate in the media, you might think was completely unthinkable - that Rangers might be able to catch up to Celtic in the league table without doing so on the balance sheet. If not, then we might as well just list every club's gross income at the start of the season, arrange the table on that basis, and not bother playing any games.
Of the three problems listed above, we can't get European money until we improve the side (and won't get serious money until we topple Celtic), and we're already trying to sort out the merchandise issue and can't really do a lot to control that. That leaves sellable players, and while you need to speculate to accumulate, it's the one area we can certainly control right now. By looking to bring in players who are likely to command a sell-on fee in the future, we can make a big difference to our income.
Of course, here the problem might begin to lie more with the manager than the owner. We're not saying that's entirely the reason that the ex-pros in the media are reluctant to point this out, but they're always more willing to target the man at the top rather than the one in the dugout. Warburton was given a significant budget this summer to buy players and increase the club's wage bill. Unfortunately, the largest outlays by far have been on Joe Garner, Joey Barton, Niko Kranjcar and Philippe Senderos. None are going to turn a profit, and worse, they've varied from mediocre at best to truly awful. In contrast, money allocated to players likely to be sold on for value was far lower - Josh Windass, Matt Crooks, Jordan Rossiter and Joe Dodoo might well go on to be sold for decent fees, but they were all bargain basement signings.
This is clearly one area that has to be sorted out, and while it's only one of many problems holding us back right now, it's by far the largest that we can actually control ourselves. We can't influence Celtic's balance sheet or performances on the pitch, and we can only wait and see over the merchandising. In order to catch up, we're simply going to have to spend our money smarter than they do and outwit them in the transfer market and on the pitch.
There are reasons to be optimistic. The youth academy is producing some excellent looking youngsters - they're just too young to be involved right now. Furthermore, the gap may look disproportionately large on the pitch - Celtic's quite incredible form and consistency is highly unlikely to be the norm from here on out. It's extremely unlikely they'll have a first half of a season like this again for a very long time. It's also unlikely that we'll have such awful luck with injuries. And in all likelihood, Celtic are going to have to replace their manager, captain and goalkeeper over the coming years - three things that are very important, and very difficult to find.
Furthermore, it should be remembered that the vast majority of our points gap in the table right now is not due to losing Old Firm games - it's due to dropping daft points against diddy teams who we have a ludicrous financial advantage over. So if money does dictate everything about football, we should already be a long way ahead of where we are. If nothing else, it's quite clearly fixable and improvable in our current state.
So, we'll get our opportunity. We just have to be prepared to take it. Mark Warburton and David Weir have been in the press discussing exactly that - they recognise that the solution is not to throw money at the problem, and that it's not going to happen anyway. This summer, however, they failed to carry out an alternative plan. Whoever likes it or not, it's up to them to get it right.