WHEN a not guilty verdict was delivered inside court six of the Newcastle Crown Court building a little after 4pm on Tuesday, the defendant banged against the glass-fronted dock and exclaimed “thank God for that.”
As Nile Ranger left the room, he thanked the jury and exclaimed “what a joke”. Witnesses later reported the striker running down a court corridor, his arms outstretched in celebration.
It was an outpouring of emotion, relief from a burden which has influenced in part every one of Ranger’s appearances for Swindon Town since he joined the club in August.
The lingering theory around the corridors of the County Ground has long since been that the enigmatic frontman had been limited by two factors - his own, inexorcisable demons and the preparations for his trial in the north east.
Now, with the allegations labelled against him rejected by a jury of his peers, at least some of those shackles have cracked and crumbled away.
Town would have been left with a devastating asset for the final 12 games of the League One season. The troubled striker minus his troubles would have been like Samson after follicle regeneration surgery - a brilliant talent restored to his former strengths.
But a hamstring tear put paid to all that.
Of course it’s a forlorn practise, pondering what might have been, but how Swindon need Ranger now. Statistically they score on average a goal a game more and pick up almost a point more in every match with him in their starting XI than they do when he’s injured, absent or AWOL - and that’s with the frontman’s head being elsewhere much of the time.
Town have a five-point gap to bridge if they are to make the play-offs, a task that requires something truly special. A more focused, more relaxed Ranger would have provided just that.
Swindon’s management and players evidently believed that - hence their support for a striker whose casual misdemeanour record reads like an application for membership of the Society of ASBO Enthusiasts - and, for all of his peculiarities, it seems as though Ranger came to respect and appreciate his teammates’ support as his trial neared.
The club remained confident from the outset that their most controversial summer acquisition would not be convicted. They took an active interest in the case, examined the possibilities and made a judgement call in hiring a 22-year-old who hauls his reputation around like a reinforced lead weight. I was briefed to that extent by figures with close ties to Town on a number of occasions. They got it right.
It was a dangerous tactic, which assimilated inevitable bad press nationally and an endless flurry of abuse on social media - the club’s Twitter account became a battered spittoon for the vitriolic bile which spewed in its general direction - but, as Ranger left Newcastle Crown Court on Tuesday cleared of the charges cast against him, it was hard to argue that Swindon’s perseverance and almost ridiculous loyalty wasn’t justified.
The Robins now have the option of extending Ranger’s stay in Wiltshire, in the process either setting up one more season with the forward or teeing up a sale - both of which would offer the reward Town deserve for their at times quite extraordinary backing of the player.
It would seem absurd for Swindon not to trigger that clause in Ranger’s deal, having endured more than enjoyed his time in Wiltshire so far.
Had I been in charge of the club 10 weeks or so ago, when Ranger was missing training sessions and treating Town’s trust in him with contempt, I would not have stood for it. But that, along with 1,000 other reasons, is why I am not a football manager.
Let’s hope the Robins now allow themselves to cash in on their own patience. Let’s hope Ranger recognises the heavy debt he owes this club.
It’s inevitable that the striker will not be able to shrug off the chants that have followed him around the grounds this season - the justice system does not cater for. or punish preconceptions. Stigma sticks to controversial characters like super-strength glue - but whenever he regains full fitness Ranger will have the chance to truly rebuild his career.
He said himself that the rape allegation derailed a loan move to Hull City and accelerated his exit from Newcastle United.
That’s his past now and, if he can learn to filter out the nonsense, he can return to being a very good footballer.