Friday, March 14, 2008

Franchising In Scotland

In Scotland, the harsh realities of the wrong people getting involved in football clubs has been even more pronounced that it has been in England in recent years. Meadowbank Thistle were unceremoniously moved to Livingston, and several clubs have been left homeless or playing in two-sided grounds because of aborted development projects, but the most convoluted story of all has a particular relevance today, as it involves the financial collapse of two clubs, which led to Gretna FC being voted into the Scottish League in circumstances that are best described as "murky". Their seemingly imminent collapse provides an apt coda to a story that should bring shame upon the administrators of Scottish football.

Clydebank Juniors FC had been stalwarts of the Scottish junior football scene since the end of the nineteenth century, and found their way into the senior game there when they were controversially merged with East Stirlingshire to form ES Clydebank by owners that wanted to cash in on what they perceived as bigger crowds on the outskirts of Glasgow. The club lasted for just one season, 1964/65, before being separated through after a lengthy and messy court case. Clydebank FC were admitted to the Scottish League in their own right in 1967, following the collapse of Third Lanark. They had a fairly unremarkable stay in the Scottish League, but their troubles started in 1996, when their owners decided that what the club really needed was a new stadium. Their stadium, Kilbowie Park, was demolished and the club moved eight miles up the road to groundshare at Dumbarton. With crowds halved thanks to playing away from home every week and rent to pay, they moved on again, this time to share with Greenock Morton, twenty miles from Clydebank, and by the summer of 2002 were in a pretty terrible financial state. No-one, however, could have prepared them for what was to follow.

Airdrieonians FC were one of Scottish football's better known names. They were a reasonably regular face in the top division of Scottish football, and made the Scottish Cup final in 1992 and 1995 (losing in turn to Rangers and Celtic), as well as representing Scotland in the European Cup Winners Cup in 1993, where they were beaten over two matches by Sparta Prague. Their problems started in 1994, when they vacated their Broomfield Stadium to groundshare with another club, Clyde, with the intention of building a new stadium. To say that it was financially ruinous would be something of an understatement. Delays in planning permission meant that they were unable to move into their new home, the Shyberry Excelsior Stadium, until 1998, by which time crowds had plummeted and the club was in a desperate financial state. Their fate was sealed with the unexpected death of their sole director, Joe Rowan, in 1999. Rowan had kept the club running more or less single-handedly over the previous decade, and without him they were suddenly rudderless. Former Spurs striker Steve Archibald attempted to take control of the club in 2000. Having been given "preferred bidder" status by the club's administrators, KPMG, he brought in a number of Spanish players at considerable cost, but they failed in the pitch and Archibald was removed after failing to maintain promised payments to them. The club folded in May 2002, leaving a free space in the Scottish Football League, and it was at this point that the fortunes of Airdrieonians and Clydebank met.

With Gretna having been hastily voted into the league in the place of Airdrieonians (there have been persistent rumours of money having changed hands regarding Bill Barr, the owner of Ayr United, who was owed a sizeable amount of money for the construction of Airdrie's new stadium and stood to benefit if Airdrie failed to pull through in any form), the newly-formed Airdrie United went looking for a back door route into Scottish football. They found the answer at Clydebank, where a homeless club was playing twenty miles from home in front of tiny crowds. Their founder, a businessman called John Hall, bought Clydebank FC, changed its name to Airdrie United and moved the club to Airdrie. Clydebank's supporters had put in a rival bid for the spare place in the Scottish league, but were rejected in favour of Gretna. Clydebank continue to play to this day, in the Scottish junior leagues (one of the two equivalents of non-league football in Scotland, the other being the Highland League) in front of crowds that would put many clubs in the Scottish Second & Third Divisions to shame. Airdrie United currently sit in place in the Scottish League Second Division.

Meanwhile, the other main beneficiaries of this farce, Gretna, were bank-rolled by Brook Mileson into the SPL, until his ill health (and, reportedly, the reluctance of his son - who holds his power of attorney - to throw more money into the club) undid the self-proclaimed "fairytale" of the village team that got the Premier League. With only ten players currently available for their trip to Aberdeen tomorrow, it seems unlikely at the time of writing that Gretna will even survive until the end of the season, although they will probably be able to re-group at a more realistic level in the future. The likelihood of football supporters no longer putting all their faith in the whims of the very wealthy, however, seems to be considerably less likely.


Martek said...

Wow, a truly fascinating account. I had been wondering why Tony Caig, Houston Dynamo's new backup keeper here in MLS, would leave Gretna and come back to the US after a fairly lengthy attempt to get TO Gretna last year. Now I begin to understand. What a messed-up situation.

I wonder, though, if you can chalk up this entire situation to the fact that big money clubs (Celtic and Rangers, for example) have such an enormous disparity with the other clubs. Here in the States, I've always maintained that the promised land of healthy teams and a healthy league are made up of the three elements of free agency, total (especially local and national TV) revenue sharing and mandated percentage expenditures on player salaries. A level financial playing field, mandatory spending on player salaries (instead of owners' yachts and playtoys) and free movement of labor solves many, many problems. This isn't rocket science here, and the examples abound throughout the sports landscape.

I wonder what you think about how that would work in Scotland. My knowledge of the economic workings of Scottish football are sketchy at best!

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