It may be a cause of celebration for supporters of the club itself, but the news that Scottish Football League Second Division club Airdrie United are changing their name to Airdrieonians will for many others only serve to act as a reminder of the circumstances which led to this club taking its place in the Scottish Football League in the first place. The events of the summer of 2002 played out as a story of football franchising which was all but forgotten when a far bigger story on the same subject broke south of the border shortly afterwards, and it was a story in which the Scottish football authorities, as has frequently been the case over the years, hardly covered themselves in glory. Eleven years on, the reformed club that was effectively put to death by the decision to allow a group of businessmen to buy a club, change its name and move it lock, stock and barrel to another town still bristles at what was taken from them. As for the man that engineered it all… well, he ended up on one of the most senior administrative positions in Scottish football, a position that he continues to hold to this day.
The story of football clubs playing under the ‘Clydebank’ name has a long and convoluted history going back to 1888, with several different groups continuing the name until the middle of the 1960s. It was in 1964 that the Steedman brothers, who owned the club known at the time as ‘Clydebank Juniors’ and decided to move it up to the next level. Scottish football’s lack of a pyramid system, however, made this very difficult, but the Steedmans had a plan. They purchased nearby East Stirlingshire, changed its name to ES Clydebank, and moved it to Clydebank’s Kilbowie Park. The experiment lasted just a year before collapsing under the weight of legal action taken against the Steedmans, but that this club could be viable in the Scottish Football League had been proved by ES Clydebank’s single season, and Clydebank FC, which was effectively a new club, was permitted to join in 1966. Clydebank went on to spend the next three and a half decades in the Scottish Football League and Scottish Premier League, becoming the owners of Britain’s first all-seater stadium when Kilbowie Park was converted in 1977. They spent three years in the SPL and reached the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup in 1990, but tougher times were around the corner following the Steedman’s sale of New Kilbowie Park in 1996. The club struggled on, ground-sharing with Dumbarton and Greenock Morton, but there were also attempts to franchise the club to Dublin, Galashiels and Carlisle before events elsewhere overtook the club’s supporters.
Airdrieonians FC finished in the runners-up spot in the Scottish League for four consecutive years during the 1920s and reached the Scottish Cup final twice in the 1990s, but by the turn of the century their fortunes – off the pitch at least – were on the wane. The club had left its Broomfield home in 1994, but a convoluted planning process and the spiralling costs of building its replacement, The Excelsior Stadium (more commonly known by locals as “New Broomfield”, proved to be greater than the club could bear. That it was built by Barr Construction, a building company owned by the owner of rivals Ayr United, Bill Barr, may or may not have been coincidental in this. Liquidators were appointed st the club in February 2000, but Airdrieonians contrived to keep going until the end of the 2001/02 season, when only a late season collapse in form prevented the club from getting promoted back into the Scottish Premier League.
The club folded on the first of May 2002, the first to do so since Third Lanark thirty-five years earlier, but the club was fortunate to have people that wanted to build it back up. Well, sort of. Jim Ballantyne was an accountant and Airdrieonians supporter, and his club’s collapse had left a free place in the Scottish Football League for the start of the following season, so Ballantyne’s group hastily formed a new club called Airdrie United and bidded for the vacant place. They lost out to Gretna, and that’s when Clydebank’s problems really began. The club had been touted around as a franchise for some time, and Ballantyne wasn’t going to take no for an answer in getting SFL football for his club back immediately. In the first place they offered Clydebank, who were in administration at the time, a merger playing under the name of Airdrie United, in Airdrie. This was rejected, so Ballantyne went to the administrators for Clydebank and offered to buy that club instead.
It had been believed by Clydebank supporters that there was an agreement in place for the administrators dealing with Clydebank’s insolvency to sell the club to them, under the name of United Clydebank Supporters, at the end of the following season, but Ballantyne’s overtures after the collapse of Airdrieonians seemed to render that as something of an irrelevance. UCS raised the £160,000 that they thought they needed a year to raise in a week, but Ballantyne’s group outbidded them. On the first of July 2002, the Scottish Football League ratified the takeover, and eight days later Clydebank Football Club was rebranded as Airdrie United Football Club and moved to the Excelsior Stadium. A year later, a new Clydebank FC emerged playing, as it does now, in the junior leagues and, with Scottish Football League still having never introduced automatic promotion and relegation from its third division, it remains there to this day, well supported but unable to reclaim a place in the Scottish League until either another collapses or the rules change. Airdrie United, meanwhile, has spent the last ten years bouncing between the First and Second Divisions of the Scottish Football League. The club won the Second Division title in 2004 and also won the Scottish Challenge Cup in 2009, but they finished bottom of the First Division at the end of last season with just twenty-two points from thirty-six league matches and twelve points adrift at the bottom of the table. Ballantyne has said on the subject of the club’s name change this week that:
When the old company went into liquidation, it was in a different football environment and the use of the name was not possible at that time. With all the recent changes however, and subsequent rulings, it paved the way for us to make the move and therefore we set the wheels in motion.
Ballantyne remains as the chairman of Airdrieonians and is also the president of the Scottish Football League. However, his neutrality in relation to the bitter and recriminatory arguments that are passing for “reconstruction debates” in Scottish football has been engaged in for the last few months or so on account of his apparent support of Rangers – he was listed as owning shares in the club as recently as 2008 – and when Channel Four’s Alex Thomson questioned Ballantyne last summer about the potential conflict of interest of being the chairman of one club, owning shares in another and being the president of a league, the following exchange took place:
Jim Ballantyne said everything had been declared to the boards, and in any case the share numbers are absolutely miniscule. He said:
“I see no problem here at all” and “I cleared everything with the boards” and “You are talking about the tiny fragment of one percent of ownership and this involves absolutely no influence whatsoever”.
We say that may well be true, but would it not be sensible to divest all shares in any other club when running a different one, let alone the SFL itself, just in order to avoid any perceived conflict of interest?
“No – not at all. It’s never been raised at any board meeting,” said Mr Ballantyne.
“Well, I’m raising it now’ I said.
“Well, you’re not in football,” he replied.
Of course, that sort of bullishness when asked questions – and reasonable questions, it should probably be said – doesn’t paint a particularly positive image of the people that run Scottish football. But then again, neither did the events of the summer of 2002, when Clydebank Football Club was effectively kicked out of the Scottish football because of a state affairs that nobody emerged from with much credit apart from the supporters of the club that lost its league place in the summer of 2002. The owners of Clydebank had seen their club run into the ground by would-be franchisers, whilst the authorities, who had it within their control to stop it from happening, turned a blind eye. It could be argued that Jim Ballantyne was, and always has, acted in the best interests of the football-watching public in Airdrie and this is not an argument that is completely without merit, but the moral argument in his favour is tenuous at best – it might be argued that the behaviour of Airdrie United was the least bad of those concerned with the business end of what happened that summer – but the fact that Ballantyne is now the precedent of the Scottish Football League is a fact that jars with the fact that he bought his club, a completely new club, a place in that league at the expense of another club eleven years ago.
The key behind the behaviour of all concerned might just have been the lack of a pyramid system in the Scottish league system. Against a backdrop of threatened resignations and disputes over the flawed 12-12-18 system that has been proposed, however, the news that unanimous approval had been reached for the introduction of a pyramid system for the game in Scotland passed largely unnoticed, but this could mark the end of the byzantine nature of following football in Scotland and give clubs that want the opportunity to play at a higher level the chance to do so. There are, of course, concerns about the dangers of financially overreaching, but at present the only way for a club to get into the Scottish Football League Third Division is hope amongst hopes that one of the clubs above them will fold – which, as the original incarnation of Airdrieonians and Gretna have demonstrated in recent years, is not an impossibility – or, as per the precedent set in July 2002, to buy a struggling club (and there can be little doubt that there are many of them in Scottish football at the moment and have been for a long time), jettison its name and history, and move it to the desired location of the owners. It is to be hoped that the reconstruction of Scottish football will be to the benefit of everybody that watches it. Considering the amount of distrust and vituperation there is in the game north of the border at the moment, it’s difficult to imagine that this sort of reconstruction will happen any time soon.
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