It’s only a dozen years since East Fife moved grounds, from their old home at Bayview to the imaginatively-named New Bayview. But last week Radio Scotland broke the news that they are considering another move, to another purpose-built stadium a mile away. I’ve got to say, my initial reaction was positive, not just because of the talk of more and better facilities but because, with the best will in the world, the current New Bayview is a bit rubbish. Many of the club’s fans however, are expressing a bit more scepticism, and on closer examination they may well have good reason.
The current ground is not a great place to watch football. Unlike most grounds at that level, it has no terracing, and only a single stand down one side of the pitch which holds a couple of thousand supporters. Plenty big enough for a normal gate but somewhat limiting for bigger games – a cup tie against Rangers the other year had to be played elsewhere. On the other three sides, the pitch is surrounded only by concrete walls, and beyond that – on the side opposite the stand – is the abandoned power station which provides one of the least picturesque views of any ground in Scotland. Beyond that, the North Sea. Climate-wise, it’s not quite as bad as Gayfield but it can feel pretty drafty on a cold day.
The power station, however, is due for imminent demolition, and that’s going to make all the land along that part of the sea front a little more desirable for developers. So, roughly speaking, the plan as thus far presented is for someone to build the club a better ground along the road at Windygates, on less lucrative land, and do a straight swap. They’ve thrown in a few key buzzwords like community use, a hotel complex, yadda yadda.
It just might be a good deal all round. There are odd instances where clubs have made similar deals and it’s worked reasonably well. However there are many if and buts and enough reasons to be doubtful. Firstly, if the land they’re currently occupying is indeed going to be worth something in the near future then now is hardly the time to be cashing in on it. Property values are not high at present and are likely to be considerably higher once we’re through the recession.
Also, it should be noted that there is no kind of pressure on them to do anything drastic at the moment. The current ground, for all that I just said about it, is perfectly okay, the club has no structural debts and is ticking over just fine. Are there any guarantees that the facilities at the new stadium – even if they do materialise – would cover the (presumably) higher running costs of a bigger ground? It wouldn’t take much of a change in budget to make a big difference to a part-time club, and there are many unknowns and probably unknowables involved at this stage.
Some of the reasons being given for why such a move needs to be made now are dubious too. It may be that it’s simply that this is the time the opportunity has come up, but trying to tell us that and SPL 2 is imminent (rumours of it have been coming and going for years and it makes no more financial sense now than at any time before) and that East Fife will be left behind without a three thousand all-seat stadium isn’t going to wash. Not that there’s any immediate prospect of East Fife being candidates for the new league just now anyway.
But the main reason why many people are reacting cautiously is because of suspicions about the motives of some of those involved. Club chairman Sid Collumbine was previously on the board at Dumbarton where similar efforts were made a couple of years back to move the club and cash in on the land value of their (also fairly new) ground. These plans fell through but generated a fair amount of suspicion and acrimony in the meantime. Meanwhile the major shareholder at East Fife, as the Scotsman revealed back in 2005 and confirmed this weekend, is a girl who was apparently five years old when she acquired this shareholding in 2002. The girl’s mother was understood to be the long-term partner of Neil Rankine – major shareholder and cohort of Collumbine’s at Dumbarton. Rankine has also moved on from Dumbarton and has now popped up at Livingston (another club with an illustrious boardroom history). Questions have also been asked as to why they’ve kept this so quiet – they didn’t want the story to break last week, and it was only last month they were flagging (absurdly) ambitious plans to develop the current site.
So what’s been going on and who exactly is in ultimate charge of East Fife is not entirely clear, and the club’s unwillingness to be forthcoming about any of it (see that Scotsman article again) does nothing to ease anyone’s mind. If the land really is worth something then someone presumably thinks they can make a packet of money somewhere here – who thinks that will go to the football club? And there are already plenty of Scottish football fans who can warn of the dangers of getting mixed up with property deals that all sounded too good to be true in the first instance.
East Fife fans then, are right to exercise caution. The land on which their current ground sits is their prize – indeed their only – asset. Before they even think about assenting to any plans to give it up they need lots more detail, firstly on land vaulations (independently verified), on the exact proposals for the new ground, on the business plan on which it will operate, and much more besides. And they need to be sure that all these promised extra facilities really will be made concrete and won’t be things that mysteriously fall by the wayside once the project is underway. If they end up with the bare minimum, having simply moved to an equally soulless stadium which just happens to have a few more seats that they don’t need most weeks (or indeed most seasons) and have nothing much else to show for it then it’ll be a move they’ll come to regret, their one and only opportunity squandered. It could yet be a great opportunity, but there are difficult questions which need to be asked. Preferably now.
25th Aug 2010