Partick Thistle: Problems Come To A Head At Firhill
Things have not been going well at Partick lately, a miserable run of form on the pitch highlighting and adding to off-field problems. Doubts about the future of Firhill, ongoing debt problems and a breakdown in relations between the Trust and the club culminated this week with a string of resignations from the board.
The current structure of the club dates back to the last financial crisis in the late 90s, when they were (at least in part) bailed out by the efforts of a supporters campaign, which then morphed into the Jags Trust. The Trust were then given a twenty per cent shareholding and a place on the board. During the intervening years they also agreed, a little controversially, to combine their own fundraising scheme with that of the club, and as part of the deal their place on the board was supposed to be guaranteed indefinitely.
In the few years following that, Thistle had something of a rollercoaster in their on-pitch fortunes. Successive promotions took them up from the second division to the SPL in 2002, when they had to spend more money on the stadium to meet the then ground criteria (this is a bit of a running theme for a number of clubs who have had financial problems in recent years). They stayed up for a year before being relegated in 2004, a relegation that was unlucky in a number of respects, as they fell through gaps in the rules. It was the last year before penalties were introduced for being in administration, and Dundee, Livingston and Motherwell were all in administration during that season with impunity while Thistle went down instead. (The previous summer, for example, Motherwell had signed Thistle’s top scorer Alex Burns by offering him more money.) Furthermore the club coming up, Inverness, were only allowed promotion as a result of the SPL having a long overdue change of heart about ground criteria – Inverness not only had lower criteria to meet but were to be allowed to ground share for half a season first.
Just to make the pill even more bitter, they went back down to the third tier the following season, but since returning to the first division in 2006 things have calmed down and they’ve had a settled spell in the same league. That’s as far as it’s gone though, and the signs at the moment aren’t good. In the summer of 2009 when manager Ian McCall signed a new three year contract, hopes were high they could mount a title challenge. But after a reasonable start to the season their form plunged, and over the latest close season there were few signs of any improvements to the squad as the club continued to struggle finnancially. Indeed, just before the season started they re-signed four of the senior players who had been released at the end of last season – whether they were just saving themselves some money over the summer or whether they’d tried and failed to sign replacements isn’t clear. McCall claimed in a radio interview that these players were being paid “less than the minimum wage”. Which I’m not taking literally, but the piggybank is certainly empty.
And so far the fans worst fears are being confirmed, Thistle sit bottom of the table having lost five of their first six fixtures. They’ve been bad defeats too, the last three have all come despite scoring first, and two of those have been against the newly-promoted part-time sides who are expected to struggle. Worryingly, the response among supporters seems to be as much resignation as anything else, and even those wanting rid of McCall seem to accept it’s not going to happen because they can’t afford to sack him.
Inevitably, when things aren’t going well off the pitch, difficulties behind the scenes come to the fore too – and here again there are some issues. The most worrying of these is a complicated deal the club struck last year with a property company (the imaginatively titled ‘Propco’) to sell off part of the rights to the stadium. Propco is composed of a number of investors, mostly long-term Thistle fans and board members, who between them paid £1million for a half share in Firhill Deveopments Ltd, which owns the rights to the – currently unused – Main Stand and the grassy mound that is the old home end. The club retain ownership of the other half of the FDL, while the money received was used to pay down the debt – at the time it accounted for around half of it. The plan is that FDL will proceed with commercial developments on this land, with the club benefitting should it turn a profit.
Selling off a part of your only asset without addressing the underlying financial issues causing the debt doesn’t sound like a great plan, and it’s not difficult to imagine a few worst case scenarios in which that deal could end very badly. In particular, attention has been drawn to the clause in the agreement which would allow either party first option on the full rights to the property if the other partner was to go bust. The land would likely become considerably more valuable without the troubling inconvenience of a football club playing on it, and many think this gives something of a conflict of interest for those directors involved with both parties. Additionally, despite the suggestion that the development has no risk for the club, all the Propco investors are guaranteed a minimum return of 5% when the FDL venture comes to be wound up (though not if it goes bust in the interim). If there is insufficient profit to cover such a return, it seems the club would be liable. Again, it’s not too difficult to envisage scenarios in which this doesn’t end well.
The plans for the first stage of the development were printed in the club’s programme last week, and many fans were somewhat miffed to find that, contrary to some earlier indications, it included no club facilities. This is understandable – building a stand that the club has no need for is a luxury they just can’t afford at the moment, and the two stands in use are more than big enough for current gates and to meet SPL criteria if and when they ever get back there. But it’s also understandable why supporters will not be very pleased to see one side of the ground bordered, permanently, by an office block.
Personally, I don’t doubt that the deal was well-motivated, and I don’t subscribe to theories of asset-stripping, but that such suggestions are rife is a sign of the growing distrust between board and supporters recently. Furthermore, there is little sign that the money gained from the deal has made any appreciable difference to the club’s health. By paying off a chunk of the debt, it was intended to improve cash flow by cutting the interest payments – “these changes will provide full-time football at Firhill for the forseeable future,” said Vice-Chairman Tom Hughes at the time. It turns out the future may not have been all that foreseeable – by this month Chairman Allan Cowan was envisioning a switch to part-time football, or at least to the full-time / part-time hybrid which Raith Rovers have made a reasonable success of in recent seasons.
All of this is troubling enough, but there has been yet another bone of contention sprung up between the club and the Trust. Following the resignation of their previous board rep, a new rep was nominated earlier this summer, and the Trust awaited the the invitation for her to join the board in line with previous agreements. The July and August board meetings came and went with this invitation conspicuous by its absence, with Cowan instead indicating that he wanted to see the Trust “broaden its appeal and concentrate on activity which directly benefits the club in a tangible way”.
In the years since gaining its place on the board, the Trust has not found things easy and have often found themselves caught between two camps – fans have been frustrated that they have not been able to achieve more, and that confidentiality has prevented their represented from discussing some issue with them, and with this, some disillusion at infighting, and as the initial burst of enthusiasm melting away, membership has tailed off a little. Now it seems the club have not found the Trust as complaint as they hoped either.
Accordingly, the Trust sought an urgent meeting with the club, which took place last Friday (17th). On Sunday, a note was posted on their website which implied the meeting had not gone especially well, but that ‘phone calls since had given them some hope of imminent progress. What this was referring to, I don’t know, but the following day both the Chairman and Vice-Chairman (Cowan and Hughes) resigned, followed yesterday (Wednesday) by former chief executive Eddie Prentice. It’s not quite a full clearout, but it’s most of the chief figures of recent years.
It’s hard to argue but that they’re right to go. They’ve had a very difficult job on their hands but it was clear that the supporters had lost all confidence in the way the club was being run, and while we await full details on what the new regime will be, hopefully this will give all concerned a chance for a fresh start.
But of course, the problems aren’t going to go away – they’ll still be skint, and the team is still weak. I’m afraid there are some more difficult times to get through before everybody’s favourite Glasgow club is back where it should be.
GS, 23rd Sept 2010