The timing was perfect – two-and-a-half years ago. Stewart Gilmour had been St. Mirren chair longer than anyone else in the club’s then 132-year history. He had overseen a ground move which, with the help of Tesco (other supermarket chains are available), had left the “Buddies” debt-cleared. And, perhaps conscious that the Scottish professional football model wasn’t over-conducive to debt-freedom, he and a consortium of fellow directors put their collective shareholding, a controlling 52%, up for sale in September 2009. Yet this takeover saga is still far from over and is making bigger headlines than ever… now that it has a link to the Old Firm.
A takeover bid by supporters under the auspices of a Community Interest Company (CIC), a ‘social enterprises’ business model, has encountered numerous problems since its two driving forces, Richard Atkinson and Chris Stewart, joined the Saints board in June 2010. And it lost significant funding last November. However, a restructure into a “supporters’ co-operative” breathed new life into the bid whilst another bid, led by Buddies’ directors Ken McGeoch and Paul Davies, appeared as little more than a footnote in the overall story.
Then, on March 7th, about ninety-four statements were released by various Rangers ‘people’, which were ostensibly in response to a 1500-word “liquidation is inevitable” rant from Ibrox non-executive director Dave King but may actually have been part of an early fundraiser for Comic Relief. And in the midst of this Rangers politicking, St. Mirren issued a statement saying that “should it be required, and only when the situation at Rangers is absolutely clear, any view of St. Mirren Ltd would be taken by the board of directors. “No speculative thought or decision shall come from St. Mirren FC until the exact situation at Rangers is known,” or, as one tweeter said: “St. Mirren have released a statement saying they’re not going to make a statement even though no-one had asked them to make a statement.”
An explanation, of sorts, emerged a week-and-a-bit later. The supporters’ group’s name, 10,000 Hours, increasingly looked like a prediction of the negotiating time taken to finalise matters. However Gilmour was committed to a “community approach” and was prepared to give the supporters this time, as his consortium was “not in a race out the door.” And McGeoch’s bid was formally rejected, with Gilmour revealing that McGeoch and Davies had been represented by a lawyer from London firm Collyer Bristow, Gary Withey, company secretary of… Rangers; hence the need to clarify St. Mirren’s Rangers ‘position.’ McGeoch’s bid may have been manna from takeover heaven. Sheikh Mansour could have owed him money and he could have been obliged by law to invest all his riches in Paisley if it was accepted. But the bid was now associated with the dirtiest words in Scottish football, as the man who appointed Withey to his Ibrox role was… Craig Whyte. So it was toast.
Gilmour was a public mixture of emotions; “alarmed to see the approach come from the company secretary at Rangers”; and “a bit uncomfortable” about requests for information from Withey which he found “strange”, coming as they did “before even making an offer.” The directors’ consortium made it crystal clear that they weren’t about to give houseroom to McGeoch’s bid, even after McGeoch’s scrambling efforts to put distance between himself and Collyer Bristow. “The relationship ended by mutual consent in February,” McGeoch noted, a mutuality conceivably governed by Rangers’ descent into administration on February 14th, and Withey’s ‘sudden’ departure from Collyer Bristow seventeen days later.
But it was way too late for that. It “emerged” that McGeoch had allowed Withey “sight of commercially sensitive documents” and a club statement also threw in three more of Scottish football’s dirtiest words, “Employee Benefit Trusts”, which had the effect, whether intended or otherwise, of condemning McGeoch even further in the public eye. McGeoch was this week asked to leave the St. Mirren board because of his “serious breach of trust and error of judgement” in showing the sensitive documents to “an office holder of another SPL club,” which Withey nominally is, despite Rangers’ being run by administrators, and Withey himself disappearing after his hasty departure from Collyer Bristow.
As is common with such tales, the blogosphere has suggested that most of this tale is still to be revealed (the most outlandish suggestion I’ve spotted is that some form of merged club is being planned to replace a liquidated Rangers in the SPL). This is partly because the blogosphere nearly always does, partly because it has done so to deep effect on the subject of Rangers owners past and, nominally, present, and partly because Withey’s very involvement suggests there is more to come. Withey is fast becoming one of the more “interesting” of the varied characters who could be filed under “Craig Whyte associates” and, as regular readers of this and many other blogs will readily testify, this accolade has been won in the face of some very stiff competition.
Withey left Collyer Bristow not so much under a cloud as in a puff of dust. He ‘officially’ departed on March 2nd for “family and personal reasons,” and Collyer Bristow were quite happy to admit that they did not “know of his whereabouts,” and “had not made any attempts to trace his location.” And Withey had provided assurances to the relevant Rangers people (or person, depending on your view of David Murray’s Ibrox regime) that Whyte had the requisite funds to enter Rangers takeover negotiations, in the form of “written confirmation from a UK financial institution.” His close association with Whyte, if not necessarily when they first met, has been traced back to Pritchard Stockbrokers, a firm which acquired business from brokers Wills and Co., for whom Withey acted as lawyer.
Withey’s role often appeared to be to build a wall of silence after the firm received heavy censure in 2007 and 2010 from the Financial Services Authority for misleading and ill-informing customers with their share dealing advice. His reluctance to offer comment in the face of criticism of the firm was widespread. Pritchard Stockbrokers has subsequently entered a “special administration regime” last month (Rangers, for all their woes, are only in an “ordinary” administration regime, after nine months of Withey as Company Secretary). McGeogh said this week that Withey had attended a meeting in the club’s boardroom two weeks after his bid became public. He made the startling admission that this meeting had taken place before Collyer Bristow were even appointed to work on the bid.
However, he also claimed that he had conducted all takeover negotiations “with full transparency to all current directors of the club, including seeking approval for the meeting with Gary Withey.” The club counter-claimed that the directors’ consortium was not informed of Withey’s involvement with the bid until January. Their concerns then were probably only connected with Withey’s actual Rangers role, rather than his deeds in it. McGeogh noted that there was nothing within SPL or SFA rules to “prevent a club secretary acting for another club,” although subsequent revelations at Ibrox suggest that there is next-to-nothing in SPL or SFA rules full stop. Inevitably, their concerns grew alongside Withey’s profile at the heart of the increasingly-disgraced Whyte regime. These concerns seemed to be behind them, as McGeogh was more recently being represented by another London-based firm (“surprisingly enough” – Gilmour, with his sarky boots on).
However, the club may have to resort to an extraordinary general meeting to be rid of McGeogh. Having been “asked” to do so within forty-eight hours on Tuesday of this week, he had agreed to take his leave of the club he has supported all his life and served as a director for 14 years. But he will do so only once he has sold his 24% share in it. And Scottish football is hardly a buyers’ market at the moment. Rangers attracted fewer indicative bids than Port Vale, despite the club’s relatively comparable financial predicaments. The EGM could prove revelatory, should the various protagonists choose to reveal the full extent of their knowledge. There are considerable differences between the two public versions of Withey’s involvement. And nothing about Withey is straightforward. Gilmour, though, would surely like to minimise the hassle. After all, he had the chance to leave his club with debt cleared and genuine St. Mirren people willing to take it forward – the dream scenario for any chairman. And the timing was perfect. Two-and-a-half years ago.
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