I’m a bit late reporting the news, but Clyde last month became the latest Scottish club to go into fan ownership. They’ve chosen a different model to it from the usual one – although there is a Supporters Trust, that hasn’t been used for the ownership. Instead, they’ve returned to the old-fashioned way, the club is no longer a limited company and from hereon will be run on a simple membership scheme of one member, one vote, with periodic elections to the committee to run the club on an operational basis.
This would concern me slightly, as it would seem to leave the members short of protection in respect of liabilities, but be that as it may they have decided it’s the best way forward. At the same time, they’ve become a Community Interest Company – a relatively new legal option, which locks the club into a non-profitmaking model, but has fewer restrictions on qualification than registering as a charity. It’s a recognition, not least on the part of those who previously owned the club, that there’s no money to be made in running a football club, and that a new attitude is required to the financial realities of their current position.
It’s been a lesson hard learned, since their decade of ambtion and full-time football came crashing down around them early in 2009. In some ways, Clyde’s plight over the last few years makes for a concise parable of the follies of second-tier clubs in the SPL era: the move to a new town, the all-seat stadium much bigger than they need, the overspending on wages …. and the inevitable financial collapse.
To be fair to the recent custodians of the club, if you really want to look at the beginnings of the subsequent trouble, the very beginnings, you could look a bit further back. Right back to the mid-30s, in fact, when – in a move that will sound rather familiar to modern ears – the club paid off an earlier bout of debts by selling their Shawfield stadium to another company owned by many of the same directors. The new company was set up for greyhound racing, and with Clyde now as tenants, in continued in this dual use for many years.
By the 1980s, the connections between the two companies were long gone, and in 1986 Clyde were evicted and left homeless. (Shawfield is still in use as a greyhound track.) They groundshared first with Partick, and then with Hamilton before eventually being offered a home and a rented stadium at Broadwood by the new town of Cumbernauld, where they played their first game in 1994 as a second division club. It should be noted that, with the club having been homeless for years, the move was largely amicable and did not come with the same level of controversy as Meadowbank’s move to Livingston the following year.
The rot really set in, however, following promotion to the first in 2000. After a season or two of consolidation, Clyde stepped up their ambition, and their wage budget. It meant the loss of a highly-respected manager in Alan Maitland, who has a job outside football and has consistently turned down opportunities at full-time outfits, and the next few years saw a series of higher-profile managers come and go – Alan Kernaghan, Graham Roberts and Colin Hendry among them. The council set about increasing the size of the ground to meet SPL criteria while the team sought the same ambition.
The results came closest to justifying the experiment in the 2003/04 season, when Clyde led the way in the title race before being pipped by Inverness. By then, however, the financial implications were making themselves felt. Almost inevitably, crowds were not turning up from the club’s new host town in the numbers that had been hoped, and they were struggling to make ends meet. After a change of ownership, a CVA was agreed with creditors (without going through administration) to clear the debts.
It ought to have allowed them a clean sheet and a fresh start, but the lessons had not yet been heeded and the spending continued. A televised cup tie, and a famous win, against Celtic in 2006 tided the finances over for that season, but by 2008/09, with the team now struggling on the park, it came apart at the seams. With debts owed to HMRC and to their landlords at North Lanarkshire Council, it looked for a time that they might not pull through at all, particularly once relegation was confirmed. To save the club that summer, all the full-time contracts were terminated, open trials were held, and Clyde started the 2009/10 season with a scratch team of youngsters on a reported maximum wage of £20 a week.
It meant a second successive relegation, but they reduced the debt considerably over the year. Now in the third division, with a commensurate lower income, the debt reduction will be slower, but – while certain teams in the leagues above them run up and then write off rather bigger debts – agreements are in place to see Clyde pay off their debt, in full, by 2015.
It’s a long, slow process then, and unfortunately it means the team is still mince in the meantime. I admit I thought they’d do rather better this year, but they have instead sunk straight to the bottom again, currently on course for the unique achievement of finishing last in all three divisions of the SFL in consecutive seasons. Less than five years after that cup win over Celtic, they find themselves being horsed 8-1 by Montrose – themselves the third division’s bottom club just last season.
But much more importantly, of course, they still have a club, and a new ownership structure that will provide complete openness and accountability and will hopefully enable everyone to rally round. They are hailing it as unique, which is true only in the detail rather than the principle – there are other supporter-owned clubs in Scotland, with Stirling Albion now Trust-owned and at least one other club still run on its original membership structure. Nor are they the first to take the Community Interest route – Stenhousemuir have already gained such status, albeit they are still privately-owned. Clyde are unique in the combination of the two.
It looks rather as if their barren times will last for a little while yet, but I wish them the very best of luck.
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