More than a year after launching their bid for the club, the Stirling Albion Supporters Club has finally announced that it has bought the club from previous owner Peter McKenzie. Some in the Scottish press are hailing it as “the first community-owned football club in Britain”. I’ve tried and failed to find some twisted definition of “community-owned club” which could make this statement in any way true, but let’s not be too picky here – this is great news and is uncharted waters for Scottish football, which has been a bit behind England with regards to Trust ownership.
There are some partial precedents – Clydebank and Gretna have been reformed by Trusts at non-league level following their respective eliminations from the league, while both Dundee and Livingston have some level of Trust involvement following their spells in administration (though both are also reliant on external funding by third parties). But the Binos are the first league club to be wholly Trust owned, and it’s come about not through an administration but by a fundraising effort to buy out the club’s previous owner. It’s been a terrific effort from all concerned.
Granted, a significant chunk of the money raised has come from an anonymous benefactor, but the Trust’s fundraising campaign has been active and imaginative. It started in May last year, with supporters (and any other interested parties) being asked to put in £40 to the fighting fund. Well over two thousand have done so, and many local businesses have put in a higher amount to be associated with the campaign. This raised a six figure sum and in due course they were in a position to make an offer to their the club’s octagenarian owner, who had already indicated his willingness to sell. But then it all went cold for a bit, despite the Trust initially having believed they had agreed a price, McKenzie wouldn’t agree to the sale and was still speaking to other interested parties while he retained control for another season.
Over the course of that season, despite losing money and having winding up orders issued against them by both HMRC and the local council, from whom the club rent their Forthbank Stadium, things actually went rather well on the pitch. They secured the Second Division title and only automatic promotion spot with a draw at Brechin on the final day of the season, ahead of local rivals Alloa whose wheels came off in the home straight. For McKenzie that was the last hurrah. With no other potential bids amounting to anything, he has now agreed to sell to the Trust and the deal went through at the end of last week.
But now, of course, is where the hard work really starts. The bulk of the club’s quoted debts of around £1.5 million were owed to McKenzie himself and he has agreed to write off £1.2 million in return for the £300,000 received for his shareholding. (For which, fair play to him, although it should be noted that with the club having no assets there was no prospect of him ever getting the full sum back.) The tax debt is believed to have been settled, but that for the rent remains, and the new regime will have to balance the books to stem the operating loss. They are looking to increase commercial revenue and the latest of their new fundraising schemes is to allow anyone to buy a week’s trial at the club for £225. (Which might make pre-season training interesting if there are a few takers.) There’s also the prospect of increased gates in Division One – Falkirk, Dunfermline and Dundee should all bring reasonable away crowds, at last if their teams are going well.
Nonetheless, they’re in for a tough season. And they’re going to have their work cut out on the pitch too. Allan Moore, their promotion-winning manager, has left to go to Morton taking winger David O’Brien with him, and Player of the Year Andy Graham has joined Hamilton. New manager John O’Neil now has not very long to get his budget sorted out and put together a team that might stand a chance of surviving in a league where most other teams are full-time.
On the plus side, Cowdenbeath have similar issues, having coming up behind Stirling through the play-offs despite financial troubles of their own, and unresolved issues over the future of the ground which may yet threaten the club’s existence. They’ve also had a change in the boardroom this summer, and in the manager’s dug-out with Danny Lennon having moved on to St Mirren. Again, he’s taken some key players with him and this season is likely to be a struggle. There’s only one automatic relegation spot though, so even if they two clubs are cut adrift at the bottom of the league (and of course football is never that simple) then there’s hope for at least one of them to survive and hopefully consolidate in the First.
It’s an opportunity they’ll be relishing, and gives Stirling the chance to show the many sceptics in Scotland that supporters are capable of running a successful league club. There will be many people across the country who wish them the best of luck.