On Wednesday this week Stirling Albion face a winding-up order from HMRC, their second recently following a similar one back in May. A deal was agreed by Chairman Peter McKenzie back then, but according to the latest petition, the amount seems to have gone up slightly in the interim, to £48,000. A similar but larger amount is believed to be owed to the local council, but the bulk of the club’s seven figure debt is owed to the Chairman himself. At least, I think all of that is true, but such is the lack of information coming from McKenzie that it’s difficult to be sure. As the Supporters’ Trust noted on their website last week:
…although the petition to wind up the club was lodged at Stirling Sheriff Court on 15 October, no-one apart from the club and HMRC knows if the debt has/has not been settled in the intervening period to date. We have been trying our best to obtain information in this regard ever since the news of the petition first broke, but have so far been unsuccessful. We have no means of establishing this unless the club, HM Revenue & Customs, or Stirling Sheriff Court decide to go public.
The Trust, for their part, have launched an ambitious scheme to buy the club and have been impressively proactive in their efforts to raise funds as well as local interest. Through the buystirlingalbion.org.uk website fans have been contributing £40 per head (the bulk of it to be refunded if the bid is ultimately unsuccessful) and local businesses have been rallying to the cause – more than a hundred are currently listed as financial supporters. Back in May when the scheme was launched, McKenzie gave the scheme his public backing – he’s in his 80s and had made no secret of looking for a buyer. The Trust at one stage even believed they had agreed a price, and with donations rolling in and an interest-free loan from an anonymous benefactor they put in a bid accordingly. The figure of £300,000 has been bandied about but the Trust will only confirm it was “a substantial six-figure sum”.
It should be noted that this is considerably more than the club, as a business, is worth; there are no assets to match the debts, the club sold their old Annfield ground some years ago and now rent Forthbank from the council. However, faced with the prospect of having to write off a good portion of his own debt, McKenzie has been found to be not so keen to let go after all, the bid was knocked back and the already over-the-odds price was hiked by a further 50%. The Trust have refused to be held to ransom and are continuing their efforts to conclude a deal, but in the meantime they can only watch and hope as the Revenue’s latest petition falls due.
Events of last week, however, have done nothing to inspire confidence in the current regime. Greenock Morton, short of a manager following the sacking of Davie Irons, targeted Albion’s Allan Moore as their first choice replacement. Moore, who has been at Stirling since 2002 and done pretty well, was keen to have a chance at a full-time club, and all that remained was for the two clubs to sort out compensation. Here, however, negotiations did not get very far – McKenzie demanded £180,000, a hopelessly unrealistic figure for a part-time manager, and more than five times what Morton were willing to offer. When it became clear that he wasn’t going to budge very far from that figure Morton turned the deal down, gave the job to caretaker-manager James Grady instead, leaving Moore feeling aggrieved and Albion without a penny to show for it. Perhaps McKenzie thought there was an opportunity to settle a larger portion of the total debt, but since a far lesser figure would seem to have been very useful in halting the immediate action from the government it seemed a peculiar game to play. More bizarre still was his justification for the hardline stance, as quoted in the local press the following day:
These figures weren’t just plucked out of thin air. At present we are sitting at the top of the league. Allan Moore has taken us there and we’ve been in Division One before. We’re probably paying the highest wages in the league to get back into that position but if we lose our manager that could all disappear. If Allan went and we didn’t get promotion it could cost us a lot more than £180,000.
That the club are paying such high wages in the circumstances is an extraordinary admission to make, the bulk of the playing contracts having been agreed in the summer after the first winding-up order had laid bare the seriousness of the club’s financial plight. Contrast such gambling with the future of the club with the actions of fellow second division team Clyde this summer – they tore up existing contracts and are now fielding a scratch side on a reported maximum wage of £20 a week in a bid to ensure survival. Oh, and the idea of the Scottish First Division as a land of milk and honey where all their problems would be solved is darkly humourous too.
“The Binos” remain top of the league, fundraising efforts continue, and most of us are hoping it will only be a matter of time before they become the first wholly Trust-owned Scottish league club. For now, they can only hope the existing regime’s games of brinkmanship don’t drive the club to the wall.