The resignation last week of East Stirlingshire’s Vice-Chairman Spencer Fearn marks the end of another chapter for a club who have been through the mill over the past decade, and leaves their immediate prospects a little uncertain. Contract offers to players have been put on hold while the club works out a new budget, and manager Jim McInally has offered to take a pay cut in order to stay on.
Without Fearn, however, there may well have been no club by now. It’s only a few years since the Shire were the laughing stock of Scottish, if not British, football, having finished bottom of the league for five consecutive seasons between 2002 and 2007, including the 03/04 season when they finished with the princely total of eight points. The following year, as well as prompting Jeff O’Connor’s book ‘Pointless’, Shire’s run also prompted the SFL into a rule change. With no means of demoting a team from the third division, it was decided that any club finishing bottom for two consecutive seasons could be voted down to Associate Member status, and – if the run continued – could ultimately be voted out of the league.
At this point, prospects for the future looked bleak. The club were paying their players £10 a week and the chairman, Alan Mackin, showed very little interest in the long-term wellbeing of the club and made little secret of his main objective – to cash in on the sale of Firs Park, to which he had somehow obtained principal ownership. Agreeing a deal to sell the ground was the easy bit, at least pre-recession, but there was a problem. Falkirk Council had earmarked the land for retail and leisure development only and, having no particular desire to help along the demise of one of their local clubs, were being less than co-operative in granting planning permission for a housing development. Against this backdrop, Shire continued to struggle, finishing bottom again in 2006 and 2007 and prompting the dreaded vote on their membership status.
But by this time, Spencer Fearn had arrived. The Yorkshire businessman and former Sheffield United trainee had apparently, and for reasons which will remain forever unfathomable, fallen in love with the club from afar, travelling six hundred mile round trips in his Aston Martin to watch them, and was looking to invest. With this promise of increased funding, the other SFL clubs voted to defer the reduction in membership status for a further year – and sure enough, the Shire justified this faith in 07/08, a last day win over Montrose seeing them finishing in the dizzying heights of …. second bottom. The dawn of a new era.
It was a new era, however, that would have to continue in a different stadium. The sale of Firs Park was still unresolved, but with no incentive to invest in its upkeep, it had fallen into disrepair, and in 2008 the club moved in as lodgers at nearby Ochilview, home of their rivals Stenhousemuir. Despite this setback, the upturn in fortunes on the pitch continued: the £10 wage limit long gone, they now had a higher profile manager in McInally, and in due course were able to sign players with at least some sort of higher division pedigree, such as Jamie Stevenson and Simon Lynch. Instead of focusing on avoiding the wooden spoon, the target was now promotion, and for both of the last two seasons they’ve come close, losing in the play-off semi-finals first to Cowdenbeath and, this season, to Forfar.
So far though, that’s been as good as it’s got, and Fearn’s announcement that he’s stepping down for personal reasons makes the job of taking that next step all the harder. There is no one at the club who will hold anything against him for that. Firs Park lies unused, its sale and status still unresolved, but the club has been saved. They are largely debt-free, have a long-term lease at Ochilview of which the next three years have been paid upfront, Fearn is writing off his loans to the club and has sold his shares for £1, initially to Chairman Les Thompson and with the agreement that the Supporters’ Trust will have the option to buy them next year.
The future will be difficult, but it’s thanks to Fearn that they have one at all. Sugar daddies have a bad reputation in some quarters, but I have a soft spot for the Shire and I’d like to pay tribute to this one. After all the travails with the previous owner, my faith in philanthropic businessmen is restored.