Lanark mire

Airdrie have gone bust and Motherwell almost suffered the same fate. Ken Gall reports on the financial troubles besetting Scotlands's middle-ranking clubs

After more than a century, Airdrieonians FC have, to all intents and purposes, ceased to exist. A few miles down the road, their not-much-loved Lanarkshire neighbours Motherwell – following an initial panic that they were headed for the same fate – entered interim ad­ministration, slashing wages, sacking staff and can­celling players’ contracts. All in all, then, the grim­­mest few weeks for Scotland’s domestic game since Third Lanark went out of business in 1967.

But whereas a Board of Trade inquiry found evid­ence of near-fraudulent behaviour on the part of a Third Lanark director in the run-up to their expiration, Airdrie’s demise was more the result of a combination of good intentions and kamikaze business practices. Fans of the Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams will recall the ghostly line: “If you build it, they will come.” Airdrie’s New Broomfield stadium provided an almost exact illustration that the opposite was the case. The people of Airdrie were offered a modern, all-seater stadium in which to support their local club football club, and, apart from a hard core of 1,500 or so, they gave their response in the form of full supporters’ buses travelling each week to Ibrox and Parkhead.

The end of this truly sorry tale was a shambles. Air­drie “casuals” – some of whom were, shock horror, attired in England jerseys and, allegedly, unknown to most Diamonds regulars – invaded the pitch and broke the crossbar, bringing to a swift end the club’s last league match of the season, and, potentially, its last match ever. That game was at Ayr United, whose chairman Bill Barr is seen by many as the villain of the piece. Barr’s construction company, which built the impressive, if ultimately ruinous new stadium, was one the club’s major creditors.

For Motherwell, the background was different, but the outcome nearly identical. Their millionaire chairman John Boyle set out with the grandest of intent­ions, stating his desire to see Well established as Scot- ­­­land’s “third force”, this somewhat pathetic am­bition being the aspirational limit of all non-Old Firm SPL clubs. Players such as Andy Goram and John Spencer were signed, at salaries commensurate to their international status, and Boyle seemed to offer an innovative and thoughtful approach to the increasingly des­perate attempts by provincial clubs to drag attention away from Rangers and Celtic.

Alas, little seemed to happen as a result. Fans did not turn up in increased numbers to see Goram, Spen­cer or even the Cayman Islands squad member and ex-Tranmere superstar Ged Brannan. Cup runs and Eur­- opean places were not forthcoming, and when long-term sponsors Motorola ended their association with the club and the Old Firm’s venality led to the collapse of the proposed SPL television deal, the game was up.

Boyle’s Halle Berry-esque performance at the em­otional press conference at which details of the club’s administration was announced endeared him to some. (And you yourself might have shed the odd tear had you written off £11 million, as Boyle is report­ed to have done.) Not to the former Bolton defender Greg Strong, however, who raged publicly at Boyle’s handling of the affair. Strong’s anger will not have been abated by the news that the entry into administration prevented the sacked players from taking legal action against the club. A threat by the French club Le Havre to seek UEFA sanction regarding an unpaid segment of a transfer fee for centre-half Eric Deloumeaux merely added to Moth­er­well’s woes.

The headline writers of Scotland’s newspapers were sent into overdrive, attempting to find as many ways as possible to describe the imminent Collapse Of Scot­tish Football As We Know It. The usual objectivity was maintained, however – a report in the Daily Record that referred to Rangers’ debt of £25 million and Celtic’s of £6 million was headlined No Worries for Old Firm. But genuine fears were raised that having seen how easy it was to pull the plug on Airdrie, financial institutions might have less compunction about doing the same with other ailing clubs.

So where do we go from here? Motherwell’s administrators moved into action quickly, offering most of the first-team squad a stark choice – less money or the door. Good young players such as James McFadden and Stuart Elliot will no doubt raise substantial transfer fees and Well, like the rest of the SPL outside Ibrox and Celtic Park, will abandon the ludicrous policy of paying players five-figure monthly salaries to struggle at the wrong end of one of Europe’s weaker leagues.

For the Diamonds, the future is more murky. It seems likely they will reapply to join the league, with a Glas­gow businessman having bought the rights to var­ious combinations of the words “Airdrie”, “football” and “club” and negotiating a provisional groundsharing agreement with yet another Lanarkshire club, Al­bion Rovers. Rovers may be in the best position of all the clubs in the area – having absolutely no money in the first place, they have absolutely none to lose.

However, the lack of a pyramid structure similar to that which obtains in England means the way back for Airdrie could be difficult. Unlike Aldershot, for ex­ample, they cannot rejoin at the bottom of the pile and work their way through park leagues and semi-pro competitions, with their eyes on the long-term prize of League membership. And the sharks are circling, with financially viable alternatives from the Highand League, as well as the ambitious Gala Fairydean from the bor­ders, seeking to claim the Diamonds’ place. All Airdrie fans, and many others, will be hoping a deal can be struck so that some form of their club plays league football next season. Where, with whom and for how long can be questions for another day.

From WSC 185 July 2002. What was happening this month