Stirling progress

East Stirling have a new investor who is hoping to transform their forutnes after six consecutive seasons at the bottom of the Scottish league. Neil Forsyth reports

It would be expected that the recent travails of Gretna, in administration and facing daily reports predicting their imminent demise, should stand as stark warning against investment in Scotland’s minor clubs. Recent developments at the country’s worst professional football team, however, would suggest that hope springs eternal.

First to Gretna. When funding from bene­factor Brooks Mileson was halted (by his lawyers after Mileson fell seriously ill) the club imploded instantly. A “home” ground hundreds of miles from Gretna, three-­figure crowds and a wage bill that apparently required a corresponding weekly cheque from Mileson meant once he was out of the equation the club stopped working.

Terrified of a team folding in mid-season – and issues such as removing points from all games involving Gretna and what to do about relegation – the SPL have advanced the club money due at the end of the campaign. Together with the administrator’s savage cost-cutting and freezing of any credit-­settling, it is hoped that Gretna will somehow make it to their last SPL game.

The fact that this could well double as their last ever match in their current incarnation is a poignant point. Very few Scottish teams outside the SPL genuinely have the background to sustain the investment needed for both promotion and establishment in the country’s top division. When that investment is artificially granted – as in the cases of Livingston and Gretna through external investment, and Dundee through outrageous borrowing – administration and relegation are the unavoidable results.

Yet there is another dream brewing down in the depths. In recent years, following the fortunes of East Stirlingshire (commonly known as East Stirling) has been a pretty repetitive affair. For the past five seasons, the team has ended the campaign as the worst senior football club in Scotland – in 2003-04 when they took eight points from a possible 108. Such monotonous failure has been enlivened only by novelty. There was the Norwegian TV documentary on their plight, which created a Norwegian East Stirling fan club said to contain more than 6,000 members. There was the journalist who joined them for a year and released a book called Pointless, and the revelation that they were paying players just £10 a week.

This season, however, has seen a few changes in circumstance. Despised chairman Alan Mackin has finally achieved his long-stated ambition to sell the Firs Park ground and split the profits with his fellow shareholders. Although they have managed to delay his dastardly plans for years, fans found themselves in a quandary.

A prospective new owner, Spencer Fearn, was lurking. But only by allowing Mackin to sell Firs Park and pocket the cash could fans in turn persuade him to sell to Fearn. In the end, the supporters and smaller shareholders let Mackin have his way.

The club’s ground in Falkirk has now been sold in principle for £1.5 million and Fearn is the de facto chairman (until the complicated share transfer finally goes through) of a club who are groundless, skint and battling to maintain their status. Because while the boardroom (actually, board ­Portakabin) intrigue has continued, the playing campaign has taken a familiar turn. Once again, although just about in touch, they are the country’s bottom team, and finishing as such this time could be particularly painful, as new rules will mean their fellow clubs will vote on whether they should be ejected from the professional leagues as a result. Against that backdrop, it is jarring to read coverage of East Stirling that veers decidedly towards the optimistic.

Fearn does offer hope. A 32-year-old millionaire from Rotherham, he is a Sheffield Wednesday fan first attracted to East Stirling by Jeff Stelling’s weekly trumpeting of their ineptitude on Soccer Saturday. Intrigued, he visited Firs Park. He slapped a £15 win bonus on top of the £10 wages of the players, bought the shirt sponsorship, created a club website and paid the board to designate the last home game before Christmas as free entry, which saw a bumper gate of 396. Fearn unsuccessfully approached John Hartson to lead his East Stirling revolution, but Hartson’s rejection was not unexpected considering the last manager quit saying it “wasn’t worth £40 a week”.

Although no doubt a little bewildered, the fans have taken to Fearn as an unlikely saviour. He has promised to invest at least £40,000 next season, has signed a five-year groundsharing agreement with neighbouring Stenhousemuir and has instructed local planners to put together a deal using public financing to find a new ground. Such ambition makes it unlikely East Stirling will be blackballed by their historical companions in the basement, not that Fearn sees this as the limit of his new club’s ambitions – he is hoping to see East Stirling at least hoist themselves out of Division Three.

It’s not quite the “Living The Dream” mantra that took Gretna up the leagues and into likely oblivion, but it’s perhaps a warming sign that Scottish football can still attract those who are staring at the stars. “What motivates me in everything is a challenge,” Fearn says. “So what bigger challenge could there be?” Other than Gretna’s administrator, it’s hard to imagine one.

From WSC 255 May 2008