Thanks to a financial incentive scheme from Littlewoods Pools, things could be looking up for Scotland's perennial losers, East Stirlingshire. Neil White explains

For the past two years, the safest bet in British football has not been on Arsenal or Martin O’Neill’s dominant Celtic side. The smart money, if you have enough of it to counter increasingly prohibitive odds, is on whoever happens to be playing East Stirlingshire.

The Falkirk-based club have occupied the basement of Scottish football for the past two seasons, winning just two of their 36 league fixtures in both campaigns and conceding an astonishing 118 goals last time. They play in front of attendances that rarely rise above the mid two hundreds, pay their players £10 per week and their manager, Dennis Newall, nothing whatsoever.

Newall admits that this is not an attractive proposition when it comes to enticing new players to the club, yet he has managed to do just that 14 times since he took charge at the end of last season, revamping a squad that had developed an immunity to defeat. Their start to this season may seem familiar, with the Shire languishing pointless at the foot of the Third Division, but Newall’s side has lost by the slenderest of margins against the teams that will end the season at the front of the promotion race. His own ambitions are more modest, for now, but the only pro bono manager in professional football suggests it is time to take up the odds on the worst team in Britain climbing out of the basement.

If you do, you will not be the first to put money on East Stirlingshire this season. In a piece of wonderfully imaginative marketing, Littlewoods Pools have invested a six-figure sum in the club in the form of a bonus scheme that will reward the players, Newall and his assistant, Greg Denham, for every point they win over the course of this season. “It hasn’t really had an effect on the squad, but the benefits are there for the club financially, although it is unlikely that I will get any of that in terms of transfers. The players that I brought in were already in place before this happened,” said the manager.

The perilous financial position that the club are in is far from unique in Britain. In the lower leagues of Scottish football, the most recent bad tidings came with the news that pools revenue was not to be split among the member clubs of the Scottish Football League, as it had been in previous seasons. It is an income stream that East Stirlingshire alone will keep alive and, even then, only if they can improve the worst record in the land. Littlewoods have also promised to fund a new matchday magazine and to advertise the Shire’s matches locally. This is thoroughly necessary, but the club are fighting for business with Stenhousemuir and Falkirk on their doorstep, as well as the ability of the Old Firm to siphon away supporters from every nook and cranny of Scotland.

A more successful strategy may be to accept a reported £1.4 million bid for their Firs Park stadium and relocate to an athletics stadium in nearby Grangemouth. The money, delivered only if the ground can be developed for housing, will be more than the bonus scheme could possibly generate, even in Newall’s wildest dreams.

“Realistically, mid-table would be a success for us this season,” he said. “That’s not beyond us. We’ve lost narrowly to teams at the top of the table and we are still struggling to get our whole squad fit. If we can pick up points and get this bonus system into action then the club becomes a more attractive prospect to potential new players.”

With virtually no money to spend on wages and no remuneration for his own efforts, the question is: what made it such an attractive proposition for Newall?

“It’s a starting point for me, I know the challenge and I’ve taken it on. If we can get points on the board with no money then the players can take it on to another level and that works for me as well.” Littlewoods’ catchline for the latest relaunch of the most traditional of footballing wagers is “Be Lucky”. From the most treacherous of starting points, who would not wish that on their new-found poster boys?

From WSC 212 October 2004. What was happening this month

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