Scotland's middle-ranking clubs are caught between the Premier League and oblivion, says Frank Plowright
Since last mentioned in WSC 140, Morton’s property developing chairman Hugh Scott has indulged in a breathtaking series of outbursts, outrages and tantrums, which eventually became so hard to ignore that it prompted a Scottish parliamentary debate on June 15.
Inverclyde MSP Duncan McNeil noted Scott “brings embarrassment and disgrace to this community”, before calling for his resignation, a call echoed by representatives from all major parties. Further comments in the debate advocated increased supporters’ rights and community ownership as the best long-term future for smaller Scottish clubs.
A catalogue of Scott’s offences this year alone is astounding, foreshadowed by his decision to schedule the club’s AGM for 7pm on New Year’s Eve. There have been broadsides against former manager and local hero Allan McGraw, and failed legal action against the SFA, who ordered a home cup tie against Rangers to be played at local rivals St Mirren. Morton’s own Cappielow was deemed unfit, indicating the deterioration there since they hosted Celtic the previous season. Smelling the money, Scott wanted the game played at Ibrox or Hampden. Rather satisfyingly, gate receipts were instead seized by the police in lieu of unpaid bills for services at home matches.
Then, following Huntly’s failed application to join the Scottish League, Scott apparently tried to sell Morton to them lock, stock and league membership. All this was after Inverclyde Council had blocked his attempts to sell Cappielow to Sainsbury’s.
When crowd favourite Paul Fenwick returned after Canada’s surprise Gold Cup victory in February, it was to learn that manager Ian McCall had been ordered to drop him for putting his country above Morton. Fenwick was transferred to Raith. In recent years no money received for players has been spent on transfer fees and since 1998 Morton have increasingly relied on short-term loan signings and sink-or-swim promotions of youth team members.
PFA intervention was required to prevent Scott forcing the players to train for five weeks after the season had ended. As contracts lapsed, none were renewed. No one knows who will be playing for Morton next season, but Scott’s repeated threats indicate they will be part-timers.
With little money spent on the team, and less on the ground, supporters have drifted away, although an ever increasing amount took to protesting from the raised car park behind one goal, refusing to contribute money to Scott. That local support remains was proved when almost 2,000 protestors against Scott marched from Greenock town centre to Cappielow for the season’s final fixture. A mere 650 paid to watch the game, roughly half of them Dunfermline fans. To mark the occasion Scott erected panelling blocking the view from the car park, the first ground modification he has financed during his years in charge.
Since then Scott has continued in his eccentric fashion, issuing an extraordinary outburst threatening to close Morton down in the way of the Greenock shipyards. As a large percentage of Greenock families once depended on the shipyards for employment, that was guaranteed to offend the entire town.
Ian McCall was told his contract would not be renewed beyond its June expiry date, although Scott denied he had been sacked. When McCall and assistant Brian Rice arrived to collect their wages on May 31 they were ordered from the premises, Scott saying no players would be paid unless they left. As they waited outside, Scott called the police, later issuing one of his screeds to the papers claiming they were now sacked.
The perennially Old Firm-obsessed Scottish media has been a source of great frustration to the Morton supporters. Until very recently, papers have printed Scott’s every rant without investigation, a welcome exception being the Scottish Sun’s St Mirren-supporting columnist Bill Leckie. A common thread to printed broadsides has been Scott’s bleating about money he is owed by the club, though this is oddly absent from accounts presented at the AGM. Furthermore, the whereabouts of a £500,000 Football Trust grant is currently a matter for scrutiny.
Much as Morton fans despise Scott, many consider the SFA’s tolerance of his antics to be the real problem. A representative comment solicited prior to a May parliamentary lobby mentioned “monitoring the situation” and “discussions at committee level”. No hint here of the speed with which disrepute charges were levelled at Scott’s behest against Allan McGraw and former player John Morrow. Repeated requests for action over a two-year period have been ignored or fobbed off, a typical SFA reply noting: “It is not considered practicable to reply to each and every one.”
The parliamentary debate, however, seemed to prod them into action. Two days before it took place they announced Morton’s books would be subjected to independent audit, and an “invitation” was issued for Scott to appear before them. The meeting was postponed because his lawyers were unable to attend. They also set a deadline for payment of a sell-on fee owed to Hearts for Kevin Thomas, paid with typical ill grace by Scott 30 minutes before the deadline expired. Sadly, though, the SFA’s belated action stressed Morton’s expulsion from the SFA and League as possible punishments, thus penalising fans rather than an uncaring chairman.
There is hope, however. The debate finally seemed to get the message through to the SFA, and more pressure from MSPs has been promised. The Scottish Independent Supporters Coalition has been formed, encompassing not only supporters’ groups from troubled clubs but also those from larger, seemingly healthy clubs. And while there is currently no development work around supporters’ trusts as there is in England and Wales, the cross party parliamentary sports group continues to advocate this course. If only Hugh Scott could read the writing on the wall.
From WSC 162 August 2000. What was happening this month