Fan ownership suggests Scottish football is heading in a more sensible direction
The list of supporter-ran clubs in Scotland will soon get a little bit longer. Last night, Greenock Morton became the latest SPFL club to announce their intention to move to a fan ownership model after agreeing a deal with Morton Come Together (MCT), a supporters’ group, to take a majority stake in the club by summer 2021.
They are not the only club with similar ambitions. Their rivals over in Paisley, St Mirren, are hoping to complete a similar move by next year in partnership with Kibble, Ann Budge plans on transferring her majority shareholding over to the Foundation of Hearts, while Partick Thistle are also moving in the same direction after the late Colin Weir gifted his controlling stake to supporters of the Firhill club.
Throughout the Scottish football pyramid, there are no shortage of examples of well-run, fan-owned clubs that Morton can be looking to emulate once the share transfer is completed. Motherwell are probably the most obvious example currently, given their title as best of the rest in terms of league standings, and the fact that the Fir Park youth academy continuously churns out promising young players doesn’t harm this reputation.
Hearts are another who are clearly benefiting from the change in ownership; events may well have been an unmitigated disaster on the park but off it, they continue to go from strength to strength as the club’s infrastructure is improved. Now, this is clearly in part due to the relatively large fanbase the Foundation of Hearts can draw on for funding – as of last month, supporters had raised over £10 million – and while the Gorgie club are perhaps in a similar boat to Morton, St Mirren and Thistle insofar as they have yet to gain a controlling stake in the club, the capital side look to be in far better shape now than they were prior to the introduction of Budge.
Dundee United, Dunfermline, Clyde and Stirling Albion are a few other clubs to have made the move to fan ownership in recent years while outside of the SPFL pyramid altogether the likes of Clydebank and Gretna 2008 have been salvaged by supporters after their expulsion from the professional football pyramid.
There is a common theme running through most of these clubs: an all-too-recent brush with extinction. The vast majority have entered administration at one point or another due to various forms of financial mismanagement over the last few decades, and these are the clubs that learned their lesson.
Gretna fans will never be hoodwinked by a millionaire investor again. Hearts supporters are unlikely to fall for another businessman promising to deliver the Champions League to Tynecastle. After staring insolvency in the face during the 90s, few Partick Thistle supporters want to see anything other than a sensible, cautious approach to the team’s financing.
There is a cause and effect relationship at play here. Fans experience one extreme – entering administration or even liquidation – and then propose to do everything within their collective power to stop history repeating itself. And, so far at least, it tends to work. By gaining a majority shareholding, clubs finally gain custodians that truly have its viability and longevity as a top priority: the supporters.
We are seeing fan ownership becoming more and more prevalent in Scotland for a number of reasons. Sometimes, like the cases of Hearts, Dunfermline or Clydebank, it is borne out of necessity. For others – like St Mirren or Motherwell – it is an opportunity that has presented itself that has been too good to turn down. The likes of Partick Thistle and Morton are perhaps special cases in this regard; Thistle, of course, benefitted from an act of generosity from Weir but Morton fans should also be thanking current owner Crawford Rae for agreeing to MCT’s terms despite having an offer on the table from a third party that would have proven more profitable.
I’m strongly of the belief that fan ownership makes for more responsible owners and this is something that has been in short supply in Scotland on far too many occasions. Unrealistic ambition has driven too many clubs into the ground in our country and becoming a fan-owned club, in my view, is the most effective way of a team protecting itself from this threat. Lest we forget, history tells us that this is one of the greatest dangers facing Scottish football clubs.
Morton might be the latest club to get on an increasingly busy bandwagon, but let’s hope they’re not the last. Scottish football needs more fan-run clubs and with each one that follows suit and thrives, they show just how valuable such a structure can be.