SHORTLY after introducing new manager Allan Johnston, Kilmarnock chairman Michael Johnston detailed the emotional cost that he claims has been felt by his family as supporters continue to take issue with the businessman’s stewardship of the club.
There was always the danger that the new appointment would be overshadowed. The outspoken chairman could not be more different from his determinedly uncontroversial namesake, who succeeds Kenny Shiels in the managerial hot seat. The sacking of the garrulous Shiels is one reason why the supporters have taken agin Michael Johnston, who faces being met by a fans’ protest outside Hampden Park today, when he turns up for the inaugural meeting of the newly-formed Scottish Professional Football League.
Johnston was asked yesterday whether he felt that this public show of displeasure in front of other club owners and chairmen is designed to cause him maximum embarrassment. “There is no other reason for it,” he said. “If that is what this small element of the support want to do then that’s up to them. It’s a free country. But it certainly won’t alter my approach to how the business of the football club should be conducted. I don’t think it does the club a service and doesn’t do them a service either. It also calls into question the whole issue of how fans interact with football clubs.”
A section of Rugby Park supporters are demanding that Michael Johnston enters into meaningful talks with a group of local businessmen who want to buy the club. Against this fractious backdrop, Allan Johnston was officially unveiled as manager at Rugby Park yesterday, after a long courtship. Sandy Clark, his assistant at previous club Queen of the South, raced to the press conference after returning from holiday in Cuba, and will take up the No 2 reins. They have a fight on their hands to re-focus efforts towards the pitch.
The new manager made a swift appeal to the supporters to unite for the good of the club. “Confidence is massive in football and off the field stuff will not help younger players,” he pointed out, while also underlining how urgently Kilmarnock’s squad needs reinforced - 16 players have left since the turn of the year, with form having dropped off markedly under Shiels towards the end of last season.
“In the last 19 games they only took 19 points,” noted the new manager. “That is not good enough and it shows that a lot of work needs to be done. We do need some experienced players to cope with that kind of thing,” he added, with reference to the dissension among the supporters. “We really need the supporters to get behind the team and be positive as that will show on the park. I would ask the Kilmarnock fans to think again about boycotting matches. There has been a lot of negative stuff and we need to get a more positive vibe around the football club.”
His chairman spelled out what was happening off the field, and explained how badly it was affecting his family. Katie, his daughter, works at the nearby Park Hotel, which is owned by the club, and she has sadly had to endure some barbed comments because of who her father is.
“There have been unsavoury comments aimed in their direction,” revealed Michael Johnston. “It’s unfortunate when your family has to suffer abuse because of something I’m doing. That’s upsetting for me to see them becoming drawn into the situation when it’s nothing to do with them and I’ve exposed them to the sort of abuse that they’ve had to put up.
Both his children are now in their 30s and can look after themselves, he pointed out. However, Katie has been put in a particularly vulnerable position because she is an employee of the club.
“She’s been particularly open to attack of a totally unjustified nature,” added Johnston. “This sort of conduct is mostly done by anonymous people behind computer screen. It’s very easy for people to deliver abuse anonymously. If they care to come forward and explain themselves to me I’ll be happy to have a discussion with them.”
“There is an element of the fans’ group who have had a long-standing agenda to cause problems whenever the opportunity arises. They did it to my predecessor Jamie Moffat as long ago as ten years ago. It was the same people doing the same things and this is just a repeat process unfortunately.
“I just have to focus on the job at hand and make sure the business of the club is dealt with,” he continued. “Hopefully, the supporters will get fully behind Allan, Sandy and the team and that can be their focus going forward.
“I have been working for quite a few months on a structure that would see a new board in place that is more inclusive of local businessmen, local politicians, supporters and small shareholders. That’s my objective. It is complicated and I would hope to have something positive to say before the end of the year.”
In the meantime, he hopes a section of the fans’ behaviour improves. “It’s hurtful and unpleasant and you don’t want to hear people saying the things they say,” said Johnston. “It’s upsetting for my wife, children and friends. I have hardened myself to it but that doesn’t make it any easier for those around you. It’s also embarrassing for the club because we have gone to other grounds and the behaviour of some supporters has fallen below the standard the club is entitled to expect. When you are the oldest professional club in Scotland, you hope matters can be conducted with a degree of dignity. It also doesn’t help the cause of Supporters Direct and supporters’ trusts, who are trying to encourage the involvement of supporters in clubs.
“It doesn’t help that process, and those objectives, if elements of the support behave in a way that’s a bit extreme and bullying. There’s a lot of bad behaviour and bad language. That doesn’t sit happily with the concept of fan involvement in a responsible and constructive way.”