CRISIS? What crisis? If Scottish football is in dire financial straits, somebody forgot to tell Arbroath.
With lucrative matches against each half of the Old Firm already under their belt in 2012, the Second Division club are gearing up for a third bonanza in the space of 12 months, this time against Celtic in a Scottish Cup fourth-round replay at Gayfield on Wednesday evening.
By their own modest standards, the Angus club are coining it in. In January, they earned £140,000 from a 4-0 home defeat by Rangers, £82,500 of which was the fee from Sky Sports for the right to broadcast the match live. The TV company’s decision to give this week’s game the same treatment means that Arbroath are set to make almost the same again.
Add to that their share of the takings from last weekend’s 1-1 draw at Celtic Park, and it is no wonder John Christison, their chairman, is in good heart. Despite the economic pressure bearing down on everyone else, and the ongoing threat of reconstruction, Arbroath seem to have come up smelling of roses, never mind Smokies.
“There’s a lot of uncertain times ahead, but at least we know that our club will be financially secure, especially if we can manage to stay in this league,” says Christison. “Rangers will be coming twice next season so that’s extra revenue again. Folk are saying it’s all bad news at the moment, but from our perspective, it’s been nothing but good news.”
Of course, not everyone has been blessed with Arbroath’s luck. The draw has been kind to them when it comes to the Scottish Cup. And this week’s tie, like the one against Rangers, has been fortunate to find a vacancy on the TV schedule. “We’re so lucky that Sky have come again,” says Christison. “By the sound of things, we’re probably the only game on in the world that night.”
Arbroath, though, have also earned it. They took the Celtic tie to a replay by doing in Glasgow what was beyond Barcelona. And they contributed in no small way to the gate receipts, from which they will take a 50 per cent cut. “I’m told that our away support was the biggest they have had at Celtic Park all season,” says Christison. “We had more than 1,000 there, more than Barcelona. That’s fantastic, absolutely fantastic.”
All of which comes at a time when some are questioning the point of clubs such as Arbroath. The Scottish Premier League appeared to have no plans for them when it issued its reconstruction proposals. And Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager, said recently that there were too many teams in Scottish football.
The latter point leads Christison to recall a meeting that he attended 12 years ago in the home of David Birse, the then Brechin City chairman. He and Birse and their counterparts at Forfar Athletic and Montrose had gathered to discuss the possibility of amalgamating the four clubs, sharing a stadium in Friockheim – a village equidistant from the four towns – and becoming a kind of Angus superclub. “I think the meeting lasted about 20 minutes,” says Christison. “Everybody wanted their own club. Would somebody from Montrose come down to Arbroath? Would somebody from Arbroath go up there? There’s a history of 133 years at our club. How could you get rid of that?”
Christison has supported Arbroath since his father lifted him over the turnstiles in the 1950s. He reckons they are the oldest business in town. In the last few months, they have performed an important social function for the community.
“There’s quite a depression over some of the smaller towns just now, a real downer. There’s not a lot of employment. So, when we pull off a result like we did at Celtic Park, it’s amazing. It gives everybody a real lift. When you’re walking down the street or in the shops, everybody’s talking about it.”
And yet, Christison fears that Arbroath could “disappear from the fixture list” under the SPL’s plan for two divisions of 12. If, as some have suggested, the future for the country’s smaller clubs is as part of a regional league, he thinks that the consequences will be even more serious. The idea makes his blood boil.
“As soon as you start going down the road of regionalising, you’re killing clubs. We’re Scottish. We play in Scotland. Whether we have to go to Stranraer or Ross County, it doesn’t matter. We’re all used to doing it. We just get on with it. It would be hellish to think that they might. . . I’ll start getting annoyed if I even think about it.”
Christison likes to think that it will not come to that. He believes that the Scottish Football League is more powerful than ever. If most of its member clubs were threatened with extinction, there would be an uproar, just as there was when the SPL tried to keep Rangers in their midst. “I think there would be such a big backlash from Scotland as a whole. . . they couldn’t afford to let us die.”
Christison, who is Scotland’s longest-serving chairman, has been through more than a few reconstruction proposals since taking up the post in 1993. He doesn’t know what the solution is, only that it must involve the country’s community clubs. “As long as we’re still at the table, that’s what it’s all about. The problem is not at the bottom of the leagues, the problem is at the top.”
In the meantime, Arbroath will get on with entertaining the Old Firm, which they are becoming rather good at. This week’s replay has had to be organised at short notice, but the experience of last season has served them well. The money from the Rangers tie enabled them to buy pitch covers, which are likely to ensure that the Celtic game goes ahead. A year ago, Christison was saying that the club’s immediate future had been stabilised. After two more windfalls, he admits that he can be a little less cautious, perhaps investing in the squad, as well as in the club’s wind-battered facilities. Which is not to say that Gayfield is about to undergo a radical transformation. “We’ve just bought two new washing machines because the old ones were knackered,” says Christison. “With things like that, we used to say ‘ach, we’ll get by’, but now we can look into them.”
Old habits die hard. No matter how much pours in, Arbroath know their place in the grand scheme of things. They want to serve their community, produce players and maybe compete in the First Division but they have no plans to become a full-time club. Christison says Scottish football has too many already.
“Look back to the heady days when we had, I think, only nine full-time teams in Scotland, and the national side were qualifying for World Cup finals. A lot of teams are living way beyond their means. It’s been well-documented, the Dunfermlines of this world. Yes, we’ve got great aspirations but not at the cost of putting your club at risk.”
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FOURTH ROUND REPLAYS
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Motherwell v Aberdeen
Inverness CT v Ross Co
Arbroath v Celtic