THESE are giddying, ground-breaking times for sport in Aberdeen. The football club has won its first national trophy in 19 years, the coastline is about to host its first European Tour golf event, and there is talk of a new professional rugby team laying foundations among the granite. What next for the city that can do no wrong?
“It’s going to become the sporting capital of Scotland,” says Stewart Milne, the Aberdeen chairman, only half joking. He is still riding the wave of his team’s penalty shootout success at Celtic Park last Sunday. Not only did they win the Scottish League Cup, their support of more than 40,000 demonstrated the potential of both the club and its city.
Suddenly, a light in the north burns bright. When thousands gather along Union Street this afternoon to see the silverware paraded on an open-top bus, it will be the start of a sporting summer in which the world’s best golfers visit Royal Aberdeen for the Scottish Open and influential figures will look into bringing top-class rugby to the city. Aberdeen, it seems, is finally flexing its muscles. For the first time in a long while, it feels as though it is not on the outside looking in.
“We’ve probably let ourselves down over the years in that we haven’t promoted the place as effectively as we could, but some of the things that are starting to happen gives us a real platform,” says Milne. “We have to make sure that we capitalise on them. We certainly will within the football club. And I’m sure the Scottish Open at Royal Aberdeen will be a tremendous success. As for rugby, there has always been great interest in it up here, but we’ve probably never really had the platform. If we could pull something off on that front, it would be great for the north east.”
All across the city, sport is taking off. The acclaimed Aberdeen Sports Village, which opened in 2009, will be enhanced this year by a new Olympic-standard aquatics centre. Donald Trump has big plans for his golf course at Balmedie. And the council, as part of its 2014 “summer of sport”, has discussed erecting big screens so that the Ryder Cup, the Commonwealth Games and the World Cup can be broadcast in public.
Football, though, is the driving force. The Pittodrie club now have their sights set on a cup double, and beyond that, a sustained period as the best of the rest in Scottish football. They need to address a significant debt burden, as well as plans for a new stadium – hitherto hampered by competing interests – but if they can’t tackle those problems now, they never will.
“We’ve got to see this season as a turning point that will give us the momentum to deal with the financial issues,” says Milne. “I’ve always been a great believer that, if there’s a desire among everyone to make it happen, you’ll find a way. We have to get everyone much more aligned to seeing the huge benefit that a new top-class stadium would bring, not just to the football club, but to the north east. At the moment, if people here want to participate in something – whether it is international football, rugby or a concert – they have to get themselves down to central Scotland, but you could argue that Aberdeen is the country’s economic driver. We should be delivering a lot more.”
Now is their chance to do so. After a period in which the rest of the country has struggled to make ends meet, Aberdeen is perhaps better placed than most to generate a sports boom. It is famous for its affluence, based on its proximity to the North Sea. It has one of the lowest unemployment rates in Scotland. Five of the country’s top ten companies are based there.
“It is as close to a recession-proof city as you will find because of the oil,” says Richie Ramsay, the European Tour golfer who was born in the city. “There are people who make a lot of money and people who are very generously giving something back, and one of the ways to do that is sport.”
Ramsay’s backers include Douglas Craig, chairman of the Craig Group, a global shipping and energy services firm. He also namechecks Mike Loggie, chief executive of Saltire Energy, one of the many companies behind Paul Lawrie, the 1999 Open champion. The latter has a long list of business partners, including Aberdeen Asset Management, which also happens to sponsor the Scottish Open.
In each of the last three years, the tournament has been held at Castle Stuart, near Inverness, but Royal Aberdeen, where Ramsay, pictured left, grew up playing, will be new territory for one of the richest events on the European Tour. “It could be one of the most successful Scottish Opens in recent years,” he says. “The venue has all the attributes. It’s a major city, so people will come out. It is one of the best courses in the world, and I’m sure there will be a top-class field. You never know what the weather’s going to do, but it has all the ingredients of a world-class event.”
The Scottish Open is expected to move elsewhere in 2015, but the European Tour’s visit to Aberdeen need not be a one-off. George O’Grady, the Tour’s chief executive, has already indicated that Trump’s new course just north of the city is “capable of taking the biggest and best”. At the very least, it will help to open up the north east by introducing golf tourists to the delights of Cruden Bay and Murcar Links.
The country is a smaller place now. Its sporting map is being redrawn. If Dundee are promoted from the Championship this season and Ross County avoid the drop, half of Scotland’s top-flight football clubs will be from north of the central belt.
The Aberdeen Sports Village ensures that promising local athletes no longer need to head south in search of suitable facilities. Elite swimmers, for example, are set to enjoy unprecedented long-lane training opportunities at the £22 million aquatics centre, which will host the Commonwealth Water Polo Championships next month.
Rugby in the area could do with a similar boost. While the north east has produced its share of internationals, including Jason White, Chris Cusiter, pictured far left, and Ruiradh Jackson, the feeling persists that only by moving south, or even out of Scotland, can ambitions be fulfilled. The country has had just two professional teams since 2007, when the Scottish Rugby Union disbanded the Border Reivers.
Aberdeen Asset Management chief executive Martin Gilbert wants to rectify that. He would like a third team to add to Edinburgh and Glasgow, and he would like it to be in Aberdeen. In an interview last week, he indicated that his company would be interested in backing the project. It would be good for the north east, and good for Scotland, which does not expose enough of its best players to top-class rugby.
Aberdeen is the sport’s untapped market. While the Borders is rugby’s traditional heartland, the north east has a huge captive audience. In the last six years, Pittodrie has played host to three rugby internationals, all of which produced crowds in excess of 17,000. There is already an online campaign to bring back the Caledonia Reds, whose catchment area – the old North & Midlands district – took in a third of the national population.
The question is whether enough investors would be willing to dig deep. The Reds “merged” with Glasgow in 1998 when the SRU could no longer afford them. A Pro12 club would require a stadium, an infrastructure and enough resources to fund the team’s matches in Ireland, Wales and Italy.
“Running a professional rugby team is expensive,” says Cusiter, the international scrum-half who plays for Glasgow Warriors. “Edinburgh and Glasgow have budgets of more than £4m per season. That’s not the minimum needed, but to challenge at the top, you have to be spending that kind of money. The big challenge would be getting a big crowd every week as there has never been a pro team in Aberdeen. You would be building from nothing. But there is an appetite for sport there, as the football club demonstrated in the cup final. If they get the right level of investment behind it, there’s no reason why it can’t happen.”
Gilbert’s enthusiasm for the idea gives it a fighting chance. Should the SRU respond positively to his suggestion, Milne, pictured left, would also be willing to participate in discussions. A shared stadium would not be on the agenda, but the football club is crying out for purpose-built training facilities. “If they [in rugby] are serious about doing something here, the club would be happy to embark on discussions with them to see what common ground there might be,” says the chairman.
A spirit of co-operation is vital if Aberdeen is to exploit the opportunity that presents itself. Just as the football club has repaired its fractured relationship with the community, so must the city’s other factions feed off the feelgood factor. If they can come together and pull their collective weight, the central belt might just have some competition on its hands.