Ambitious plans for the running of Motherwell FC are instilling a new community spirit in the town, 20 years after the steelworks closed, writes Andrew Wilson
Childhood in Lanarkshire for me meant growing up in the shadow of the brooding giant of the Ravenscraig steelworks. The mass production plant was positioned there to take advantage of the county’s rich seam of coal and ore mined over decades and still evident in the still-smoking bings around Wishaw and Shotts. Lanarkshire people were never found wanting when there was work to be done and they dug the coal and forged the steel that powered and built industry, war and wealth.
The peoples of Lanarkshire were (and are) a fusion of Green and Orange traditions, as in so much of industrial central Scotland. Labour party politics ruled the roost, born as they were out of the crying need to empower labour in the struggle for fairness with capital.
A healthy middle class and strong working class meant the area was prosperous and proud sustaining excellent shopping and leisure, although the work and the environment were hard. Wishaw had its own department store, part of the House of Fraser chain if memory serves. How times and prosperity have changed.
At the heart of this community grew Motherwell FC. Despite the twin challenges of economics and the cultural attachment to the Old Firm, our wee club has prospered and competed remarkably consistently over its 125-year history. On the field it is notable that the team ranks sixth in the history of performance behind the city clubs of Edinburgh, Aberdeen and, of course, Glasgow.
And now, two decades on from the death of Ravenscraig, just as the rest of the national game groans under the weight of pessimism, Motherwell is trying to show a small candle of hope at the end of the tunnel.
We tried in our own way to throw money at sport and failed. Chairman John Boyle is a man I have long admired for his civic-minded brand of entrepreneurialism. He made mistakes, faced them and stuck it through. Responsible capitalism personified; in my view John Boyle is a “big man” in the best way.
Now he is retiring, and presented to the small group of club directors the challenge of handing his equity on to the fans. Very easy to say, quite difficult to do. But we are giving it a go.
Our chosen model is an industrial and provident society – The ’Well Society – which is now approved by the Financial Services Authority and open to members. Different categories will accrue different benefits depending on how much a person can afford to give. Core level is the aptly named “Steel”; at £300 it’s not an easy decision for many but can be paid up over the year with a small annual charge beyond that. “Amber” at £1,000 and “Claret” at £5 000 are topped by “1886” – the founding year of the club – whose patrons will pay £25,000 for which, we have joked, they will get to play. But, and this is crucial for the democratic anchor of the idea, everyone has the same power to elect the board in “one-member, one-vote”.
Initially we offer two seats on the board to the society. Ultimately, if we can prove the sustainability of the model and the maturity of the membership in picking fit and proper people, then the whole board will be elected by the members within a few years.
The financial underpin of this strategy is to replace what we call the “Bank of Boyle”. Motherwell has no bank debt but we do depend – every year – on the generosity of our owner to secure cashflows and ultimately insure the club against calamity on or off the park. With John retiring, we need to replace what is an otherwise unsustainable model.
Our target is to create a “strategic reserve” of £1.5 million, which the board assesses is enough to cover all eventualities in a two-year period. We may need to increase that depending on the outlook for cost and revenue. Society membership fees will go towards this target, along with any “excess” profits or windfalls such as major player sales.
Last year we reported a £542,000 profit on the back of success on the pitch. Stuart McCall’s success is remarkable, and long may it continue. That said, the precarious nature of football finance is clear when you consider that, despite a lofty third place in the SPL at present, Motherwell vice-chairman Derek Weir put a profit warning out with our results for the current financial year. Why? Because we haven’t sold a player in the last two transfer windows and the identification, development and trade of talent is critical to a club like Motherwell.
The good news is that our fan base get all of this. The process of becoming self-sufficient and self-governing (and I will avoid all the constitutional parallels that strike me) is making them better informed and less likely to call for the short-term self-defeating madness that has brought our game to the brink.
Our attendances are up 10 per cent this year and price initiatives have taken season tickets up likewise, but we have so much more to do on that front. The ability to attract new fans, especially women and children, will be the acid test of just how far we can take this. But we are ambitious.
We are also blessed with an enlightened counter-cultural chief executive officer in Leeann Dempster, who is fixing the commercial nuts and bolts of the club while putting our roots down deep in our community. The work of our Community Trust to open the club to the social and charitable endeavour an area like ours needs is something the board is extraordinarily proud of and excited by.
The fans’ connection is stronger than ever, with the manager e-mailing supporters directly about games and the fans responding in turn with better atmospheres than I for one can recall in recent years.
So grounds for optimism, but zero complacency. We don’t do over-hype or exuberance in Lanarkshire, with the possible exception of our new-found love for Estonians in the shape of “the Sheriff”, Henrik Ojamma.
But optimism and hope are so much more energising and fun than pessimism and defeat. We may well fail in our objectives, but if we think that way we are pretty much guaranteed to. Better to fix our goals and run head on towards them, albeit with our eyes open, is it not?
Our next focus will be on the “Steelmen Academy” to modernise how we identify and develop talent and put resources behind it. We hope that will mean facilities as well as people. It’s difficult to make the numbers work in this property market but ultimately how fitting would it be if we could put the Steelmen back into Ravenscraig to complete the circle?
The site boasts one of the finest indoor sports facilities in the UK and a modern campus for the excellent Motherwell College. How good would it be to begin to tackle the disappointing lack of a Scottish Stadium strategy by making a vision for a modern multi-purpose community-owned “Steelmen Stadium” on the very soil where so much sweat and tears flowed for steel in the past.
Football is at its best when it distracts us from the mundane and the drudgery of life’s worries. It can bring us joy, a sense of belonging and a pride in who we are and where we are from. More people per head of population go to SPL matches than any other league in Europe. Let’s turn that love into something meaningful that can last.
• Andrew Wilson is a director of Motherwell FC