Cynics proved wrong as prudent Milne put in the frame for club role model

IF Stewart Milne had a pound for every apology it might be considered that he is owed from the majority of football experts and his own fans, then the Aberdeen chairman could dispense with the frugal approach to running his club that has become his raison d’etre.

But Milne is not in the business of saying: "I told you so" to those who presented him as a bungling asset-striper, only concerned for the Pittodrie side he grew up supporting in so far as how best he could enhance his fortune. Instead, the Aberdeen chairman is simply relieved that the penny has finally dropped.

It surely could only but amuse Milne that, as the financial predicament gripping Scottish football, which forced Motherwell into administration and sent Airdrie to the wall, has prompted much soul-searching this past fortnight, Aberdeen have been mentioned in despatches as the club all others must see as their role model. This the same Aberdeen who, for much of the past three seasons, have attracted ridicule, opprobrium and not much else, with Milne the focus.

But those who caution against reading too much into the Pittodrie renaissance on the basis of a guaranteed top-four finish in the SPL this season, might care to consider that Aberdeen are reducing debt and costs, increasing attendances and revenue from corporate and commercial enterprises, while improving performance. In business parlance, all the ducks are in a row.

The extraordinary torture inflicted in arriving at this point - four years on from the board recognising that they required to "take a completely different approach" to running a football club - amounted to the Aberdeen chairman force-feeding the medicine required not so much with a spoon as a ladle. But the upshot has been an emaciated club becoming strong enough to survive.

"It is satisfying that the strategy we adopted is now paying dividends, and that we could be regarded as a couple of years ahead of other clubs in terms of putting our house in order," said Milne who, with 27 years in the property game as head of the Stewart Milne Group, is aware of the pitfalls of laying foundations on shifting sands.

"By the late 1990s, money that was coming into the game was moving out of it too quickly, into the hands of agents and players. We decided that we had to make more of our resources and build from below, rearing our own players rather than buying them We also made a commitment to no longer be dictated to by the expectations of players and agents, but instead pay them only what we could afford."

Aberdeen have pared to the bone their playing squad, Ebbe Skovdahl removing 21 of the highest earners. When the Dane arrived in the summer of 1999, the average wage at Pittodrie was about 4000 a week; now it is understood to be around half that figure. Within the year, wages-to-turnover ratio will settle at about 60%, considered by most analysts to be a prerequisite for sustainability.

Further, the wisdom of plans put in place for Skovdahl to operate with no greater than a 20-man first-team squad can be evinced in the fact that this is the number being bandied about as desirable by all clubs outside of the Old Firm. Young players who have come through the ranks represent the majority of the first picks at Pittodrie. This, also, is what the other nine in the SPL consider ideal.

The appreciation for Milne in getting it right extends to the one-time hate figure being accepted, somewhat sheepishly, by fans as a prudent manager of the club’s coffers. The nadir for Milne at the club, whose board he joined in 1994 by investing 3m before taking control in 1997, arrived when he and his family were man-handled by a baying mob in August 2000 following a 3-0 home defeat by St Johnstone.

"If you put yourself in the position I have, you must expect to take the flak, but when it starts to affect your family, that is when it can become problematic," he said. "But I can honestly say at no time did I ever consider walking away.

"In fairness to the supporters, anyway, they stuck by us and never mounted a campaign against Ebbe even when the media was trying to build one."

Milne - as with Fergus McCann at Celtic, Hearts’ Chris Robinson and even such as Stewart Gilmour of St Mirren - has elicited little warmth because he chooses to be pragmatic, and does not naturally possess a personable streak. But even his greatest detractors can only but admire his resilience in the face of the "intense pressure" he admits to placing Skovdahl and the Pittodrie staff under over a two-year period when results suggested that, in cutting their cloth, Aberdeen were merely cutting their throats.

"We hope our restructuring will not just mean we enjoy one good season, but a period of stability when we can be challenging at the top end of the table and acquitting ourselves with distinction in Europe," said the chairman.

The principles Milne is applying to running the club cannot guarantee success, but no-one would challenge the assertion that they minimise the risks. It may be that Aberdeen can expect to become no more than what Kilmarnock were in the late 1990s: a prudent outfit who were regular top-four finishers and, as a consequence, appeared briefly in European competition each season.

Equally, it may be that Milne is merely returning the club to the position in which he found them in 1994, with disquiet remaining about his proposals to relocate to a purpose-built stadium at King’s Well.

The chairman believes his club can set their sights high, but never take high risks. Less being more has its limits, and in the summer Skovdahl will look to recruit players on free transfers. With experienced campaigners Derek Whyte and Robbie Winters set to leave, finding replacements could prove tricky. Next season, indeed, Aberdeen may slip back, but not into a parlous financial state.

Milne expects the club to be breaking even within two years, having reduced losses by 750,000 from a year ago. Corporate income has risen to 1.5m, 300,000 up on 12 months previously. Merchandising has doubled over the same period to 600,000, while the average home attendance is expected to 14,000, 3000 more than in the 2000-2001 season.

The cost-cutting will continue, the philosophy having extended to the appointments of Skovdahl and chief executive Keith Wyness. The Dane was recruited after the services of Roy Aitken and Alex Miller had been dispensed with; Wyness is the club’s third day-to-day overseer, following Gordon Bennett and Dave Cormack.

"We were pilloried for appointing a chief executive, but football clubs have shown that they are not the best when it comes to spending money," said Milne. "You need professional business management in order to maximise revenue and minimise costs, and Keith is right on top of that every day."

It is instructive to consider that in late 1998, as Milne was hatching a plan to run with an experienced football manager who would be expected to rely on inexperienced players, in Motherwell the John Boyle revolution was gathering momentum as the untried Billy Davies was placed in charge, and given a war chest to attract ‘star’ players on salaries to match.

The next season, the Fir Park club secured fourth place in the SPL with Aberdeen finishing bottom. The positions of the respective clubs could be practically reversed this season, but in the intervening period the Pittodrie club have come nowhere near sliding into administration, the position in which Motherwell find themselves. Milne saw the storm clouds gathering. Others simply placed their heads in them.