Interview: Hamilton chief on Cruyff, community and battling the bottle
The club won’t like this, says Colin McGowan, but ach well, it’s the way it is. Sometimes he’s left home games unaware of the final score. Away games? He’s only ever been to one. “And here the thing,” he says, “I didn’t know you couldn’t be offside from a throw-in until just recently.”
McGowan is not your average football impresario but then, from where I’m standing, it’s screamingly obvious that Hamilton Accies, of which he’s chief executive and co-owner, are not your average club. I’m on a sandy beach looking at a pretty decent rip-off of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Meanwhile, McGowan is pointing across to the crazy golf from the upstairs of a red double-decker bus.
Ah, the Academical bus. A year ago, dear reader, as Accies under Alex Neil sat incredulously atop the Premiership, I wrote a piece in recognition of the feat but making fun of the charabanc, parked equally incredulously at the far end of New Douglas Park. The club got in touch. Did I know the bus was now a meeting place-cum-cafe-cum art studio for the disadvantaged? I didn’t, so imagine what a heel I felt.
Now, with Neil the club’s latest export to England’s top flight, Hamilton under Martin Canning are proving just as characterful as they pass their way into the top six and commemorate Paris’ terror victims by changing into French colours. Then there’s McGowan and all his amazing work behind the scenes and behind the goal.
Bus, beach, crazy golf and the gallery of near-masterpieces (Picasso, Dali and the Mona Lisa also feature) … not to mention the castle, the mini-zoo, the mural the length of the park, gardens for quiet contemplation, recording studios for Hamilton’s Got Talent wannabes and sheds for men of a certain age who don’t have such sanctuaries at the bottom of the garden.
New Douglas Park is a sanctuary for many. Alcoholics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous and similar groups meet at the stadium. So do reformed prisoners, ex-squaddies trying to re-adjust and those with autism. Bonfire Night attracted 1,700 and Christmas will be a constant hubbub of folk coming in for parties and setting off on panto excursions and holidays at a rural retreat because this time of the year can be tough for some.
“Oh and I almost forgot,” says McGowan, “we also play football here.
“It’s a standing joke that where I work there just happens to be a pitch alongside. Well, I’m duty-bound to tell you that 20 professional games happen on it every year.”
McGowan likes this gag and, you feel, must have told it often. He’s a small, intense, bustling man who thanks God and his wife, Helen, that, at 60, he’s still alive. He has a helluva tale but, he stresses, it’s not that big a deal. He’s not remarkable for having himself survived his various vices; his family are the real heroes for putting up with him and not giving up on him. Now, 32 years sober and clean, he runs a charity called Blameless which helps children unwittingly caught up in the addicts’ mess and mayhem.
This is not McGowan’s first involvement with football; ten years ago he was a co-owner of Raith Rovers. It was a difficult time for the Fife club with players being sold and Stark’s Park under threat, too. Unhappy fans viewed McGowan and his associates, also from Glasgow, as the bad guys from the west and the reign prompted lurid headlines. Although he points out that a considerable amount of debt was cleared, it’s not a period he recalls with fondness. His 11 years to date at Hamilton, though, have been more fulfilling, for the club and himself. “I never forget the pain and suffering I caused others and how I was helped, so now I’m trying to give a wee bit back,” he says. “I came to believe in a power greater than me and my disasters – I had a spiritual awakening. God spared me and has guided me. I was saved and I don’t think it was for no purpose. This is the purpose.”
McGowan is a recovering alcoholic and drug-user and for long enough his life had little meaning beyond obliteration. He still attends weekly therapy sessions and his language is peppered with what sound like slogans, although they could also be examples of what he calls the addict’s flair for the dramatic. “Alcohol does something for you,” he’ll say, “but it does something to me.” He’ll continue: “Alcoholics don’t get married, they take hostages.” And finally: “Alcoholics want to die, but they want to read about it in the next day’s paper as well.”
His story begins in the Gorbals: “I was born at 345 Thistle Street with nine of us sharing a room and kitchen with a dog called Teddy. There was poverty and chaos in my life, plus booze and an outside toilet. I grew up fear-filled.
“I always felt like a square peg in a round hole, the black sheep. I thought I was adopted. Second year at Cranhill Secondary they assumed I was a new boy because I’d hardly been there. In woodwork class I organised a sit-in. Because it was woodwork we were able to remove the door from its hinges and brick up the hole. I was the loudest, the one other boys were told to stay away from and always in trouble with the police. I was a hardened drinker by 15 but drugs had been a problem from the age of 11: glue, solvents, my mother’s medication, amphetamines and later cocaine. Only a fear of needles stopping me doing heroin.
“There was a lot of violence and I loved it. A fight would only last five minutes but you spoke about it for three days. I caused trouble everywhere and everyone would be affected by my drinking: parents, neighbours, hospital staff, police, the courts, the folk in a chip shop and the ones in front of me in a taxi queue.”
Amazingly McGowan was able to hold down various jobs, including that of carpet fitter. Even more amazingly Helen didn’t leave him when she “could and should” have done. “I’d wake up from a bender, unable to eat anything but her oxtail soup and promise not to do it again. She’d nurse me back to life and within 72 hours, relatively speaking, I’d look like I’d fallen out of a catalogue.
“I’d tell the kids Daddy wasn’t going to drink again. I’d tell Helen we’d watch the Friday horror double-bill together over a curry but I’d nip into the pub and before I knew it my 26 quid wages would have been blown on buying drinks for strangers and she’d be back at the house, no food, and trying to glue my son’s trainers together.”
McGowan tried to commit suicide on a number of occasions. He peered down from a bridge but deemed the plunge too great. Threatening to swallow a load of pills in front of his children was more of a cry for help. He seemed more determined to jump in front of a train but would eventually get straight through what he calls a series of “miracles”: the kindness of strangers despite him looking like “a madman from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”; two guardian angels in a Ford Capri ferrying him to AA; helping a kid who’d tumbled down a hill and discovering self-worth; the love of his wife. But, he emphasises again, this isn’t about him.
Financial know-how first got McGowan involved at Accies when they were skint. “I was running a crisis management company, I knew my way around banks and lending institutions.” Then came the idea of making the club a focal point of the community extending beyond football. It’s a community, he says, which needs all the help it can get.
“The town is on its knees through drink and drugs. Cocaine use per head of population is the highest in Europe. An area like Whitehill not far from our ground is suffering something terrible. How can football help? I guess for starters the setting is an advantage. If in a carpet store they were talking about the community, maybe people wouldn’t listen. But in a football club they might.” A feeling of togetherness, hope in youth, and slightly more glamour than a carpet shop – football provides these things.
He’d like to see the rest of Scottish football follow Accies’ lead and open their doors to the vulnerable and the damaged. “Grounds lie empty a lot of the year but if clubs ran the 12-step recovery programmes and organised meetings, that could help communities begin to get better.”
Either way, he remains indefatigable about the Hamilton project. “I bounce out of bed each day because of what’s happening here. Do I think we’re special? Yes! There’s a wee bridge on our site and too many people have said that when they cross it they get quite emotional. Some really, really hard guys have burst into tears down by the water fountain.” He mentions the bus again, how he saved it when the charity which used it to take in prostitutes could no longer afford the running costs, and tells me the story of the beach: “I had some donkeys here for the kids. A wee woman told me that was great because some of the weans had never even seen a beach, so I got hold of a couple of a hundredweight of sand and created one.”
This amounts to a great story, one that has attracted interest from the New York Times and Brazilian TV. Raith wasn’t such a good one and McGowan
is reluctant to go back over its lowest points, such as the appointment of the untried Claude Anelka as manager, the abuse he received from fans and the threat to turn Stark’s Park into flats. The next enhancement of New Douglas Park, however, may come from none other than Johan Cruyff. The great Dutchman gives his name to a scheme to return playgrounds to neighbourhoods where they’ve been swallowed up by urbanisation and the stadium is in contention for a Cruyff Court. “There are only three others in Britain and this would be the first in Scotland. It would be a great coup and we’ll find out early in the new year if we’re to get one,” adds McGowan.
He looks confused when I ask if kids using the playground come away having perfected the Cruyff Turn. He credits others at the club for their football know-how, hailing vice-chairman Ronnie MacDonald as a “genius”. And he’s gushing in his praise of Accies players for supporting the community work. “Martin Canning, Ziggy Gordon, Dougie Imrie and the rest went sent from God. Even the hearts of the so-called tough guys melt when they come to our events. They give selection boxes to the kids and the wee stupid fines they dish out to each other seem to come our way, too.”
The Cruyff Court is earmarked for the car park outside the stadium entrance – there’s just no room next to the beach, the bus and the bogus art. But dream for a minute: if Accies suddenly started winning leagues and cups, would they build a new stand and what would happen to all this valuable endeavour? McGowan doesn’t ponder this for long: “The club would have to weigh up whether expanding the ground for four visits from the great Glasgow Celtic and the great Glasgow Rangers were the important things. I say with all my heart that I’d rather drop down a division than risk betraying the people we’re trying to help. Between the ambition of the club and the needs of the town I think we’ve got the balance just right. Mind you, what the hell do I know about football? … ”