Maryhill's 'Abramovich' gives juniors a lift up

LANGUISHING near the foot of the Scottish First Division, Partick Thistle must long for the presence of their own Roman Abramovich-type figure with hard cash to rouse them from their slumber. In their current predicament, you can be sure they’d even accept a Vladimir Romanov. Maybe even a shot of Vladivar, if only to calm the nerves.

How strange then to find a millionaire football investor from eastern Europe lurking deep in the wind-swept streets of Maryhill. Lochburn Road to be exact, less than a mile from Firhill Stadium. Freddie Duda, a Polish immigrant to Glasgow during World War II, is the major backer at Lochburn Park, home to Maryhill Juniors.

The property-developing entrepreneur, has ploughed 700,000 of his fortune into the ground alone, redeveloping Lochburn Park into arguably the finest home in Scotland belonging to a junior outfit, complete with floodlights, a spanking all-seated stand and a gym with sauna.

Consider how that level of investment would transform Thistle at present as Gerry Britton and Derek Whyte scratch their skulls further down Maryhill Road. Whilst they seek a way out of First Division mediocrity, Maryhill are prospering under new manager Ronnie Lowrie, who was sacked by Pollock in the summer before being offered a job with their rivals.

The club sit sixth in the Stagecoach Super League, six points behind leaders Pollock but with two games in hand. They have already tucked the Abercorn League Cup away in the Lochburn trophy cabinet this season, and with Duda’s money as a safety net, it appears the model for success for Thistle lies literally up the road.

"Freddie took over at Maryhill in 1989 and saved us from bankruptcy," says Maryhill director Brian Reilly. "Our social club owed Alloa Breweries money and they were calling it in. Freddie stepped in and paid everything off. Having already made his money in property, I think he decided to put some of it back into the local community."

In doing so, former Kilmarnock and St Mirren defender Martin Baker has been lured to Maryhill, also from Pollock, despite being just 30 years old. "I’m enjoying my football so much more now," he says. "When I left St Mirren Ronnie invited me to join up with Pollock, and then he took me with him to Maryhill. He’s got me in a three-at-the-back system and I love it.

"Freddie’s son, Freddie Jnr, runs Maryhill when he isn’t here. He controls the social club and takes care of kit and things like that, so it’s a very well run club with some good football people behind it."

It appears Duda Snr has fallen in love with football in Scotland. An ardent follower of the Scottish national side, his affection for the junior game, which stems from first watching Maryhill as a fan, must be to the chagrin of Partick in an age when having a glamorous foreign investor as the leading figure at your club becomes ever more fashionable.

Lowrie points out: "Coming back from our Scottish Cup game with Culter in Aberdeen last week, the Thistle result came through on the radio [they lost 4-0 at home to St Johnstone], and one of our committee members said: ‘That’s guaranteed to put another 60-70 on our gate next week.’ There is a definite correlation between Partick losing and our gates going up.

"I can see the comparisons between us and Partick as we are just along the road from one another. Their plight is felt throughout the community and I hope Gerry and Derek pull them out of it."

In the perfect style of a millionaire, Duda at times watches all this from far-flung destinations like Marbella and Barbados. Quite a contrast from humble Maryhill. The junior club are currently embroiled in a tax dispute, which some may say is also true to form of many a tax-exile, however Duda’s colleagues at Lochburn Park have only praise for him.

"He just leaves the other board members to run the club," continues Reilly on a man whose company, FD Properties Ltd, is based on the Isle of Man, and who only spends the statutory 90 days a year in Britain for tax purposes. But Duda also knows how to graft for a living. When he first arrived in Glasgow he undertook work from the city council, rewiring and refurbishing homes.

Lowrie adds: "Freddie and I have a meeting in January. But our club is not flush for money, we sold a number of top players in the summer, and the funds have gone on running the club. The directors actually told me that they weren’t expecting to win so many games this season and now they have to find money to pay the players win bonuses."

But despite the success, Maryhill have trouble attracting supporters, witness their League Cup final triumph over Shotts at Firhill in October. Partick opened up an extra stand in anticipation of a big crowd, yet only around 450 people turned up to see Maryhill win 2-0.

Even the manner of Lowrie’s arrival as manager is intriguing. Pollock convinced Rab Sneddon in June to resign as Maryhill manager and replace the sacked Lowrie on the other side of the River Clyde, this despite the latter’s deliverance of three trophies in three seasons. "I wonder what the people at Pollock are looking for," says Reilly.

Wonder if you will, but it seems obvious what the people at Partick need, and it’s practically sitting at their front door.