The Scottish football landscape is changing. One by one, it seems, the big beasts are bowing out. The baton is being passed on.
Stewart Milne is the latest long-standing custodian to decide to call it a day. Of the original ten members of the Scottish Premier League (SPL), he is the last owner to step away from the scene.
Former St Johnstone chairman Geoff Brown has been replaced by his son, Steven. The club remains in the hands of the same family.
Sir Tom Farmer’s abdication this summer was another seminal moment. The Hibs owner explained it was time “to get off the bus”. After nearly 30 years, who could blame him? Almost 80, he had done what he felt was his duty.
Farmer had his crowning moment, which was the Scottish Cup win of 2016. “It made it all worthwhile,” he told me in the summer. Milne plainly has not had that. He will depart Scottish football’s front line in the middle of next month with some regrets from 22 years in charge.
Although staying on for a period as a non executive board member in order to provide advice as Dave Cormack steps up to chairman, he’s clearly getting his affairs in order, as they say. He has been in reflective mood this week at Pittodrie.
Milne views Derek McInnes, pictured, as one of his greatest successes. Recruiting the manager wasn’t difficult, since he was out of work at the time after a difficult spell at Bristol City. Retaining him has proved slightly more taxing, as well as expensive, in the face of interest from Sunderland and then Rangers. According to Milne, it was never a fear he would leave, more “a concern”. Their close relationship clearly helped, as did the belief McInnes was and is on the verge of something significant at Pittodrie. Sadly for Milne, this might prove more attainable now he’s gone. Cormack’s great plus is the promise of more investment, some of it on the back of a tie-up with Major League Soccer side Atlanta United.
It’s a new frontier. By leaving the club debt-free, Milne has paved the way for this new injection of funds.
There were times though when he clearly had to question whether it was all worth it. It’s not been a bed of roses. On the face of it, a neglected Pittodrie and one League Cup win on penalties against Inverness Caledonian Thistle is nothing to crow about. After all, Aberdeen are the club many feel are best placed to be considered a third force in Scottish football.
Milne conceded there would be “few gold stars” being handed out if trophies are what he’s being judged on. In that regard, Aberdeen have done no better than the likes of Kilmarnock, St Mirren and Ross County.
Some Aberdeen fans complained he was overly concerned about the welfare of the game in Scotland. They wanted him to be more aggressive in pursuit of Aberdeen glory. His comments about Scottish football needing a strong Rangers, made in 2015 and repeated two years ago, when McInnes rejected the Ibrox club’s advances, will always be used to damn him by critics.
Former SPL chief executive Roger Mitchell this week posted his thoughts on Milne, having worked closely with him after the idea of a breakaway league was conceived. Mitchell portrayed Milne as a main architect of what would prove such a divisive venture. While the league has become a single national body again, the ripples are still being felt – as is some resentment.
“I always liked Stewart,” wrote Mitchell. “The SPL was his idea and [he was] its heart in 1998. We had three good years. When I resigned the day after the Old Firm voted down SPLTV, he got in his car and asked we meet in Perth. He talked me down ‘for six months’. He made you feel wanted. A very good Scot and Don.”
Aberdeen could have been one of the first teams relegated from this new top flight when they finished bottom in 2000 under Ebbe Skovdhal, having lost 21 of 36 games. But they were saved from a play-off because Brockville, Falkirk’s stadium, did not meet the SPL’s strict criteria. Demotion for the first time in Aberdeen’s history would likely have changed everything so early in Milne’s tenure. They finished seventh the following season before flirting with relegation once more in 2003-04. Recently, of course, Europe has become a staple diet at Pittodrie again.
As for the question of his legacy, Milne has done what no one else was determined enough – or rich and possibly foolish enough – to do. It’s not as if he has been hanging on for the good of his own health. The ego factor involved in owning the local football club surely vanished a long time ago.
It’s simply been a case of no one else banging his door down until now and, even then, it’s been a gradual process. Cormack has helped fund the new training academy at Kingsford, where Aberdeen may or may not also build a new stadium in the future. That is now a question for someone else, to Milne’s probable relief.