Masterton continues to provide cause for concern

IT MUST have seemed like a good idea at the time. One of the most respected figures in Scotland’s financial sector teamed up with an acknowledged property development expert to help the nation’s cash-strapped football clubs realise the maximum income from their land assets.

Both of them were football men through and through, one the chairman of an SPL club, the other a lifelong fan of the same club and now a director.

For Gavin Masterton, retired treasurer and managing director of the Bank of Scotland - his signature is on many of their notes - and John Yorkston, there was a vision of a cleaner, more viable future for football’s beleaguered clubs, especially their beloved Dunfermline Athletic.

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That dream went sour last week when Livingston - one of the clubs with which they were involved - went into administration. It was revealed yesterday that the company set up by Masterton to pioneer the dream, Stadia Investment Group (SIG), is to be taken over by Scarborough Development Group, who have a track record of moving into troubled companies.

Masterton will be bailed out by Scarborough if the move goes ahead, but two subsidiaries of SIG, Stadia Properties and Stadia Management, have gone into receivership.

Livingston’s administration triggered speculation that Dunfermline would be next, and there remains a fundamental uncertainty over the Fife club’s position. Yorkston is adamant that the club’s lease is secure, but an expert on receivership told Scotland on Sunday that such leases could be declared null and void.

A senior figure at West Lothian Council added that they had been given strong legal advice that their leasing arrangements with Livingston FC - the council owns the land, two stands and surrounding areas - had been rendered redundant by the club’s move into administration.

"If that is the case with Livingston FC I would expect the same to be the case at Dunfermline," said the insider.

With debts in excess of 7m, Dunfermline’s position would become very grave if it turned out that they had lost their major asset, East End Park.

Huge question marks now surround the Stadia Investment Group and its plans to transform football’s finances.

Gavin Masterton retired in 2001 on a pension reported to be 216,000, and set up SIG. Prior to his retirement he had overseen the Bank of Scotland’s drive into Scottish football both as a sponsor and banker. Under Masterton, the bank loaned millions to clubs and provided massive overdrafts. It was the cancellation of those arrangements at Dundee and Livingston which pushed both clubs into administration.

After his retirement, Masterton began a business which depended on the involvement of several clubs who were heavily indebted to the bank, notably Dunfermline and Livingston.

Yorkston, chairman of Dunfermline, has been trying to distance himself and his club from their involvement in SIG, telling newspapers he is neither a director nor shareholder.

But another of his companies, Wood Investments, is linked to SIG, which also set up a joint venture with the club called Dunfermline Stadia Management Ltd on June 19, 2002. According to the last annual accounts, the company secretary of SIG is accountant Elaine Cromwell. In the SFA’s handbook she is also listed as secretary of Dunfermline Athletic.

SIG planned to persuade club chairmen to use spare land around their stadia to build office, retail and hotel developments which would provide a long-term rental income. One of those chairmen was Dominic Keane of Livingston. He has steadfastly refused to comment on his involvement with SIG.

For SIG, the office development at Livingston Football Club’s Almondvale Stadium was known as "the Showhouse", as it was used to sell the concept to other potential investors.

Record at Companies House show that SIG has a bewildering array of subsidiaries and linked companies because each time they arrived at a club a new joint venture company was set up to push forward the project.

One major problem was at Conference League side Margate, where Stadia Management’s involvement in a plan to develop their Hartsdown Park ended with the deal collapsing.

Last week, Masterton responded to the developing crisis by hiring PR guru Jack Irvine to handle the press - four years ago he was called in by the Bank of Scotland to deal with the hullabaloo caused by its links to American right-wing evangelist Pat Robertson.

Irvine said Masterton would not comment but added: "I can confirm that Scarborough are in discussions with Gavin Masterton. We believe the stadia concept is sound and that with further finance and new direction the company can be successful. We totally reject any allegation that Stadia’s problems had a knock-on effect on football clubs."

A Bank of Scotland spokesperson said: "Gavin Masterton is not an employee of Bank of Scotland and has not been for some time. Any issues concerning Stadia Group should be addressed to him.

"Bank of Scotland has always taken great care when assessing requests from football clubs for finance, as is the case for any funding request from any industry. An experienced banking team, based in Scotland, has been working with the football sector and making the appropriate decisions for many years."

That statement begs more questions than it answers. Until HBOS specify exactly why they pulled the plug on Livingston, the suspicion will linger that clubs going into administration may somehow be victims of internecine warfare in the banking and property world, rather than simply the authors of their own misfortunes.