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  • Writer's pictureAlastair Blair

For sale: where do Saints go from here…?

I suspect everyone reading this will agree with me that to say St Johnstone fans owe Geoff Brown owe an incalculable debt is a monumental understatement. Since he saved the club from possible extinction back in 1986, he has invested a staggering amount of time and money in making Saints recognised as a consequential player in Scottish football. And since his son took over as chairman, we have enjoyed the most successful period in the club’s history to-date. Geoff’s legacy is assured and his incredibly generous offer to give the proceeds of the sale of the club to the St Johnstone Community Trust is a mark of the man. However, before that happens, the club must first be sold…

For all Saints’ fans, the question is, what happens now? Who will be the next steward of our club? And, with the chairman and vice-chair standing down in May this year, what chance is there of a sale, with all the due-diligence required of any prospective buyer, by that deadline?

Before we consider these questions, let’s go back to go forward. Having read all the available Directors’ Minutes for St Johnstone FC Ltd, I am acutely aware that the club has (even before it became a limited company in 1910) always been run by local professional and business men with a genuine interest in football and in the city and county from which their club’s support comes. Moreover, while the fans might sometimes not agree with the outcomes or some of the thinking behind them, it’s also the case that, for all of our history, St Johnstone’s directors have tried to run the club as a business, for that is indeed what it is.

Like all businesses, its success has depended on the quality of people employed and the competition they have had to try to overcome. But there is a big difference compared to most other enterprises, namely that its customers, that is us, the supporters, invest psychologically and personally far more in the club than they do in almost anything else they buy from any other business. We are totally bound up in the success of a football club in a way that is far removed from, say, our weekly supermarket shop or buying a pint at the Cherrybank Inn.

This is, of course, true for supporters of all football clubs and, despite the fact that only a few of us have shares in our local team, it is unlikely to change much in the near future. There have been moves towards community-owned clubs, with varying degrees of success, but for most of history, it is a handful of individuals who have called the shots at St Johnstone and the rest of Scotland’s senior clubs.

What has changed is that, in more recent years, we have seen people, often from overseas, buying clubs despite having no history or connection with them. This is, presumably because, unlike in previous eras, there was no-one else locally with an interest in (or even a tangential connection to) the club who had the money to take control.

As is well known, and is explicitly spelled out in the club’s Minutes, Alex Lamond and his directors were very well aware of just how sticky a situation St Johnstone were in financially in the mid 1980s. Consequently, they reached out to anyone local whom they thought might be able to come to the rescue. Fortunately for St Johnstone, one of those people was Geoff Brown, but, while the club is now in an immeasurably better place financially, there is, unfortunately, no modern-day equivalent and it is my understanding that Geoff believes the club will probably have to seek a buyer from overseas.

The history to date of overseas investment in Scottish clubs is mixed. It must also be said that some Scottish owners have not exactly covered themselves with glory. Anyone buying a (normal) company usually does so to make money. Altruism is not a common sentiment in business, which is why those who have bought Scottish clubs, including, I understand, some of the current overseas owners of Premier clubs, are not too impressed about the returns on their investment and, it is rumoured, want out. Some might even argue that one or two of these overseas owners have been sold, if not a pup, then perhaps an overly rose-tinted vision which has not subsequently materialised. In the meantime, while they seek an escape route, they must, if they have any sense, mouth the platitudes the fans expect to hear. The customer is always right, especially when it’s thousands strong and marching up and down your club’s car-park demanding success which you know you can’t deliver.

Similarly, overseas owners, not versed in the mentality of (Scottish) football fans, can become quickly disillusioned when, in addition to the gripes and groans of the crowd on Saturday, the results deteriorate and the manager is excoriated by the crowd. Being foreign businessmen, they do what they normally do when one of their executives is not delivering results – they fire him. Done too often (Hibs come to mind recently…) this leads to grief from the media, who are, naturally, not impartial observers but have a huge, vested interest in stoking the fires of controversy. Wouldn’t it be easier to stay at home and try to make money from an area of business you actually know something about and where the customers aren’t so lippy?

Let’s consider St Johnstone’s situation. With the caveat that, other than being sure Geoff Brown will drive the hardest, most secure bargain he can, I do not know what will happen, what are the possibilities?

In an ideal world, a local businessperson with deep pockets and either an existing love for the club or (if from a non-football background) a willingness to develop just such a love, would buy Saints. However, as I said, that’s almost certainly not going to happen (I’d be delighted to be proved wrong). Geoff Brown has explicitly said that while this would have been his preferred option, it looks extremely unlikely that a local, or even Scottish/UK buyer will be found and therefore it will need to be an overseas individual or organisation.

Another solution, which many fans might consider even better than the first, is for an obscenely rich individual/country to buy the club and then pour money in with a view to disrupting the hegemony of the Old Firm. I would not be averse to this if it were like the situation with Newcastle, but with an owner that isn’t representative of a country with dodgy human-rights. That said, while it might be nice for a few seasons, I suspect such an owner would soon realise that Scottish football simply isn’t big enough and even a club at the very top (like Celtic and Rangers today) isn’t likely to be involved (other than very occasionally) in the final stages of the really prestigious European tournaments. When this realisation dawns, the owner will probably pull out, everything will go pear-shaped and we’ll be back in the First Division in a few seasons…

An alternative someone suggested to me would be for an English club to buy Saints and use us as feeder club. Manchester City sounds good, until you again realise that the gap between top-level Scottish and English football is currently too vast for this to make any sporting sense. In recent seasons, we’ve seen only a handful of players move successfully from Scotland to the top flight in England and, of these only two players – Tierney and, especially, Robertson – made it with really big English clubs and only Robertson (to-date) has won multiple medals. Of course, the obvious, and realistic objection to this is – why would an English club need to buy a Scottish club to act as a feeder when the loan system works perfectly well already?

There will be some fans who, despite my arguments above, still dream of a sugar-daddy; an entrepreneur rich beyond the dreams of Croesus, who will wash cash into St Johnstone and we’ll then go on to dominate Scottish football. Even were that to happen, there are two reasons why I am not convinced this is a good idea.

Firstly, one of the best things about supporting a club like Saints is that we know who we are. We don’t have a support that is full of its own importance and arrogance, throwing its toys out of the pram when they don’t get their own way (in the case of the Old Firm, what they want, above everything else, is to gain access to the English Premier League). We enjoy the small success we have had even more because we are St Johnstone, currently a middling-sized Scottish club enjoying a sustained and successful spell in the Premiership and in Cup competitions.

Secondly, and more importantly, I really can’t see a sugar-daddy being remotely interested in Saints. You might not like it, but the fact is that we simply do not have the number of season-ticket holders and the overall crowds to make the kind of money that would be of interest.

That fact about our crowds is important. Most businessmen, looking at Saints’ accounts (as a shareholder I see these), would wonder where the return is in the long-term. Much has been made of the millions we have in the bank and it’s true that, compared to most other Scottish clubs, we have been soundly run and are financially solvent. But a turnover of c. £5M (last year was an exception) is peanuts in business terms. Moreover, as was the case with Raith Rovers when they had just won the League Cup and played in Europe, with their then board thinking they would consolidate their place in the Premier Division, it just takes one bad season, then relegation and a period in the lower leagues for all that money to be used up in double-quick time. That is precisely what happened to Raith. They have not returned to the top flight since then…

The situation is complicated at Saints because, I understand, there is some land involved: land which would have a far greater value if it were to be used for residential property. The danger is that the club is sold to someone who is entirely trustworthy and wants to do the best he (or she) can, but then circumstances change and, perhaps another owner or two down the line, we are sold on to someone who asset-strips the company, perhaps building a far cheaper stadium on land elsewhere, letting the club fall down a league or two (Airdrie, Dunfermline, Falkirk anyone?), but making a decent short-term profit by selling the land.

All this might seem unnecessarily gloomy. The good news is that there is, I am convinced, absolutely no danger of the current owner selling to anyone whom he feels will not act sensibly to maintain the club along its current trajectory. But who that person might be is, as yet, an unanswered question.

My understanding, which, I must stress, may not be correct, is that the Swiss/Hong Kong group that is fronted by Gordon Smith and which previously had an interest in Raith Rovers, has switched its interest to Saints. However, I suspect that any offer they might have made will be far less than the amount that is being sought.

Now, other than seeing him play football, I don’t know Mr Smith, but I’m well aware that, as well as missing an open goal for Brighton in the FA Cup final, he has held seriously important positions in Scottish football, notably as CEO of the SFA. He should have the experience and knowledge to front-up the purchase of a club like St Johnstone. Whether he would then be involved in running the club is unknown. His association with Rangers – he is a self-confessed fan - will not endear him to many of our support, although if he were to preside over a decade of further success (which is unlikely, given his age – according to Wikipedia he is 68 and will presumably want to retire) I think we’d all live with that. In our current circumstances, the football club any prospective buyer currently supports ought not to matter. Being Scottish football, to many people it does.

I’ve also heard there may be some interest from India. Currently, I know nothing more about that, but there are some really wealthy people on the sub-continent to whom St Johnstone would be small change. An article in the Daily Telegraph at the end of last year was headlined, “Tories Billionaire fundraiser targets English football club take-over.” Via his family investment office, Man Capital, Mohamed Mansour, has pumped almost £100m into the Right to Dream Academy, a network of football schools which has produced 90 professionals. Mr Mansour’s interest in football was sparked by his uncle, who went to Glasgow University in the 1930s and played in goal for the Scottish team Queen’s Park. So, there is a Scottish connection there, but, as with Mr Smith’s ties with Rangers, there will be quite a few Saints’ fans whose politics would lead them to look askance at someone with such strong ties to the Conservative Party. However, as with Gordon Smith, if this led to another decade of genuine investment and success, the owner could be a member of the Monster Raving Loony Party as far as I’m concerned. In our current circumstances, the political party any prospective buyer currently supports ought not to matter. However, we would all prefer whoever does end up owning St Johnstone to have some affiliation to the club. Which brings me to …

There is another route, but I believe it is one that Geoff Brown is not interested in pursuing, namely to sell the club to the community. Now almost all the issues and potential problems described above would apply equally if the community owned St Johnstone, plus there are other, probably more difficult issues to be overcome. Foremost amongst these is - where the money would come from?

There is an expert on community-owned clubs in Scotland, called Paul Goodwin. He has been involved in almost all the fan-led buy-outs of Scottish clubs in recent years (Partick Thistle, Motherwell, Stirling Albion, St Mirren) and he made his views clear in a recent article in The Herald. He is also the co-founder of the Scottish Football Supporters’ Association and, because I’ve been doing some work with the SFSA on VAR, he got in touch with me and subsequently explained his thinking.

Paul is at pains to stress that there is no guarantee that community ownership would work for Saints, but, in his view, it is one option that any owner contemplating selling his club should seriously investigate. He makes the point that there is, at most clubs (and certainly at Saints), sufficient commercial knowledge amongst the shareholders to run the business, under the rule of a sound General Manager. He also admired Geoff’s plan to donate the money to the Perth community, but said that in this case, would it not make more sense for the club itself to be owned by the community?

Of course, there are other problems. At other clubs which have gone down this route, the key has been for the fans to make regular payments, around £10/£15 each month which feed into the club’s account. For this to work, at least 60% of the season-ticket holders (and some non-season-ticket holders as well) need to be involved. However, as we know, there is a cost-of-living crisis: people’s circumstances change (families come along, interest rates rise, people move away from the area) and there is no guarantee that they will continue to pay up over several years. Note, these monthly payments are not what’s required to actually buy the club, merely to keep it going and provide extra bunce for its running. To pay for the majority of the shares would require a bank-loan, unless Sport Scotland (i.e. the Scottish Government) could be persuaded to get involved (we have seen their involvement in the Covid loans, so this is not beyond the bounds of possibility, albeit they have a lot of other demands for money on their plate at the moment!). And, of course, any loan has to be repaid, so there needs to be a clear and sustainable plan for that to happen. It is a long shot, but the community ownership plan would be one that most closely resembles the ideal model where the club is owned by people who love it most. Surely, amongst all the other possibilities, it’s worth discussing further?

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