“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.”
No words have so accurately captured the passion of football fans as those of the revered Liverpool manager Bill Shankly. It might get lost in the big business of modern football which sometimes gets lost in logos, branding, and packaging but the passion in the terraces is the lifeblood for the game and the clubs.
Often we forget that even the biggest clubs in the world had humble beginnings, started by a group of school mates, or co-workers at a factory, or ex-pats looking for somewhere to meet and be active in their new home. To this day Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich are just some of the professional clubs that still belong to their fans.
Clubs owned by the fans or a rich foreign investor all share the same underlying truth, they live and die on the basis of their fans. A club with a loyal fanbase is unbreakable, immortal and there is no better example in world football than the Phoenix club.
Phoenix clubs are clubs that – like the name suggests – rise from the ashes. They’re clubs re-built because of the existence of a supporter group that refuses to let the fate of their club be decided by outside forces. The existence of their club is more important than any trophy or glory that can be achieved on the pitch. There are around fifty such clubs scattered around the footballing world with some like the NASL’s Fort Lauderdale Strikers – co-owned by Brazilian legend, Ronaldo – having multiple incarnations.
In Scotland, Airdrieonians was formed as Excelsior FC in 1878 and enjoyed a 124 year existence until after just missing out on promotion to the Scottish Premier League in the 2001/2002 season they were forced to fold. They were victims of their own success with the many demands of professional football proving too much for them.
“We were forced to move to a 10,000 seater stadium to comply with SPL rules at that time and non-renewal of safety certificate meant that the club had to rent for several years while new arena built. Paying wages beyond the means of the income stream also contributed,” explained Airdrie FC director Ann Marie Ballantyne.
“Various options were tried during provisional administration but all fell by the wayside. The club ceased to exist in May 2002.
“As long term family fans – the Ballantynes and Speirs – put together a proposal backed by fans to create a new club in the SFL.
“This was rejected (on 18-6-2002) and Gretna were chosen instead. We then bought the membership of another club ( Clydebank) who could not continue financially and changed the name to Airdrie United FC.
“We eventually reverted to Airdrieonians a few years ago – having said that – always Airdrie FC to me.”
Many challenges were faced by the Supporter’s Trust from forming a squad with limited time and resources to turning good will from the locals into tangible support. The hard work and assistance of the football family contributed to making the dream a reality.
” The local community backed the idea at the time as they wanted professional football in the town but many did not follow through with initial promises.
“Having to agree terms with the administrators who were still in charge of the old club and were able to set fees to play at the stadium which were too high for a club in the lower tier of Scottish football. We had no choice however.
“Getting a team together only one month ahead of the start of the new season, training facilities and kit proved challenging within time scales as well as leafing through the SFL/SFA rules overnight, and creating player contracts.
” The governing bodies were excellent in assisting with these and other legal issues. Certain other clubs also went above and beyond to assist us.”
One thing every professional and amateur club face is balancing sustainability with on field success. The two needn’t be mutually exclusive but finding that balance is easier said than done. For the team that once had Perth Glory’s Marc Warren on their books they have been relatively successful in this respect.
“It has been extremely challenging and many difficult decisions have had to be taken along the way,” said Ann Marie.
“In terms of success, promotion in the second year maybe came too soon but you can’t pick and choose.”
Other success include winning the Challenge Cup in 2008 which is competed for by the professional clubs outside the Scottish Premier League, unearthing the likes of Allan Gow, Tony Watt, Liam Coogans, and Jordan Allan, and showing further progress in player development by winning the title last season in the SPFL West Development League.
Looking to the future, businessman Tom Wotherspoon became the new owner and chairman last summer as Jim Ballantyne stepped down as chairman and the Ballantynes sold their share in the club. Ann Marie believes that the time was right for the club to take that next step albeit a cautious one with it being important to get the right people involved. After a few false starts Ann Marie is confident that they have the right person to take the club forward.
“The club was becoming static and needed fresh investment and new ideas,” explained Ann Marie.
“Tom’s arrival was a much needed breath of fresh air and his financial input was a significant step to take the club forward.
“There had been a few interested parties over the years but some were more interested in what was in it for them or when push came to shove, never came up with the cash.”
There was a high profile case back in 2007 of promises made publicly that were never followed through and could’ve spelt the end of the club for a second time. Ann Marie remains realisitc to the potential pitfalls faced by every club but is confident that the short term goals and long term future can be secured
“To be honest all clubs face these challenges on an ongoing basis and the main thing is to ensure that the cash coming in is sufficient to meet the outgoings.
“This means bringing in sponsorship and creating budgets that are workable. If you don’t have it, you can’t spend it.
“Short term goal is to continue to sustain the position and get into the play offs, then get into the Championship and sustain the position there.
“Long term is to create a larger youth set up than there already is (Bronze) and turn this into a system (Silver) within the SFA.
“This Academy will then continue the work of bringing through players that can take their place in the first team. This involves new coaches, better qualifications and facilities to carry out the new project.
“This season there are players who came from the previous youth set up who are regulars in the first team, Jamie Bain, Chris O Neil, Liam Watt, Nicky Cadden , Scott Stewart and reserve keeper Rohan Fergusson.
“They will improve even more from this new structure and they will probably move on to be replaced by fresh new talent from the new Academy set up.”
Down south you’ll find Hereford FC, one of the more recent phoenix clubs to rise from the ashes. They also have an Australian connection with twenty four year old defender Jimmy Oates being a former Central Coast Mariners and Manly United player.
Hereford’s commercial manager Chris Ammonds explained the importance of reviving the ninety year old club.
“It was a huge part of so many people’s lives and is a massive part of the city’s identity,” said Ammonds.
“Hereford United always attracted decent crowds so it was hugely upsetting when the club went under.Too many people cared too much to not try to create a continuation of the original club.”
Accumatively, the club has spent thirty one seasons in League football but now face a climb back up the pyramid from the Midland Football League which is the ninth tier in England. As daunting as a climb this appears the challenges off the pitch are the keys to Hereford’s future.
“Basically securing Edgar Street to play at was key. Without that stadium there is nowhere else in the county you could hope to house crowds of more than 1000 people.
“Edgar Street is the connection to the old club and is where supporters have spent decades supporting their club. Without Edgar Street the identity would have been missing.
“The biggest hurdles were getting a decaying stadium up to scratch having lost all the safety certificates when Hereford United folded.
“It has cost more than £120,000 to make the stadium fit for purpose but seeing so many people attending games has made it all worthwhile.
“So basically convincing the council the club had a solid business plan to work from – to give council officials the confidence to grant the club a five year lease – and restoring the ground have been the biggest hurdles.
“Thankfully the extraordinary work of volunteers and generous support from local businesses have helped get the club off the ground.”
All the effort put in by the Hereford Supporter’s Trust and local community has been worth it for Ammonds who sees the impact and importance the club has with the locals. The club and the players are also rewarding this support with some fine performances on the pitch.
“The most rewarding thing has been the sheer joy on the faces of fans and the number of fans that have thrown their support behind the club,” revealed Ammonds.
“It’s a cliche but without the fans a football club is nothing. We are fortunate to have incredibly committed fans who are willing to support football at Edgar Street.
“Being able to see such entertaining football – 27 wins in a row – has been an added bonus and a very enjoyable one”
The win streak may have ended just over a week ago at twenty seven with a draw at home against Alvechurch but they still remain on a thirty game unbeaten run in all competitions. Sitting ten points clear at the top they look good for achieving promotion at the first go but it’s off the field where the true test lies as they try to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
“Basically no individual can own more than 24% of the club and the Hereford United Supporters Trust (HUST) have 50% of the shares ring fenced for them to buy,” explained Ammonds.
“That means they can prevent any other group of individuals having the majority shareholding. HUST also have three of the seven places on the club’s board which means their reps will always know what is going on and that nothing can be done secretly without fan reps knowing about it.”
Ammonds is quick to point out that it is the local support as a whole has been the main driving force behind the revival of Hereford.
“A huge number of individuals have played a part but it’s been the combined commitment of the community that has been key to the early success,” said Ammonds.
“Whether that’s volunteering to help with the clean up, or on a matchday, or just paying to attend games, no matter how good the business plan was, without the support and endorsement of the old Hereford United fanbase the club would struggle to build a strong foundation.
“Thankfully the fanbase’s support has been more than most people could ever have imagined.”
Much like their Scottish counterparts, sustainability and financing themselves is the key moving forward.
“Any profits must be ploughed back into the club to aim for on field success which is what we all want as fans – and everyone involved is a fan at heart more than anything else.
“The long-term aim must be to get back to the Football League as quickly as possible, but this must be done without jeopardising the club’s future prospects or making any decisions that could risk Hereford FC suffering the sad fate that befell Hereford United.”