The ownership model in football is evolving.
The traditional set-up of clubs being owned by a wealthy businessmen is gradually being phased in favour of one where supporters play a more integral role. Among Dunfermline Athletic fans, however, the feeling is that the transition is not happening quickly enough.
The battle for Dunfermline’s heart and soul pits an old-school benefactor against a community group determined to see their club run along more democratic and prudent principles. Gavin Masterton, the former treasurer and managing director of the Bank of Scotland, is the man in charge at East End Park. He has invested substantially in Dunfermline over the years but has found hardship in recent times. Salaries have been paid late for four months in a row, the club has had difficulties meeting payments to creditors including Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and Scottish Power, and recently admitted they need £200,000 each month just to meet their liabilities.
Sensing the gravity of the situation, the supporters have rallied, forming an alliance of various groups under the umbrella The Pars Community. They have been offered the chance to buy up to 25% of the club in exchange for around £500,000 via a forthcoming share issue. The group, however, believes that doesn’t go far enough. Their vision is for a club half-owned by the fans, and the remainder split up into chunks of no more than 10% to be held by “Pars Custodians”. They want a democratically elected board of directors and a membership whose financial contributions entitle them to a vote in how their club is run. With Masterton still in charge, they believe that a minority shareholding won’t deliver any of that, which is why they won’t endorse the share issue in its current guise.
The problem the fans face, however, is that Masterton is not for budging until he receives what he believes is a fairer offer for his shareholding. The Pars Community see an indebted club with no real assets – the stadium is owned separately by another of Masterton’s companies – and think the money they hope to raise, around £500,000 initially, would be better used in other ways, including improving the club’s evident cashflow problems. Explaining their plans has proved difficult, however, with Masterton reluctant to get around the table. A previous meeting lasted only 35 minutes before the owner made his excuses and left.
“The club has been limping along for some time now but we need to have a more sustainable future,” Donald Adamson of The Pars Community told Herald Sport. “We want to move from a model where wealthy men run football clubs and then either die, lose interest or lose their money, to a supporters-run model that is becoming increasingly common throughout Britain and beyond. That’s why we want to talk to Mr Masterton as we want to work with him to take it from one stage to the other.
“He’s not willing to have dialogue which is desperately disappointing but we will continue to push for talks as we are not going to go away. What has emerged [about Dunfermline’s financial health] in recent months is extremely alarming. Mr Masterton told a fans meeting recently that things aren’t all that bad but our view is that things are actually extremely grave.”
With Masterton reluctant to open dialogue, the picture emerges of a captain who may be willing to go down with the ship. Adamson hopes that is not the case. “We will continue to advocate a fan-owned club come what may,” he added. “A liquidation of Dunfermline would be absolutely dreadful but we wouldn’t walk away if that happened. The question then would be whether the people in the town, or with links to the community, want a football club there. And if they do the fans will make it happen.”
The Pars Community can call upon the services of a raft of professional men and women but football’s emotional pull can touch the hearts of even the most pragmatic of people. Adamson’s reasons for hoping Dunfermline first survive and then thrive can be traced right back through his family tree. “My connection to the club goes back 100 years. I’m a season ticket holder and have been going to East End Park since 1962 and my father and grandfather stood on the terraces before me. My dad was at East End Park the day before World War II broke out and one of his pals was Billy Liddell, who went on to play for Liverpool and Scotland. Dunfermline Athletic is in the blood and there are many others who feel the same way.”