In June, Airdrieonians chairman and director Tom Wotherspoon announced his resignation from the club with immediate effect and, with it, the withdrawal of a huge amount of financial backing. Two years after embarking on an ambitious plan to restore the Diamonds to past glories, he’s left behind him tumult and a club teetering on the financial precipice.
While Wotherspoon remains the main shareholder, for the time being at least, the status of the club is now under serious threat. A short period of insolvency has already impacted preparations ahead of the 2017/18 season and returning chairman Jim Ballantyne has warned supporters of a difficult campaign to come.
As with many stories of wreck and ruin in Scottish football, the current situation has much to do with ambition. Wotherspoon, a successful businessman with a self-confessed passion for football, arrived at Airdrie in June 2015. He seemed open, honest and talked with enthusiasm of a future under his stewardship.
To a support who’d watched their club slog through two seasons in League One – and who had only fleetingly enjoyed second tier football in recent memory – it signalled hope of sustained prosperity. Wotherspoon wasn’t an unknown quantity in the shape of Claude Anelka or Angelo Massone; he was a respected individual with a clear track record of success. He appeared to be the man to finally take Airdrieonians out of the shadows and into a bright new future.
If only it were that simple. For one, the club were – and are – tenants in their own stadium, an organisation called Excelsior Stadiums Ltd having taken over ownership of the ground in 2008. Exact rental prices are unknown, but it’s reckoned to be in the thousands of pounds, which is hardly offset by average League One attendances of 800. Wotherspoon admitted in an interview in February last year that the respective owners of the club and the stadium had differing aims: “We set out every year to limit the amount of money we spend and they [the landlords] set out to earn as much as they can.”
The chairman admitted he would ultimately be keen to buy the stadium back but, “the other party has to be willing to sell and that’s not even close to being on the table.” Groundshare options with Albion Rovers have previously been rumoured – and flatly denied – but it’s clear New Broomfield had become a noose around the club’s neck, even before Wotherspoon’s arrival.
Still, the majority shareholder has created problems of his own doing. For one, he has overseen a confused, inconsistent management structure. Soon after Wotherspoon arrived, Eddie Wolecki-Black was identified and appointed as director of coaching. By December 2015, he had become head coach after Gary Bollan left for Forfar. Wotherspoon rejected claims that Bollan had been undermined, but the suspicion remained amongst supporters that the former Dundee United defender had gone before being pushed.
When Bollan left, Airdrie were fifth in League One and that was where they’d finish the 2015/16 season. In-between, Wolecki-Black suffered a life-threatening stroke in a game away to Cowdenbeath. Wotherspoon had been an ardent supporter of the coach he’d brought in from Glasgow City and it’s reasonable to suggest that, had Wolecki-Black not fallen ill that afternoon at Central Park, the club could have moved forward with greater stability. Instead, it precipitated a messy series of decisions.
While Wolecki-Black recuperated at home, coaches Kevin McBride and Donald Jennow, and then interim boss Danny Lennon saw the team through to the season’s end. Ahead of the 2016/17 season, McBride was appointed head coach as Wolecki-Black began to make tentative steps back into the fray at New Broomfield.
Then, in mid-October, former player-turned-pundit Gordon Dalziel was installed as Director of Football to carry out a ‘football review’. Wotherspoon said that he had, “recognised that we need to address various organisational issues within the football club.” Bafflingly, Dalziel was allowed to continue with his weekend pundit duties for Clyde 1, which meant that he saw very little of the football he was meant to be reviewing.
Still, with Airdrie sitting sixth, his appointment seemed to spell the end for McBride and lo, it came to pass a fortnight later when he was sacked and replaced by ex-Celtic player Mark Wilson. At the same time, it was announced Wolecki-Black would not be returning to the club.
Wilson had appeared to be forging a media career with Clyde 1 and BBC Scotland, rather than following a route into management, so his appointment came as something of a surprise.
For a variety of reasons, Wilson struggled in his new role and was unable to achieve promotion through the play-offs, losing to Alloa in the semi-final. He announced he would be leaving the club soon after, meaning Airdrie were seeking a fifth manager in only 18 months. What’s more, the handling of Wolecki-Black’s departure has seen him sue the club for lost earnings.
It’s a situation Airdrie could do without. Along with the costs which come with the to-ing and fro-ing of management, it’s left a team without any clear sense of style and has made supporters question decision-making in the boardroom.
Wotherspoon’s greatest folly, however, has been his decision to move the club to a full-time model.
There is something about football which unlocks the excitable, reckless side of otherwise sober, calculating businessmen. It’s something intangible, perhaps the maddening unpredictability and randomness of the game, which slowly infects the minds and actions of owners and directors. Previously unthinkable actions become entirely reasonable; nonsensical ideas begin to gain traction and thoughtful nods.
Initially, Wotherspoon suggested that Airdrie would only move to full-time football should the club be promoted. This fell within the boundaries of reason – crowds would be larger, revenue would be greater and their full-time status would help attract Championship-level players to New Broomfield. In February 2016, however, the reckless, cavalier side announced itself: regardless of where Airdrie finished, the club would go full-time in the summer.
It seemed like a dangerous gamble at the time, especially since promotion looked unlikely. With another season in League One duly confirmed, a title-challenging squad should have been the aim. Instead, a small core of experienced pros were surrounded by youth team prospects. It meant a bench which could not be relied on to change games and a group of young prospects pitched into a full-bloodied campaign without the opportunity for respite or support.
The move to full-time football necessitated that Airdrie achieve promotion but the club looked woefully under-prepared from the get-go and so it proved. The youthful Diamonds eventually stumbled into third place, 29 points behind champions Livingston.
It seems this failure has had a major impact in Wotherspoon’s decision to enact a retreat. It’s said he’s grown disillusioned with the process after a bruising couple of years and a healthy chunk of wasted money.
What will that mean? According to Jim Ballantyne, the club was “technically insolvent” in June and, although money was scraped together to pay player’s wages, there is much pain ahead. In a practical sense, short-term insolvency meant no season ticket books were sold, no manager could be sought and no players could be signed, leaving pre-season preparations in stasis. Training for those already under contract was even delayed until mid-June.
Once enough money is made available to bolster the squad, the new manager will have to rely heavily on loans and youth prospects. It’s highly likely that the club’s only sellable asset Andy Ryan will be moved on.
At time of writing, reports suggest Barry Ferguson is being lined up to replace Wilson as head coach. In line with previous managers, he would appear a curious appointment. Ferguson’s time at Clyde was an unmitigated failure, having left the League Two side winless between November and February and fighting against the drop. He does not appear an especially good fit for a young, inexperienced team.
The on-field issues are, though, only the tip of the iceberg. Ballantyne stated recently that much of Wotherspoon’s money was in the form of director’s loans and it was understood that calling in these loans it would effectively fast-track the club into insolvency.
There appear, then, to be two options for safeguarding the club: either a buyer offers a six-figure sum to Wotherspoon on the understanding that debts be written off, or Wotherspoon sells his share for a nominal fee and any new owner takes on the liabilities.
While there may be interest from investors, it’s debatable whether Airdrie are an attractive enough venture to justify the cost. After all, this is a club without their own stadium, who attract modest crowds and whose callow squad are in genuine danger of slipping into the bottom tier.
The best hope for the club may be Excelsior Stadiums Ltd., the company who own the stadium. It would mean both the club and ground would finally revert to the same ownership, but the question remains whether they would be open to agreeing a deal. For now, with the season fast approaching, the club lurch onwards, but an uncertain future awaits.
Written by Andy Harrow