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Football must be the foundation stone as we rebuild

Society and government need to tap into clubs’ unique role in the community to help ensure Scotland transforms the pain of Covid into a better future.


This will appear in Issue 18 which is published in December 2020.
It starts a series of articles where we ask various figures with an interest in the Scottish game to put forward radical ideas for its future.

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The whole league could turbo-charge the existing work undertaken by clubs to promote wellbeing messages and programmes in a coordinated way. The league itself could be the first “Wellbeing League” in the world and focus all of its sponsorship properties on national health prevention and promotion priorities.

Football has been a part of me for as long as I can remember. Growing up in Lanarkshire, I supported Motherwell and the SNP when neither were particularly fashionable or successful. It felt that St Jude – the patron saint of lost causes – was my own personal guardian. But as all fans of provincial clubs know, victory is all the sweeter when harder won.

I have enjoyed so much of being a Motherwell supporter. All the agonising trouncings and slow goalless draws are but names written in water in my memory. The big days and nights I will never forget. Hugging our now chair Jim McMahon for longer than was decent as Lukas Jutkiewicz scored a cracker to equalise 6-6 against Hibs – having been 6-2 down at one point – was every bit as memorable as winning the Scottish Cup back in 1991. That is the emotion and the joy of supporting your team.

And while many fans around the world love to see a major international megastar signing, in Scotland we reserve our greatest pride for the success of one of our own. Seeing John McGinn succeed in the English top flight pleases Hibs fans as much as watching him win for them. Well, almost. Motherwell fans were sorry to see David Turnbull go, especially to a league rival. But his conduct in leaving while protecting the club as well as his own interests earned him the respect and support of his boyhood club forever. We all hope that one day he will reach the pinnacle of the game that his talent deserves.

This is because in this country our clubs are still largely about who we are and where we are from. The brands of some (especially the Old Firm) are global, but all are rooted in our country’s story.

Motherwell memorably made an attempt at investing for victory when John Boyle took over the club. John was and remains a clever, passionate and deeply committed man. He brought the ambitions that had made him one of the country’s most successful entrepreneurs to Fir Park. That strategy foundered when financial and economic reality hit home. It was a really tough experience but John didn’t walk away, he went again. 

The second phase for John was one where the club’s financial strategy took a contained risk that he stood behind; he budgeted for better than relegation, on the judgement that budgeting for relegation made the reality and disaster of it more likely. So Motherwell invested a touch more in the squad, assuming a better outcome and if it went wrong then John continued to underwrite things.

His financial strategy was married to a positive club culture and – on the whole – excellent choices of manager. His recruitment to the business side of the club was also inspired, unearthing the immense talents of Leeann Dempster as club CEO, and then her successor, Alan Burrows.

The result was a period of success at the club beyond what could rightfully be expected, or even imagined, given its economic circumstances and those of the community it serves.

John then went further in assembling a team, including myself, to create a fan ownership model. This ground-breaking innovation has taken time to succeed. Initial subscriptions were slower than hoped from the fan base, due probably to a combination of the uniqueness of the move, the sense that the club was already doing well and the fact that the economic circumstances of supporters were, and remain, pressured. But succeed it has.

Motherwell entered the Covid crisis in relatively strong financial shape due to a period of on field success delivered by Stephen Robinson and his team, and backed by one of the best boards anywhere in the game. I can say that because I only rejoined as crisis struck. The financial strength of the club is secured by success and player trading, secured to some degree by the reserves of the Well Society. So far so good.

But all clubs in Scotland face into the winds of Covid like every other business in the entertainment and events sector. At the time of writing, football is performing an extraordinary job at the top level in complying well with Covid guidance and fulfilling elite sport fixtures safely. And thank goodness – we all need the distraction of sport and the vague sense of normality it provides.

Lockdown weekends were dominated by BBC Sportsound debates on the business of football, as the various clubs struggled to pursue collective endeavour. It wasn’t great but it was both explainable and understandable. Now of course, all clubs are in the same boat of striving for our policymakers to properly understand their importance and unique contribution to society, so that a plan for the safe return of fans and life-support funding for the organisations can be secured.

Football is an industry. Its reach and impact extend far beyond what is immediately obvious both in economic and societal terms, more so than in many other businesses. Clubs are all at the heart of their own local communities. They fund thousands of supplier businesses across the country, which in turn secures the employment of tens of thousands of people. 

Many clubs are fully integrated into the social efforts of national and local government and charity programmes across a host of issues, from health to suicide prevention and general wellbeing. Clubs host programmes and promote them especially through the growing number of club community trusts.

Because of their identity and the trust in their brands at a time when trust is hard to come by, clubs can help government and charities engage with people in a way probably no other private sector organisation can. People who would be otherwise hard to reach love their clubs and the game, and trust in them.

Outreach programmes engage every generation from youngsters at the grassroots of the game, for many of whom football clubs provide an anchor in lives that sorely need it, right through to pensioners active in health or community initiatives. All of this is worth so much and policymakers urgently need to consider it.

We ought to focus both on the urgency of ensuring all clubs can survive the ongoing crisis now, but crucially that they are allowed to return to safe normality as soon as is practicable. It continues to bemuse that cinemas have been open with one entrance, one exit and indoor seating, while clubs with very large open-air stadiums and multiple entrances stayed shut. Understanding why is crucial for the directors of all clubs. How could the Edinburgh Dungeon remain open while Tynecastle and Easter Road could receive no guests?

Part of living with the virus longer-term – in the absence of a miracle vaccine comprehensively administered – is allowing life to return to safe normality. We, collectively, need to work hard to find the right balance between the immediate health harm of Covid, and the longer-term health and economic hardships that follow if restrictions remain in place.

The economic and social benefit of our football clubs is simply irreplaceable in our communities. It must be nurtured. One of Scotland’s cleverest and most successful citizens, James Anderson, grasped that. He understands the community importance of the game and so his family made a hugely generous donation that has been existentially important for many community clubs. Every fan should thank the Andersons.

One of the frustrations that is palpable across the business community is that a balance is not being struck. Many would like to ensure that the case for jobs, the economy and long-term health gets a fair share in advising the Scottish government on Covid. Perhaps there is also a bargain to be struck here too? The whole economy and society want to learn big lessons from the pain of this crisis. It has accelerated problems that were cutting at the fabric before Covid struck – not least burgeoning inequalities by gender, geography and generation.

People want the country to “build back better” and football can surely play its part. Dempster, now at Hibernian, and Burrows have both identified a potential role for the game in leading a fully integrated wellbeing campaign that is in everyone’s interests.

We know that we will save the public purse vast sums of money if the causes of Scotland’s health problems can be addressed and improved, meaning we spend less on their symptoms. Football clubs can act as wellbeing campaigners in every community in the land, from the grassroots to the pinnacle of the public realm and debate.

The whole league could turbo-charge the existing work undertaken by clubs to promote wellbeing messages and programmes in a coordinated way. The league itself could be the first “Wellbeing League” in the world and focus all of its sponsorship properties on national health harm prevention and promotion priorities. It could in time become an example to other countries and would potentially attract significant attention and perhaps further investment from the growing wellbeing industry and its brands.

The players and managers all have a voice. The power of those voices can and should be harnessed to talk about more than the performance of their team and a groin strain here or a hamstring pull there. They could use it to reach the whole country with examples of how to live better and in a more fulfilled way.

I can think of no other business,
institution or organisation with the communications reach of football. Every week it dominates swathes of broadcast media, print media, social media and, crucially, public discussion. The clubs themselves can email or text message hundreds of thousands of Scottish citizens at the drop of a hat and those people will pay attention. The opportunity here is huge.

Scotland can lead the world in anchoring its national sport to the wellbeing agenda of the country. In doing so it could help save the public finances billions of pounds. The cost of that reach would be minimal in comparison and yet could be existential for the game itself.

Get this right and we solve multiple problems at once. An election is coming and people want to hear about a better future. Football can be one of the biggest foundation stones on which the better Scotland we all demand is built.

That will take ambition, creativity, trust, a tiny bit of risk-taking and a large dose of long-term thinking. Quite a combination, but I think we are all up to that challenge.

We will beat Covid eventually. But will we truly be prepared to build a better country on the economic landscape that results? Football is one industry that stands ready to play a huge role in transforming Scotland for generations to come. 

This will appear in Issue 18 which is published in December 2020.
It starts a series of articles where we ask various figures with an interest in the Scottish game to put forward radical ideas for its future.

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