A sorry saga

Rumours, leaks, protests, conspiracy theories, personality clashes, fabrications, resignations: Dundee’s unhappy experiment with fan ownership.

By Grant Hill

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

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Dundee were promoted via bureaucracy, not brilliance, and it brought with it a new dilemma for a board with little experience of a cut-throat and troubled industry.
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Two painful seasons on the park and growing frustration off it had left most Dundee fans open to change.

The choice of venue – a theatre – was inspired given the drama unfolding before the packed stalls. Boos rained down on pantomime villains as the production’s twists and turns reached their climax. In the great tradition of panto, the audience got the happy ending they demanded and cheers rang out as the baddies were vanquished from the stage.

The Dundee fans assembled at the city’s Gardyne Theatre had just overwhelmingly voted to relinquish their majority shareholding in the club and pave the way for a takeover by a consortium of US investors and former club directors. Seasoned observers of Scottish football expressed amazement that the support could even consider surrendering control given the long line of moneymen that had put their club’s existence in jeopardy. An alternative ownership model that many held up as a panacea for the ills afflicting the national game had been dealt a body blow by the eagerness with which the Dundee support once more embraced a white knight with big plans and, they hoped, deep pockets.

Those aghast at the punters’ cash-grab had misjudged the discontent created by Scotland’s most high-profile experiment with fan ownership however. The vote did not happen in isolation but was the culmination of a troubled two years in which attempts by the Dundee FC Supporters’ Society to stabilise the club following its latest flirtation with extinction were undermined by leaks, briefings, factionalism, boardroom wrangling, proxy wars and events elsewhere. In this environment, their naivety and inexperience was exposed by a series of crises thrown up amidst escalating internecine warfare. The dream had most definitely turned sour.

“In retrospect, we didn’t have the right people involved,” said Stuart Murphy, who was appointed club chairman when DFCSS became majority shareholders. “With the situation the club was in it could have never been anything other than a holding shop. We couldn’t take it forward to the level where we needed to be. If it had been under different circumstances and with different people at the helm then it maybe could have worked. There’s no reason in principle why fan ownership can’t work but the problem is that it tends to arise in an emergency. You can find all the people you need to run a club in any fan base but the problem is getting them to come forward and add the value they can.”

Since the late 1980s the Dark Blues had staked a serious claim to be Scotland’s most dysfunctional football club with Dens Park proving a magnet for fraudsters, reckless speculators and Walter Mitty characters. The latest saviour had been oil millionaire Callum Melville, who began splashing cash on new players as soon as he joined the board in 2009. “Dundee has to be a self-sustaining club,” he told the BBC shortly after his appointment. “A club cannot run just on the basis of a rich backer putting money in.” His words were to prove predictably prescient and the club was placed in administration for the second time in just seven years in late 2010.

It was at this point, and in the absence of any other viable options, that DFCSS stepped forward to offer investment in return for a community ownership of the club. Surely a controlling stake being held by lifelong Dundee fans with the club’s best interests at heart couldn’t be any worse than the damage caused by a succession of ‘suits’ over the past 20-odd years. DFCSS had brought all supporters groups together under one umbrella but almost as soon as they announced thier intentions to take the club into community ownership another split occurred. Former owner Peter Marr, who had continued to back the club and wield considerable influence behind the scenes, announced that he was to set up another new group, to be called the Dark Blues Business Trust. It seemed that in more ways than one the Dundee supporters would never be united.

Upon exiting administration in May 2011, the new club board comprised three representatives of DFCSS, one from DBBT, a financial director and two club employees. It was hoped the new structure would ensure all demographics were represented in a brighter future in which fans democratically elected their representatives at board level and the business community also determined who would speak for them. The unity and optimism would not last and by February 2013 just two of the post-administration board members remained in post. In all, 12 people served on the board between DFCSS taking ownership in May 2011 and them giving up their majority in August 2013 with the average director being in post for less than a year. Murphy, whose spell as post-administration club chairman lasted just six months, says structural problems were evident from day one.

“There was no reason for a lot of what happened other than the fact there were big personalities involved,” he said. “X couldn’t get along with Y. Z couldn’t get along with Y. There was tension between the CEO, DBBT and the DFCSS guys. There was tension between myself and the other DFCSS directors who felt I should side with them so the Society had a united front on the board. But the chairman has to take a balanced approach and support the other board members when appropriate. The roles weren’t compatible.”

From the outset it was clear that not all sections of the Dundee support were sold on the idea of community ownership. Even among those not philosophically opposed to the concept, there were worries about what living within your means meant on the playing field and what would happen in the absence of a benefactor and presence of a shortfall. For the most part, however, the majority were willing to give the new set-up a chance, relieved to once again able to focus on on-field matters, which was unfortunate given the way the side started the new term. Dundee sat bottom of the league in November and though they rallied over the course of the season and finished in second place they never seriously challenged runaway title winners Ross County.

Football fans have notoriously selective memories and simply still having a team to support soon stops being enough when that team is struggling. The club had now spent seven years outside the top division, longer than at any point in its history, and the fear grew that Dundee was consigned to terminal, cloth-cutting decline.

Instead the club was to become the ironic beneficiary of Scottish football’s chronic financial mismanagement.

The 2012 implosion of Rangers opened up a new slot in the SPL. Despite finishing a massive 24 points behind County, the Dark Blues were to receive the golden ticket. Attempts by Rangers and the game’s powerbrokers to fight demotion dragged on over the summer, placing Dundee’s pre-season plans in disarray. SPL fixtures were published with the ambiguous ‘Club 12’ listed instead of either Rangers or Dundee. Recruitment was on hold as the club could not afford to sign SPL-standard players until their league status was confirmed. When ‘promotion’ was finally confirmed it came without any last-day drama or moment of magic that lives with fans forever. The feel-good factor lasting the length of the summer was absent. Dundee were promoted via bureaucracy, not brilliance, and it brought with it a new dilemma for a board with little experience of a cut-throat and troubled industry.

“We had put together a side we hoped would be good enough to win the First Division,” said Fraser MacDonald, who had filled the DFCSS slot on the club board vacated by Stuart Murphy. “Did we just proceed with that squad as people always said there was little difference between the bottom of the SPL and the top of the First Division and bank the additional income coming our way? We decided we couldn’t do that and wanted to give the manager a budget that would give him a chance of keeping us up. The problem was that there was so much uncertainty that we couldn’t release funds until our place in the top division was confirmed. By then we were really struggling to be able to attract the calibre of player needed for the money we could offer.”

Dundee toiled as most observers predicted they would. By February they were 15 points adrift at the foot of the table following a run of 12 league games without a win and manager Barry Smith was sacked, six weeks after a boardroom split had given him a stay of execution. The wrangling that took place over his future deepened divisions among the various factions represented in the directors’ box and contributed to further reshuffles. Overall the impression given was that the community-owned club was indecisive and disjointed, though the dismissal of Smith would look wholly professional compared to the unveiling of his successor.

John Brown was, like Barry Smith, a member of Dundee’s Hall of Fame, but his only managerial experience, at Clyde, had been disastrous. More famously, his attempts to galvanise the Rangers support following their financial meltdown was met with widespread ridicule. A video of ‘Bomber’ ranting about the deeds to Ibrox outside the stadium went viral and he became so toxic in the eyes of Scottish football it was widely assumed Brown would never work in the game again. Dundee CEO Scot Gardiner, who knew Brown from when both worked at Rangers, had other ideas.

It had been planned to unveil Brown as interim manager at a Q&A session hosted by the club’s board but news of the appointment broke beforehand. Fans, already enduring a woeful season on the park on the back of years of disappointment and mismanagement, stormed the meeting to protest against this latest humiliation. Rather than being welcomed with rapturous applause, the new gaffer and the club CEO were forced to leave the stadium by a side door and it was left to the directors to deal with an onslaught of abuse from the audience as the meeting broke up amidst chaotic scenes.

As it transpired, Brown exceeded expectations. Relegation, which some had predicted to be confirmed before Easter, was postponed until the third-last game of the season and Bomber was rewarded with the job on a permanent basis. However, two years of on-field disappointment, the prevarication over Smith’s sacking and the shambolic Q&A scenes meant the mood had very definitely turned against the club’s majority shareholders and the man they appointed to oversee day-to-day operations. Scot Gardiner had by this time became a hate figure for a sizeable number of Dundee supporters. If DFCSS were to have taken a cynical approach then jettisoning their appointee would have won them some favour with an increasingly disillusioned fan base. As it transpired, events were to take a turn that meant Gardiner would outlast his paymasters.

Surrey-based businessman Bill Colvin had played a major role in saving Dundee. Though he was not himself a Dark Blues fan, his late father-in-law had been and Colvin and his wife Pam wanted to honour him by helping keep his club alive. An initial six-figure donation was followed by further substantial investments over the course of the following two seasons and an ever-closer relationship with Dundee. Shortly after being appointed to the Dens Park board in April 2013, he and fellow director Steve Martin formed a consortium with Americans Tim Keyes and John Nelms, who had been courting Dundee for the previous year, to bid for control of the club. The group, calling themselves Football Partners Scotland (FPS) would persist in branding the deal a collaboration or investment but the semantics fooled no one. DFCSS’s shareholding would be reduced to 25%, meaning they would no longer hold a veto at boardroom level. They now had to decide how to deal with an offer to take over a club they had taken ownership of on the back of the blood, sweat and tears of their fellow fans.

The Society, now represented in the boardroom by Dave Forbes, Maurice Kidd and Fraser MacDonald, prevaricated, requesting due diligence to be carried out and a ballot of their membership on whether to give up their majority shareholding. If the DFCSS board members were concerned by the speed at which things were unfolding, they were in for a further shock when news of the offer was leaked to the press. While still attempting to process developments behind the scenes they had already lost control of the narrative.

“We never rejected investment,” insisted MacDonald. “The only issue from our side was that it was being rushed when there were steps we had to follow. We had to take our time and make sure everything was done properly and the deal was for the best of the club. Everything was proceeding well and there was no indication of any time constraints and then all of a suddenly it had been leaked to the press and we were under pressure to get it done quickly.”

While some supporters were alarmed at the prospect of selling the family silver, it was immediately clear they were in the minority. Two painful seasons on the park and growing frustration off it had left most Dundee fans open to change. Fairly or not, many felt DFCSS had ceased to represent the views of their members. The fact that lifelong Dundee fan Steve Martin and Bill Colvin, who had already shelled out hundreds of thousands of pounds on the club, were part of FPS reassured others. With momentum on their side, the consortium pushed for an answer but DFCSS continued to insist the constitutions of both the club and Society made it impossible for them to respond in the deadline set.

A visit to Scotland by John Nelms that saw him talk about his ambitious plans for the club further charmed supporters. By now, resentment was rising against not just DFCSS as an organisation but Kidd, Forbes and MacDonald as individuals. Claim and counter-claim, rumour and conspiracy theories cast the three fans’ reps as villains of the piece determined to hold on to power at all costs. Much to the director’s chagrin, Scot Gardiner was now openly advocating the overthrow of those who had employed him while manager John Brown publicly claimed that to turn down the deal would prove disastrous for his playing budget.

“If the members of DFCSS wanted to give up their ownership that was their right,” said MacDonald. “We had a constitution and were bound by the rules to hold a vote. We couldn’t just sell the shares – all the legal advice we took was very clear about that. If we had done so we could have been open to a legal challenge.”

Rank-and-file fans were already being whipped into apoplexy when DFCSS postponed a ballot on the buyout saying due diligence still needed to be undertaken. Irate at what they saw as the latest delaying tactic, Colvin, Martin and Financial Director Ian Crighton resigned from the Dark Blues’ board, escalating the crisis to new levels and eradicating much of the residual sympathy felt for DFCSS. Maurice Kidd, who had been receiving treatment for the illness that would eventually claim his life throughout the whole stressful episode, also tendered his resignation shortly afterwards leaving only Fraser MacDonald and Dave Forbes on the club board. None of the seven directors who lined up in the Dens Park boardroom having helped bring the club from the brink remained.

“I despair about the constant, never-ending boardroom/director/supporters’ groups intrigue, which is manna from heaven for the media but is so debilitating for the fans of the club,” said former Dundee vice-chairman Derek Souter in a newspaper plea for unity that summed up the feelings of many bored of the politics. “Could these competing interests, who are all fanatical DFC fans, albeit with hugely contrasting personalities, not just put these to the side?”

The triple-resignation marked the sorry saga’s nadir. From there, it limped towards the Gardyne Theatre where DFCSS members voted for their organisation to dilute their shareholding by a margin of around nine-to-one. Dundee’s brief and stormy dalliance with fan ownership was at an end.

Fraser MacDonald, who had become public enemy number one as the takeover dragged on looks upon the period philosophically. “People have their own ways of doing things,” he said. “I might have issues with the way any of the individuals did business at the time but they did with me as well. It wouldn’t be helpful to go over all that again.”

The short DFCSS era saw increased engagement with local community groups while the period was not a financial disaster by Dundee’s far-from-illustrious standards. A near-£350,000 loss in the first year of fan ownership was covered by additional cash injections and share purchases. The Club 12 fiasco may have led to a year-long struggle on the park but the unexpected elevation improved the club’s finances. By the end of the season, the club was in the black to the tune of £214,000, one of the few times it had turned a profit in the previous 30 years but the takeover saga meant few people were of a mind to praise DFCSS by the time the accounts were published.

“The legacy of administration was very difficult to deal with,” noted MacDonald. “Football debt must be repaid in full and we had very little working capital. That means you have to seek additional capital if you want to improve the product on the park. Fans want success so a board’s performance off the park is often judged on what happens on it.”

The directors’ jobs were made much more difficult by the alacrity with which every crossed word, every overdue invoice and every instance of human error was shared online, conflated and – in many cases – distorted so as to be unrecognisable from reality. For two years Dens Park leaked uncontrollably, either through the age-old tradition of footballing fishwives or, more malevolently, as a result of various cliques and factions aiming to wound each other via messageboards and social media. The briefings were not restricted to those involved in an online proxy war either. Well-informed individuals with an axe to grind furnished the media with the latest gossip from the corridors of Dens Park and DFCSS lacked the experience and expertise to grasp the PR initiative.

“It was just impossible to keep things in-house,” remembered Stuart Murphy. “In football, people want to be the first to tell everyone else what’s happening, whether it’s about transfers or finances or anything else. There was an immaturity about a lot of decision making in that sense. Then there were the more malicious leaks where people were deliberately trying to damage the Society. Some were true, others just outright fabrications. Things appeared on websites and social media that you couldn’t believe.

“There’s been a lot of rubbish said about things I supposedly did at the club and it’s frustrating not to be able to explain or rebut every charge but some people had absolutely no interest in giving fan ownership a chance worked to undermine us from the start. There was a lot of different interests represented. In theory we were all on the same side but there were too many egos and personalities involved.”

Right to the end, DFCSS fought to have clauses intended to safeguard the future of the club included as a pre-condition of the FPS takeover. Throughout their time as majority shareholders, the Society continued to raise substantial sums for the club but that brought complaints about the Society receiving additional shares in exchange for each cash injection. An element of the Dundee support saw this as evidence that DFCSS were determined to enjoy the trappings of office at any cost. To them, the so-called ‘blazer-chasers’ were not representatives of the fans but a bureaucratic and power-hungry group of individuals that thought themselves above their own rules when it suited them. To take this view means ignoring the fact that no other viable option to act as a focal point for fundraising and take the club out of administration existed. DFCSS had not sought power so much as had it thrust upon them. Whatever mistakes, disputes and dramas followed in the next two years, the DFCSS volunteers were Dundee fanatics who had set out with the noblest of intentions. They attended a seemingly never-ending series of meetings and gave up dozens of hours each week on top of their paid employment. Several lived out of town and faced lengthy commutes for every match, meeting or fundraising event. The nature of their voluntary positions were hardly stress-free either and they worked in the full knowledge that whatever course of action they embarked upon was likely to meet with vehement opposition from some quarters. It seemed hardly worth it for a blazer to swan around in on matchdays.

“Despite what some might have thought, there was no way me or anyone else was doing it for ourselves,” said MacDonald. “We did it to keep the club going. The personal abuse dished out to people involved in the Society undoubtedly made it harder to recruit volunteers. There was so much sniping but there was never anything stopping people from stepping up and joining us. We would have welcomed new energy and ideas. For all the different groups and factions and personalities, we all ultimately wanted the club to flourish. Everyone did what they thought was for the best for Dundee.”

Those involved with the DFCSS organisation spent so much time and energy fire-fighting and dealing with challenges specific to the Dundee situation that any notions of stability and long-term planning were quickly forgotten. Blood had been spilled over decades of crises and DFCSS took control of Dundee in an atmosphere of mistrust bordering on paranoia. The various factions proved unable to work together and DFCSS, through inexperience or personnel, proved unable to provide the leadership the club needed at that time. From the moment FPS appeared on the scene, it was clear the takeover was the only way to bring the support back onside. The tenure of a group who pledged to make transparency and sustainability their guiding principles had become transparently unsustainable.

The rifts between many of the individuals involved with the club, Supporters’ Society, Business Trust, Supporters’ Association throughout that period will never heal while other relations remain strained. Their experiences left some disillusioned with the club they had supported all their lives and they had given up so much for. Dundee’s unhappy experiment with fan ownership should act as a cautionary tale for any club considering going down the same route, as those at the forefront of it readily acknowledge.

According to MacDonald, there is no one ideal model for ownership and it is for fans to choose the one which is best for their club. “A lot of clubs are well run by businesspeople and individuals and if works for them then great but others have been horribly run on the same lines and may benefit from more collective ownership. It’s an option that should be legally open to supporters if they wish to go down that route to protect their club from damage.

“Fan ownership came about for us because there was no other option. We were thrust into that situation with little warning, preparation or planning. People were giving up 30-40 hours a week and putting themselves, their jobs, their health and their families under incredible strain. We got things wrong, of course we did, but the club is still here and that was our objective. Now I just look at what’s happening on the park. I don’t get involved with the politics, don’t need to give up half my life, don’t get grief at games and don’t have people spreading lies about me on the internet.”

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

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