‘We don’t have history, a community, fans, or a home ground. That’s a strength for us’

Can social media, online engagement and the enthusiasm for simulation games among younger generations carry Edusport, Scotland’s newest senior football club, from the fifth tier to the Scottish Premiership? Chris Ewing believes so.

By Sean Cole

This article first appeared in Issue 7 which was published in March 2018.

quotation mark
In 2007, a copywriter and former journalist called Will Brooks set up MyFootballClub, which at its peak had more than 32,000 members. They raised enough money to buy Ebbsfleet United in the English Conference and remained as owners until 2013, when falling numbers created financial issues and threatened the future of the club.
quotation mark
For the first time, Edusport are using a handful of local players, as well as those brought over from France and elsewhere. The bulk of the squad is still French-speaking but they have two young loanees from Rangers, and one each from Kilmarnock and Partick Thistle.

The setting was unremarkable and the crowd was sparse. The significance of the match eluded many but still a small piece of history was made. On the evening of December 13, 2014, Edusport Academy came from a goal behind to beat St Cuthbert Wanderers 3-1 in the South of Scotland League Cup final. One side had been running for more than 100 years, the other’s journey had barely begun.

Just a few months into their first ever season, Edusport were already lifting silverware. Winning a sixth-tier cup competition on the 3G pitch at King Edward Park in Lockerbie was a relatively minor achievement in the context of Scottish football as a whole, but it signalled their intent. The country’s newest senior football club certainly has big ambitions and a unique way of doing things. They’ve always set out to be trailblazers in one way or another.

“The trophy was displayed in the National Football Museum in Hampden Park because it was won by a team of French footballers playing in Scotland,” says Chris Ewing, the founder of Edusport Academy. “For me that was a proud moment. That’s something that, no matter what happens, no one can take away. We’re always trying to be first. We’re always trying to create things. We’re always trying to be modern and think outside the box.”

A self-confessed ‘failed footballer’ turned businessman, Ewing established the academy in 2011. Born in Pollok, on the south side of Glasgow, he was inspired by the experience of studying in America on a sports scholarship and sought to create something similar back home. Each year the academy, which was relocated from Motherwell to Glasgow in 2015, takes on around 60 young men, aged between 17 and 23, from France and surrounding areas. They come to learn English, broaden their horizons, experience a new culture and improve their football skills under the guidance of top coaches.

At first they played only friendly matches. Ewing then applied for SFA membership and the club was entered into the league system, starting in the regionalised sixth tier – the South of Scotland Football League. The club has continued to slowly evolve out of the academy, and the two are now separate but related enterprises.

Those who attend the academy pay £17,000 a year to do so, covering food, board, tuition and football coaching. The best are selected to play for the first team, while amateur, futsal and Under-20s sides cater for those who aren’t quite good enough. From his home in Paris, Ewing travels across France to help sift through the most suitable candidates. A certain level of ability is needed but there are more important criteria.

“The first requirement of joining the Edusport Academy has to be an absolute desire to improve. That’s what it’s all about – personal and professional development. If a guy comes to me and he just wants to be a professional footballer, as the director of the academy, I won’t take him. If he just wants to be a professional footballer, then chances are, nine times out of ten, he probably won’t make it. That’s just the nature of the business.

“He’s going to leave Scotland disappointed and there’s no way that I set up any kind of business for people to be disappointed. So we’re honest with these guys. We’re brutally transparent about that, and we lose clients because of it. That’s just life. If guys want to come to learn English, to become a better footballer, to live abroad and experience what it’s like to be a student in Glasgow then that’s what it’s all about.

“If some guys develop to the extent that they get a professional contract, then excellent. We wish them well, and it’s great for the academy to have played a part in that, but it’s not about that. It’s about personal and professional development at all levels. This is where the football club slightly differs, and there has to be a line drawn between the club and the academy. The football club is about winning games. It’s about getting the best players on the park. It’s about winning championships. It’s about winning cups.”

So far, they’ve done that in impressive style. Another trophy was added in that first year, the South of Scotland League Cup was then retained and the title was secured last season. Edusport Academy pipped Wigtown & Bladnoch to top spot by two points, having won all but four of their 26 league games and racked up a goal difference of plus 60. Promotion to the Lowland League was another step on the ladder for Ewing’s project and he’s keen to speed things up.

Currently sitting in mid-table of the fifth tier, in no danger of being promoted or relegated, the club is already planning for next season and a drastic shift in direction. Ewing believes that the existing ownership model, and emphasis on using players from the academy, can only take them so far. With a new intake each year, and no guarantees of how they will come together as a team, more continuity and greater investment is needed.

An extremely passionate and driven individual, Ewing doesn’t want to settle for what they already have. Plans are afoot that he believes could take Edusport straight to the top. The founder and sole owner of the club, he is looking to relinquish control and encourage others to come on board. Ewing wants to create an online community that can finance a rise through the divisions, with the aim of reaching the Scottish Premiership by 2025.

He willingly acknowledges how implausible this sounds but still has great faith that it will happen if they can generate enough interest. A website has been set up and from its official launch on February 7 anyone can become a member for £25 a year. They will have voting rights and will potentially be able to buy shares further down the line. Ewing feels that the club’s unusual circumstances could be a blessing in this regard.

“One of the criticisms that’s been directed at the Edusport Academy as a club, by your sort of average Scottish football fan, is that we don’t have a history, we don’t have a community, we don’t have fans and we don’t have a home ground. And ok, I can understand some of that, but in 2018 that’s actually a strength for us – the fact that we don’t have any ties to a geographical community and we don’t have any history. We’re not inhibited by that,” says Ewing.

“It gives us a chance to create a brand new football club, and actually go and create the future rather than looking at the history. That’s what we’re looking to try to do. We’re looking to create a community. Not a geographical or physical community around the club in Glasgow – although it can be that, and hopefully it will be that – but also beyond that in terms of an online community. That’s
why we set up the website – ourfootballclub.com.”

There are parallels to an earlier experiment of this nature, with a few significant differences. In 2007, a copywriter and former journalist called Will Brooks set up MyFootballClub, which at its peak had more than 32,000 members. They raised enough money to buy Ebbsfleet United in the English Conference and remained as owners until 2013, when falling numbers created financial issues and threatened the future of the club. The initial interest was there but the novelty wore off.

It’s a situation that Ewing, who has explored the history of MyFootballClub and its imitators, is understandably keen to avoid. He feels that advances in social media will be able to facilitate better, more immersive and rewarding interaction between the club and its members, while less money will be required to rise up the Scottish pyramid system. Also, Edusport Academy isn’t burdened by history, an existing fanbase and expectations of what the club should be or how it should act.

They have an intriguing chance to start afresh without being prisoners to their past. Ewing is eager to emphasise the inclusivity and potential of the project. He sees the members, referred to as ‘revolutionaries’ in official literature, becoming a real part of the club, which will be able to achieve far more through this sense of togetherness – a shared investment and outlook. For this reason, the name of the website (ourfootballclub.com) is deliberately set in opposition to the version that ended up buying Ebbsfleet in 2008. Ewing wants to learn from their mistakes.

“It felt like it was an interesting idea, to go and buy a club, but once they’d bought it, it was as though they were done. I feel like there were no medium- to long-term objectives and that they didn’t have a culture. That’s the key difference to what I’m trying to do. We have a brand new football club that we can create. We have a blank page. We can say to our members, our shareholders and our fans, ‘What kind of club do we want to be?’”

Ewing sees it as a rebirth and a revolution. Under the new model, many important aspects of Edusport Academy and the way it functions would be put up for debate. The intention is to allow members to vote on the name of the club, its new badge, its values and ethos, its recruitment strategy and how funds are allocated. Currently playing at Galabank, the home ground of Annan Athletic, the aim would be to find facilities closer to the academy site in Glasgow. Building a physical fanbase, as well as a virtual one, is vital.

On a more superficial level, choosing kit designs and potential suppliers would also be up for consideration. The precise details are still to be decided but Ewing is open-minded about how it will develop. He sees the immense popularity of Football Manager, FIFA Ultimate Team and other simulation games, particularly amongst younger generations, as testament to the appetite for being involved in running a club. If earlier attempts were perhaps a little ahead of their time, social media and online engagement are now second nature to many and Ewing is hoping to capitalise.

For all these grand ambitions, the model is still anathema to traditionalists. Scottish football is often accused of being a little staid, backward and stuck in its ways. There’s something refreshing about the way it stands in contrast to an occasionally cloying modernity, but Ewing is ready to challenge old assumptions. There’s already been a degree of hostility to the way Edusport Academy operate and he expects that there will be more to come. Twice refused entry to the Lowland League by application, they made it on their own merits last season.

“There was an element of resistance. Again, I think a lot of people don’t necessarily like the business model. A lot of people don’t like that it’s French footballers coming over from France and paying to be here. I think it’s quite a small-minded position to take. I think people who are generally resistant probably don’t know us and don’t really understand what we’re trying to do. There’s a misconception from a number of people that we’re a type of agency that are trying to get guys professional clubs, that kind of thing. That’s not the case. It’s all about development.

“But the more that people learn about us and the more that they see how we work and the kind of ethos that we have, and the type of coaches that we have, the better. If they see that we do things the right way, then most people who are educated about who we are and what we’re doing understand that it’s a good thing for Scottish football. But it takes a bit of time. It’s a new concept, it’s a new club and it’s certainly something that’s never been done in Scottish football,” says the 39-year-old.

“A lot of people don’t like change, unfortunately that’s just the way it is. They like what they know. They don’t like anything that’s thinking outside the box. Some people don’t like things that make money, so there’s that as well. But we’re doing ok. We’re working hard to convince people, but at the end of the day, as long as we do our own thing and we know that we’re doing it the right way and for the right reasons, then we don’t really have to justify ourselves to anybody. That’s the bottom line.”

The relationship between the club and the academy will inevitably change as the ownership model does. To an extent, it already has. For the first time, Edusport are using a handful of local players, as well as those brought over from France and elsewhere. The bulk of the squad is still French-speaking but they have two young loanees from Rangers, and one each from Kilmarnock and Partick Thistle. The coaching team felt it was important to have people who know the demands of Scottish football and could help others to adjust to the higher standard.

While Ewing sees it as a ‘no-brainer’ to continue using the best players who come through the academy, more experienced, talented, and no doubt expensive ones will be needed to keep rising up the divisions at the required rate. Considering the contacts he has in France, signing young prospects released by big clubs like Paris Saint-Germain, Lyon and Marseille could be a productive strategy but it will be one of several decisions put to the members. Regardless, the idea of supporters picking the team, which was one of MyFootballClub’s big selling points, is unlikely to be on the agenda.

“The idea is to be a professional project. I don’t want to go for the gimmick. It’s not a gimmick,” says Ewing. “It’s about meeting a need. You look at Football Manager, it’s an institution as a game. I used to skip school to play that when I was a 14-year-old. It’s unbelievable and people have a real passion for it. There’s FIFA Ultimate Team with the new generation. I think what we’re trying to do is similar to that.

“We’re trying to attract that kind of level of romance and interaction, but at the same time as being professional. Right now, if you’re asking me ‘Would we let the members pick the team?’ I would say definitely not. I would say, categorically no. I think that detracts from the credibility of the project. It’s not about asking guys to vote on who’s going to be the left back. Who’s going to be the right back? I think that’s absurd.”

Ewing sees the upcoming year as the most important in Edusport’s short history and also critical to the success, or otherwise, of the new ownership model. Having originally intended to sell shares at £50, due to complications that has been revised to £25 for membership, with shares potentially available to members at a later date. The goal is to have 4,000 members by the start of next season, substantially boosting the club’s playing budget and providing the best chance of winning promotion. If they reach 10,000 members at any point, £50,000 will be ring-fenced for investment in grassroots football.

Aware that interest has quickly faded in similar ventures, Ewing knows that gathering some early momentum is going to be vital. If Edusport don’t look like challenging in that first season, members might begin to drift away and feel that the goal of becoming a contender in Scottish football is simply too far out of reach. They need to start closing the gap quickly. Clear signs of progress, and preferably a title win, will keep existing members coming back and encourage others to join them.

But it’s about much more than just results on the pitch. Supporters want to feel connected, particularly so when it’s a club that they don’t know a great deal about as it stands and need to be brought up to speed. Marketing and engagement matter. Ewing wants to give members the inside track on the club they’ve invested in, with regular player interviews, question and answer sessions, and behind the scenes footage.

As a project he stresses that it’s fundamentally about people and generating a strong emotional attachment. He aims to unite thousands of fans from disparate backgrounds using the power of football, social media, and the dream of turning a curious little club from the Scottish fifth tier into a force that can challenge the Old Firm. He’s invigorated by the prospect and hopes others will be too.

“It’s the power of us and what we can do together. I’m giving up my baby – my football club, which I created. It was me who went to the SFA. It was me who had to go into a room with the Professional Game Board. It was me who had to fight my corner in front of guys like Stewart Regan, twice, because the first time we were denied SFA membership. I went back in and I fought my corner. I’m not giving that up, I’m sharing it.

“I’m taking our SFA membership and saying, ‘You know what, we can be stronger together.’ I don’t think I can do it myself. In fact, I know I can’t do it myself. But I can do it with your help. We can do it together. That’s the difference. It’s about taking the club that I’ve already created and sharing it. Let’s do it together. That’s what’s exciting about it. It’s a human project. It’s about engaging people and giving them that dream and saying, ‘Let’s go on this journey together. For £25, let’s go on this journey and see where we can go.’ It’s exciting times.”

This article first appeared in Issue 7 which was published in March 2018.

Issue 21
Buy
it here

Subscribe here Buy a gift Back copies