The rebirth of the buddies

How a shift towards fan ownership, Jack Ross and a four-inch drum saved St Mirren from an existential crisis.

By Daniel Morrow

This article first appeared in Issue 8 which was published in June 2018.

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One vital component of relationship rebuilding has been an attempt by the new board to introduce a singing section in the stadium. The previous consortium attempted to introduce a similar scheme both in 2010 and in 2014, but failed to capture the imagination of the Saints faithful.

When St Mirren lifted the Scottish Championship trophy in April of this year, they came of age; a significant moment considering they had celebrated their 140 years of existence recently.

Saints opened their 2016/17 season flirting with the financial insecurity that comes with the prospect of relegation. After a torrid run of six games without a victory under Alex Rae, the board at St Mirren felt it was time for a reboot.

After the board gave Jack Ross the green light to take over as manager, where he led the club to previously unforeseen glory in a revitalisation that has spilled into the stands. Saints fans have taken the leading role in their stride, helping to connect the supporters with crucial players such as Lewis Morgan and Cammy Smith.

When the Saints moved from their highly regarded Love Street home in 2009, many supporters failed to warm to the Paisley 2021 Stadium; particularly aiming their criticism at the lack of atmosphere generated within the evidently built-for-purpose symmetrical structures.

“Love Street was a traditional football ground in the Scottish sense in that it had quirks from the unique atmosphere and unique environment,” Ross said. “I liked Love Street as an opposition player and loved my time playing there as a St Mirren player. The new stadium is very different; people find themselves at different parts of the ground in different seats and with different views.”

Jack Ross and Saints captain Stephen McGinn were opposing the Buddies’ assistant manager James Fowler in the opening fixture at the new stadium – a drab 1-1 draw against Kilmarnock. The occasion was witnessed by a bumper crowd of Saints fans. Many were eager to anticipate a historic moment in Scottish football. For others, it was merely an exertion of overwhelming relief.

In 2004, former Saints chairman Stewart Gilmour announced that St Mirren’s £1.6 million debt was grossly unsustainable. A move away from Love Street appeared to be the only alternative; one where they could move to a stadium that would act as a facilitator in any mission to pull the club away from the brink of collapse.

Nine months after the historic opening of the stadium in 2009, Gilmour put the Buddies up for sale, insisting that the board at that time had met its objective in clearing all outstanding debt. They stated that they would only be willing to sell to someone with St Mirren’s best interests at heart.

The 2014-15 season had seen Saints relegated to the Scottish Championship, ending a nine-year stay in Scotland’s top flight. Additionally, this would be the sixth season that ‘for sale’ signs stood outside the Paisley 2021 Stadium. Both had brought a volatile air of unrest among supporters, who had become increasingly incensed at the board for failing to act swiftly in selling the club.

The performances on the pitch were becoming troublesome and this was reflected in the recording of St Mirren’s lowest average attendance since moving to the stadium – a dismal 3,549 in the 2015/16 season. An existential crisis was brewing.

In 2016, St Mirren were sold to lifelong Saints fan Gordon Scott in a fan-led consortium, joining forces with the St Mirren Independent Supporters Association (SMISA) in a deal worth a reported £1m.

In a press conference following the buy-out in July 2016, Scott said: “Hopefully this is the start of a new dawn for St Mirren and we can start moving forward again. We want to build a future that involves the fans and everybody in Paisley. Together we can take the club forward and make it successful again.”

Scott’s ownership will act as a stop-gap until the moment that SMISA are in a position to buy out his shares within the next ten years. Currently SMISA own 28% of the club while Scott is the majority shareholder. The scheme is funded by over 1300 St Mirren fans, most of whom are paying £12 a month to SMISA.

When Jack Ross entered the club in late 2016, he admitted that the relationship between the players and the fans was in desperate need of repair if they were to have success on the pitch.

“I think undoubtedly, if you had been around our club and seen the situation we were in and how far we have come in a short period of time, you would understand that without the real backing, last year in particular, we might not have gotten out of that situation,” he admitted. “I think I said at the time, there was a real disconnect between the supporters and the team, so we had to rebuild that.”

One vital component of relationship rebuilding has been an attempt by the new board to introduce a singing section in the stadium. The previous consortium attempted to introduce a similar scheme both in 2010 and in 2014, but failed to capture the imagination of the Saints faithful.

Currently housed in the far left of the stadium’s West Stand is a group called the North Bank which was first established at the end of 2016, coinciding with the appointment of Jack Ross. The group have been instrumental in bringing both colour and an electric atmosphere, while being at the forefront of re-establishing a connection between the fans and the club.

“We were worried when the club offered us that section, as we felt that they were trying to push us into hiding and we didn’t know how it was going to work to begin with,” claimed Josh Magennis, one of the founders of the group. “But it gave us our own area of the ground which has been brilliant because we have claimed it as ours. People know if they want to get involved in what we do then they can come along there, plus we are not annoying people who do not want to be involved in it.”

A drum, which has become a staple accompaniment to St Mirren’s growing hymn sheet, has been the glue that has kept the North Bank together. Their first drum, a recovered relic found gathering dust, was reappropriated to conduct a group of 18-30-year-old Saints fanatics cheering on their beloved side.

“We first used the drum when we found this wee shitey drum in somebody’s loft and thought that we would take it to the game and see how we get on,” Magennis added. “We played East Fife in the Scottish Cup away and we took this wee Highland thing into the game. It was about four inches thick and there was like a sheepskin thing on top of it with two normal drum sticks. There was a big group of us jumping about crazy with this drum, everybody was loving it, they couldn’t believe what we were doing with the beats. After then we started taking it to games.”

Board members and supporters alike have not always got behind the drum. In March last year, the club said that drums had been subject to a “long standing prohibition” in the stadium due to previous issues with “bad behaviour” where they claimed that drums had been used to smuggle in flares.

The North Bank said that they would have to drop off the drum at the stadium a week prior to a game, which nearly caused the group to disband as a result – if it were not for an intervention from a Saints legend.

“We were told to drop it off on a Friday afternoon, but because I worked beyond the club’s opening hours of 10am till 2pm, it just wasn’t working and we were ready to give up on it,” Magennis said. “Tony Fitzpatrick said that we could meet at the training ground out of hours. He gave me a tour where I met all the backroom staff, and they said that what we were doing was brilliant. If a legend like Tony Fitzpatrick is backing us, then it is a big thing.”

The group has since ventured into producing captivating tifos in the Paisley 2021 Stadium, which have been on display before home and away fixtures. This provided another health and safety headache, where they were recently forced to take a hand-painted banner down earlier this year as the material used was in an apparent breach of fire regulations. Since this episode, the North Bank now import materials from a Polish distributor that ensures that each of their products are thoroughly tested in laboratories to meet UK and EU legislation on flags.

Their work has not gone unnoticed by Jack Ross, who personally donated £150 in March this year for the group to purchase new materials, as a well as an opportunity to produce its own line of North Bank branded t-shirts, scarves, and hats which are all currently sold out on their website.

“In Scotland we are a bit too good in identifying the problems and not so good in finding the solutions,” claimed Ross. “Every club in a situation like ours should try to create that type of section within their stadium and embrace it. I am always very strong in getting the club very supportive of that section.

“Ask anybody who is alongside them at home and away games, they know how much kids get excited to be a part of an atmosphere that is exciting. Certainly, I know that other clubs have those sections and other clubs have grown it really well, and undoubtedly it is a really positive aspect to stadia. I think we should embrace it as much as possible and drive it forward.”

The fans’ biggest project to date was a march through Paisley town centre prior to the club’s title celebrations against bitter rivals Greenock Morton in April this year. The march was approved by Renfrewshire Council but came up against opposition from Police Scotland. They allegedly stated that the march could potentially be intimidating to visitors.

But what was witnessed by locals was a grand display of unity amid the backdrop of black and white-adorned fanatical Saints supporters. Eyes eagerly peered out of windows to see the hundreds who took to the streets of Paisley reciting song after song alongside the accompanying beat of the North Bank’s drum.

When the crowd dispersed as it reached the Paisley 2021 Stadium, it was not long before everyone was united once again, as the group of St Mirren diehards conducted the now quite extensive song book for the full 90 minutes.

“When you have got a positive environment within the stadium and you have the backing of the supporters in it, it galvanises your players more,” Ross added. “The players are taking strength in that, particularly in important times where we have gained victories when we have not certainly played our best. Now we have built that relationship, the last thing you want to do is become detached from supporters.”

This kind of revitalisation is something that simply would not have been envisioned 18 months ago, particularly given that the club were treading very close to the depths of the third tier. Gordon Scott described the takeover as a “new dawn” for St Mirren, and with the support now gaining a new sense of optimism, it’s quite easy to see how the club feels like it is coming of age.

This article first appeared in Issue 8 which was published in June 2018.

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