Over the course of a few rocky days in July battle lines were redrawn at the two clubs I love.
These weren’t new fights, but rather the refiring of what had become a “cold war” at both clubs, between the fans and those in a position of authority.
On the 4th of July, Kilmarnock chairman Michael Johnston abstained from a vote on the admittance of the NewCo Rangers into the SPL, going against the other 10 clubs who all bowed to the pressure of their fans in voting “no”.
Less than a week later, after a defeat to Real Salt Lake, Portland Timbers parted company with head coach John Spencer, and installed Gavin Wilkinson as interim coach in a move that was met with almost universal disapproval among the fans.
Over the following month the talk has grown ever more angry and militant, with talks of boycotts and protests common between both sets of supporters. And here I am stuck in the middle of both.
I grew up a fan of Killie. They are, were, my local team, so it was only natural that I’d end up on the terraces, and later crammed into the seats with legroom that suggests the club expected a crowd of Douglas Baders, at Rugby Park. My wife being Oregonian, and a move over there on the cards, supporting the Timbers was an obvious next step. What wasn’t so obvious was the way the club, and in particular the supporters, would draw me in so wholeheartedly to the point where, whisper it, the Timbers are the team I follow first and foremost now.
Nevertheless, I still keep my eye on Killie and try to stay in touch with what’s going on there. The calls for Johnston to go are nothing new. The Killie Trust, a supporters group, have for a long time set themselves up as wanting change at the top.
When Bobby Fleeting took over the club in the late 80’s, reshaping it into its modern form, he did so by waving a crest of popular support from fans. These were fans that were contemptuously described as “hotheads and bampots” by the old regime, led by Bob Lauchlan. Lauchlan had presided over the club’s bleakest period as the one-time champions slid from relevance and into part-time football and, for a mercifully brief period, the third tier of Scottish football.
Now the supposed benefactors and reformers are shadowy figures. Certain fan representatives claim to know who they are, and vouch for their credibility, but until they step forward and gather support around them, the calls for Johnston to go seem like little more than a futile gesture. Some supporters talk of a popular buy-out, led by a Trust, that could take over the club and hand it to the fans for control, but it’s hard to see that happening when the bank, crucially, are happy to have Johnston there.
There’s no getting away from the elephant in the room – debt. It currently stands around £9m ($14m), which is colossal for a club from a small industrial town in Ayrshire, with an average attendance of around 5,500 (of which around 3,000 are season ticket holders). The loss of so many jobs in the town, the biggest being the pull-out of Diageo who own the Johnnie Walker brand (Johnnie Walker being founded in the town, and the man himself being buried not 2 minutes from where I’m sat right now) has left the town as a whole is a depressed state.
The reasons for the debt are myriad. A decade a go, or so, many clubs is Scotland “chased the dream”, spending lots of money that came into the game through television deals. When that money dried up, a few faced the difficult reality of having run up debts they could no longer service. Killie had gone as far as to build a four star hotel next to Rugby Park, a legacy of ex-Chairman and hotelier Bill Costley.
Johnston arrived on the scene not through a love of the club, or even football in general. He’s a solicitor, and it was only through his connection with Jamie Moffat that he was given the share for a nominal fee of £1. Moffat himself had inherited the club from his late father, and massive Kilmarnock fan, Jim Moffat. The younger Moffat never inherited his father’s love for the club though, and always seemed to be eyeing the exits.
The suspicion held by many fans is that Johnston is a mere puppet of Moffat’s; a buffer to keep the bank happy. He brings no financial investment to the club and has displayed next to no business or marketing know-how in his time at the helm. Local businesses have been gradually alienated, and at a time when jobs are being lost in the town and the cost of football rises, he’s done nothing to arrest the slide in attendance, even following a League Cup win last season.
Instead, he continues to alienate the fans.
Halfway around the world, Gavin Wilkinson is held in much the same regard by Timbers fans. Wilkinson’s reign at the Timbers falls in the “before my time” bracket, so I tend to be guided by those that were around to experience it. The anonymous article posted here drew a lot of attention, but off-site communication with other fans suggest that it’s merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Gavin’s poor relations with fans and players.
Yet, in the one relationship that matters, Wilkinson seems to have his back covered by Merritt Paulson, the club owner. Paulson’s clearly not a stupid guy, but neither was he a “soccer guy” before he got in the Timbers business, and it seems that from very early on Wilkinson has cannily positioned himself as Paulson’s go-to soccer guru.
It’s a relationship that many fans have likened to that of Wormtongue and Theoden from The Lord of the Rings. For me it’s almost like a case of Stockholm Syndrome, where Wilkinson has Paulson convinced that not only is he the right man for the job, but that’s he’s worth riding roughshod over players and fans alike for.
The trade of two popular players this week in Troy Perkins and Mike Chabala gave Wilkinson a chance to indulge in one of his favourite sports: having a little dig at departing players. He claimed that Donovan Ricketts was an “upgrade” over Perkins, a rather classless statement to make as it’s perfectly possible to talk up your new player without having to frame it in reference to the guy who has gone after giving you fantastic service.
It’s something that the club, rather than drop the “upgrade” tack and learn some lessons about PR from what has been somewhat of a clusterfuck, have doubled down on. Paulson himself tweeted “Troy has meant a lot but he’s not Petr Cech. People making him something he’s not” which is a strange assertion as a) no-one ever claimed he was and b) neither is Ricketts. It’s utterly irrelevant to the point.
Perkins weighed in with a rather telling statement to reporters in Montreal, “He’s said some things in the past about guys who had left the club, and that’s him.” Ex-Timbers players have expressed strong opinions on Wilkinson in the past, and it seems that it’s not something that’s going to stop any time soon.
Timbers fans face, I fear, a long and hard fight to remove Wilkinson for a position that he has dug himself into so effectively. When the owner is willing to go toe-to-toe with fans on social media to defend his ginger-haired beau, even as Wilkinson is having to tear up the team that he helped build as he presides over a disaster run of results and performances with all the public grace and charm of a rattlesnake, it’s hard to see how the fans can effect positive change.
Paulson himself weighed in with what was perhaps his “hotheads and bampots” moment when he reacted to the outraged masses on twitter by calling the medium a “cesspool of vitriol” (I would link to these tweets, but Merritt is notorious for deleting them). Now that may be true. Certainly, the British diver Tom Daley felt the full impact that the immediacy and relative anonymity that twitter offers recently. But just because the fans anger is now being directed in a more forthright manner, straight to the owner’s inbox where in the past letters would be screened, and Paulson himself has a itchy twitter finger doesn’t mean that had twitter not been invented the fan’s dissatisfaction with recent events wouldn’t have been manifested in other ways, and may still yet.
Michael Johnstone may not have been, and some would argue he still isn’t, a football fan when he took over, but he certainly seems to enjoy the trappings of being an SPL chairman now. If there’s an opportunity to get his face in front of a camera, Johnston will be there, and in the days after his abstention in the July 4th vote he was elected to the SPL board.
With no figurehead for the hotheads and bampots to rally round, I suspect any attempts to force Johnston out will come to nothing. So long as Johnston wants to stay in the limelight, the bank are happy for him to be there and the fans lack a Fleeting-type character to rally round, all the banners and flags in the world aren’t going to change a thing.
In Portland, it’s difficult to see how the fans will force Wilkinson out so long as Paulson is his Patty Hearst. Clearly Merritt must see something in Wilkinson that convinces him he is the man to guide the Timbers forward, but the failure to transmit this to the fans and get them on board is another failure of communication. From the outside looking in, it’s hard to see any cohesion or direction in the way the Timbers have gone about their first two years in MLS.
But it seems that as bad as it gets, one man remains untouchable in the eye of the storm. The supposedly imminent announcement of a new head coach may take some of the heat off Wilkinson, though I doubt the fans are going to completely forget about the Kiwi as, I suspect, they had better set their expectations to “underwhelmed” in regards to that appointment. I just don’t see how any top coach is going to want to work in this environment, though I’d love to be proven wrong.
What the future holds for both clubs is hard to see at this point. It would be nice, as a fan, to get back to thinking exclusively about what’s happening on the field again. That is why we love the game after all, right?
Maybe I’m some kind of jinx?! That’s the price for having me support a club. At least the Perkins trade took the heat off me as the guy who killed Timbers careers dead. Now I’m the guy who brings an omnishambles of a front office/boardroom to the table.
Whatever happens, one thing is sure. The fans will endure it. Owners and chairmen come and go, as do coaches and managers; the one constant are the fans. They are the beating heart of any club.
Hotheads and bampots they may be, but without them the club is nothing.