Hotheads and Bampots

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.


13 thoughts on “Hotheads and Bampots

  1. It’s disappointing to see that you’ve been caught up in the cycle of negativity that is swirling through the TA like a dust devil of trash at Candlestick. There isn’t any way to have a reasonable conversation about the “failure of communication” meme, but I think it’s worth thinking about the negativity concerning the pending coaching hire. You note that you “just don’t see how any top coach is going to want to work in this environment”. How about these reasons a quality coach will want to join the Timbers:

    * Top notch training facilities (with access to additional resources through Nike and Adidas);
    *. One of the better academy and PDL systems that is producing players for the first team;
    *. An owner who is engaged and is supportive of building the team through developing young players;
    * Though the team has played poorly this year it has some very talented players (with a large number of young and seemingly very talented players waiting in the wings);
    * A city that is a good place for coaches (and players) to live;
    * An engaged fanbase that strongly supports the team.

    What top notch coach would “want to work in this environment”? I think we’ll see in a few weeks. Until then please get back to writing your insightful analyses of the team (no one else is coming close to what you have been doing). Maybe leave the #RCTID twitterfeed aside for a while – we don’t need another rebroadcast of that foolishness.

    1. In our case, an engaged owner is the heart of our problem. It sounds nice in the abstract, but in our case Merritt Paulson is meddling in things he is nowhere near qualified to be a part of. This is the reason that John Spencer was fired. He was fed up with not being able to control his own destiny as coach, and when confronting Merritt about this was met with a dismissal. John Spencer is not the only employee of the Timbers that Merritt has treated this way. It is always his way, whether he knows what he is talking about or not, or you are fired. Case closed.

      This is why it is utterly important to frame the Gavin Wilkinson situation within the context of Merritt Paulson’s leadership qualities and personality issues. Gavin survives because he is a good employee is Merritt’s eyes. He does what he is told. He does not talk back. Merritt may not have intended things to work out this way, but now Gavin has materialized as a very convenient scapegoat. No matter what Merritt does wrong — whether it is interfering at practice sessions, directing player acquisitions and trades, calling players out in the locker room, treating season ticket holders on twitter like annoyances, or trying to shut down the TA in 2007 for which Gavin gets the blame as Merritt’s employee — it appears Gavin is now the perennial jack-of-all-trades fall guy. He is characterized as having hypnotic powers over Merritt and being some kind of puppet master. This meme must stop.

      Gavin’s character flaw is that he does not have the spine of someone like John Spencer. He is looking out for himself, but merely to keep his job in an organization that he has been a part of since 2001 that has been co-opted by Merritt Paulson since 2007. That is Gavin’s predicament. Personally, I do not admire this at all. I prefer people to stand up for what is right and not sit idly by for selfish reasons and let the greater good suffer. But this is a far cry from the manipulative characterization of Gavin, and the poor victim of Merritt Paulson. Merritt is not a victim. He is the perpetrator. We need to start directing the blame in the right place.

      1. I don’t think Wilkinson has hypnotic powers over Merritt, but when it comes to how he understands the game I think that – bearing in mind Paulson himself has said he wasn’t a soccer guy growing up – it is largely coloured by Gavin, so when it comes to footballing matters I have no doubt that Paulson secedes to Wilkinson on most matters. He’s been the go-to guy for so long it’s only natural that you tend to take your cues from the one who’s taught you most. I’m sure that dynamic is changing over time as Merritt forms his own opinions on the game, and perhaps that’s where Wilkinson has had to adapt to stay in favour, but I think the last few weeks have shown that Merritt, if revere is too strong a word, certainly still holds Wilkinson’s footballing opinion in very high regard, and that – in my opinion – is a problem as I don’t think he’s the guy to shape this team and going by what many have said about him – and not just fans – he’s not easy to work with or for, though I’m sure he’s a fantastic employee. (we’ve all worked with that type, right?)

        Yes, Paulson gets off fairly lightly, perhaps too lightly, but unless there’s another ownership group out there willing to take over the franchise and run it “properly” there’s very little to be done about changing that. The general manager position is a whole different matter and I just don’t see Portland being anything other than a mediocre team despite all the admittedly positive points “Ranch Boy” makes as long as we’re hamstrung by having someone there who isn’t fit for purpose.

      2. You are absolutely right about the footballing side of things, also probably right that as Merritt learns more about the game he will start making ignorant technical suggestions. But you put too much emphasis on that. The real problem is Merritt’s person-management skills. He is forceful. He is the “I want this done yesterday, or you are fired” type of boss. He throws tantrums. He won’t listen to reason.

        This all goes back to the way Merritt was given ownership of the team and made himself president without earning these titles, and thus the respect that goes with it. He is the archetype of the spoiled rich kid who believes he deserves obedience from his lessers. He also believes that the Timbers are his, in spite of the PR department working overtime to craft the right messages for him to spout about community assets, which is what the Timbers truly are. So when the team doesn’t perform like a nice mechanical train set, he goes apeshit and lashes out at his toy, in this case the players.

        All this GWOUT stuff probably will turn Merritt against Gavin eventually, if it hasn’t already. But that is because Merritt is always looking for someone to blame and lash out at. Anyone who works for him is hamstrung from the get-go, so I don’t see how a replacement GM will be any better. If anything, we’ll see more internal fighting ala John Spencer, and we might even finally see a public airing out if the new GM has enough pedigree where talking shit about Merritt in public won’t hurt his career.

  2. I think the problem here is that the “solution” to these problems – because they’re wrapped up in the business of the clubs – is that so long as the revenue stream looks good the results on the pitch, and the relations between the FO and the supporters isn’t going to have an impact.

    What could force changes is if the supporters stopped turning out, stopped buying the merch, stopped supporting the club financially. But then you risk – and in Killie’s case it’s a terrible risk, given the state of the balance sheet – the club just folding or getting wound up by their bankers.

    Plus when you look around, the power is just all on one side. Think of the ManU “green and gold” protests. Again, short of hitting the club in the wallet, where can the supporters turn to make changes happen – especially given the club’s ability to turn away anyone who makes them uncomfortable?

    I’m not saying that the fans should just give up. I’m just saying that I can’t think of an EFFECTIVE way for the fans to push the FO towards changes (like putting Gavin in charge of concessions in the Axe Stand) that might help get us past the current mess…

    1. FD Chief, that is important for everyone to keep in mind. There is a big difference between spouting negativity and actually making changes that result in a positive outcome. I think the GWOUT stuff is all just tribal drama and isn’t going to result in anything positive. It won’t get rid of Gavin, who isn’t really the problem, and it very much will not have any affect on Merritt Paulson. In fact, it actually shielding Paulson from blame.

      Calm minds can prevail, though. There are strategies that can be put into place to oust Merritt Paulson. The TA, and specifically the 170ist, is in a unique position. Unlike Manchester United in your example, which makes its money based on its roster of world-class players, the Timbers essentially make their money off the backs of the TA. Some fans may not like to hear it, but this is the reality. The TA is basically the product, and that is the only reason that Merritt Paulson grants any leeway at all. This is how we was convinced back in 2007 to stop trying to smash the TA.

      The TA is also now a main product of MLS. If MLS has to choose between the TA and Merritt Paulson, they will choose the TA every time. Merritt Paulson is replaceable.

      The key is for the 107ist to work behind the scenes to find and vet a new owner or ownership group. This is a grand opportunity to shape the club from the top level. Merritt Paulson is in no position to interfere. And once an acceptable replacement owner is found, then it will be easy to force Merritt Paulson out. If he resists or tries to move the team, MLS will likely force him to sell and most certainly will not let him move the Timbers out of Portland. Why would they? There would already be another owner lined up to take the reigns. Maybe they would let Paulson open a new franchise somewhere else, but the Timbers would be safe at that point.

      Additionally, the people who believe that Merritt Paulson cares about the Portland Timbers are wholly mistaken. MLS is a stepping stone for him. The Paulsons initially sought to become MLB owners in Portland via ownership of the Portland Beavers. When MLB turned out to be a dud for now, they decided to dig in with the Timbers and try to establish themselves within the Portland business community. That way if MLB comes around again, or if the Trailblazers are put up for sale, they can extend themselves into the really big-money leagues. This is what Merritt Paulson cares about.

      When push comes to shove, this type of owner will be easy to shove out. He will just go on to another city and probably another sport.

      1. Who are you to have all this insight, Peter? Where do you get your insider information? Are you close to the club or just spouting a theory? They aren’t bad theories, if that’s all they are, but your posts are speaking with a real air of certainty.

      2. I’m not involved with the club, but I talk to some who are. There is very little love for Merritt Paulson within the organization. I was in city hall during the stadium negotiations and saw first-hand on numerous occasions how Merritt Paulson behaves.

  3. Well, for the record, I think that part of solving this DOES have to be moving ol’ Gav somewhere. He’s shown me, at least, that he’s pretty conclusively adrift in the top flight. And whether or not Merritt goes or stays, getting someone with a more 20th Century style of soccer could only be a benefit.

    My real concern, though, is that I still don’t see a way for the supporters who feel passionate about the club to exert any real influence. Bear with me, let me try and explain why I think I’m being realistic and not pessimistic.

    First, though I tend to agree that the media is all about the TA more than the team, I’m not sure that the FO sees the Army as their cash cow. We stand in the “cheap seats”, we tend to buy as much TA merch as club kit, and the weight of numbers is against us, both physically and financially. One soccer dad from Beaverton with a roofing company buying a luxury box is worth how many people standing in 107? I suspect that the FO might consider it worth taking on the Army as long as they kept getting butts in the seats over in the east stand.

    Second, Portlanders are ridiculously tolerant of mediocrity – look at the Blazers, since you mentioned them. For all that it’s been almost as long for them as it’s been since the Timbers had a sniff at champion silver, for all that it’s been at least two decades since they were real factors in the NBA playoffs, for all the “fire Whitsitt” and the Canzano rants…Allen and the Vulcans are still here and look here to stay. Why should we assume that a real groundswell of opposition will form to force Merritt & Co. out?

    And third, while I agree that Merritt would be happy to jump into some other sport, the chances of another sport coming around soon don’t look huge. So he seems pretty fixed in place here. The rest of us who have watched this team since the Gavin years of USL can tick off all the problems that have gone unsolved…Merritt for all his fanboy ways isn’t a stupid man and has to see the facts as well…which suggests that he has a different interpretation of them.

    Don’t get me wrong – I WANT a way for us supporters to help clean up this mess. I just can’t see HOW…

    1. I don’t think Gavin should stay, but I am not too strong on the GWOUT meme. Gavin should go because he is Merritt Paulson’s guy, not because of any of this other qualities. He has never had the opportunity to develop as coach or general manager because his entire tenure has been under the pressure-cooker of working for Merritt Paulson.

      If Gavin goes and Merritt Paulson is still the owner, then Merritt will just handpick another toadie, and one with even less connection to the Timbers. Frankly, though, finding a good toadie is very difficult. That is what happened with John Spencer. Candidates might say the right thing in the interviews, but after a few months into their tenure they realize that Merritt Paulson likes to tell you what to do and likes to boss the players around in spite of the coach.

      Watch the interview segment with Merritt in this video, and notice how he can’t even stay on PR message concerning his firing of John Spencer. He doesn’t use the philosophical differences PR line. Instead, because he is defensive about his own faults and mistakes, he mentions how he wishes he could talk openly about what happened between him and John Spencer.

  4. You know, eventually some professional franchise in some sport is going to figure out a way to build a formal, constructive relationship between its core fans and its front office, and it’s going to be a Magna Carta moment. King John was a lousy king and the barons knew it, but they also recognized that they wanted and needed a king in order to be successful. I think serious fans understand that — they don’t want inmates running the asylum, either. They want success on the field and a positive relationship between the franchise and the ticket holders.

    There will always be controversy and disagreement in sport, and often the minority opinion is the enlightened one. But the GW saga is an example of one man claiming to have superior insights based on claims not represented in the evidence. This isn’t about turning on one man, but about the fans being partners in MP’s success. To borrow from today’s political debate, MP didn’t build this business. He is the steward of a unique tradition and everyone is pulling for him to make the right call. But if he thinks that the fact that he had the money to purchase the club gives him Divine Right to pretend that his insights are arbitrarily superior to the wisdom of the crowd, he will eventually find the fans pulling away from him.

    The right answer isn’t about a test of wills. It’s about understanding situations and acting wisely. MP could become a true visionary. Or he could utter blow the coolest situation in American pro sports.

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