Tom Wotherspoon - 6 months in
7th February 2016
Six months into his tumultuous tenure as Airdrieonians chairman Tom Wotherspoon has seen it all.
A Cup tie with his boyhood heroes Rangers, internet abuse, a change of coaching staff, sensational victories, harrowing defeats, two transfer windows and a landmark deal to take the Club back to full-time football.
Here in an exclusive interview the Diamonds chief - owner of top firm M and H Logistics in his day job - reflects on the harsh realities of life owning a football club.
In a frank and forthright Q and A he lifts the lid on the successes, the failures, his relationship with former boss Gary Bollan and current Head Coach Eddie Wolecki Black.
And after the drama of Friday night’s live TV win at League One leaders Dunfermline, Tom also gives us the inside story of clinching that thrilling three-year deal to train at Ravenscraig.
WHAT WAS YOUR AIM WHEN YOUR FIRST WALKED IN THE DOOR AT THE DIAMONDS?
The top priority when I came in was to learn the game from under the bonnet if you like.
I came in and the first thing I did was appoint Iain King as Chief Executive and slowly but surely we are learning together what it takes because nothing is quite what it seems in this game.
I thought transport was a tough industry but football makes it look like a kindergarten!
Still, I have always had this idea that even at League One level you can do this differently.
I have had a thousand ideas as a fan, I used to go to Rangers games and I didn’t agree with the way they tackled it after being sent down to Division Three.
I thought it could have been looked at with more imagination, with a vision of how to progress and this has given me the opportunity to put those beliefs to the test.
I wanted quality over quantity, a smaller squad, rearing your own talent, not having teams full of guys ekeing out the last year of their careers.
WE SEE YOU AT AWAY GAMES ON THE TERRACES WITH THE AIRDRIEONIANS FANS NOW, IS THIS CLUB DRAWING YOU IN MORE THAN YOUR EVER THOUGHT IT WOULD?
It would be very easy to get sucked into this to the detriment of everything else in my life, including my young family and the business that has given me the money to do this in the first place.
I could take my eye off the ball but in a strange way if we can take advantage of the switch to full-time and begin to climb the leagues then it will be easier to step back. We will have a better infrastructure.
Then I need to keep finding people with the same mindset as me, people who think the way I do about Airdrieonians and the way forward.
If we think the same way and I trust them, then they can be left to do their jobs.
Right now everyone has multi-jobs, we are looking at employing better players and if you have to give them an extra few quid then you are looking at what else you can get them to do for that.
HAS THE LEVEL OF SCRUTINY - AND CRITICISM AT TIMES - SURPRISED YOU?
I welcome the debates and everyone knows they can e-mail me now or phone up for a chat about what we are doing.
But, yes, this is harder than I thought it would have been because no matter how much good you do there is always someone looking to slaughter you.
Put 10 football fans in a room and you will get 10 different opinions, if you try to do this job to curry favour then you will FAIL.
There have been some bumps in the road in this first six months but we will stick to the plan of doing it our way.
Look, I made a schoolboy error having my nine-year-old daughter as the Rangers mascot at the Cup tie but that is no excuse for her taking abuse on Twitter for it.
I was a Rangers fan, if I was an Airdrie fan then everyone would have known me before I bought the club.
Rangers came to town and my daughter was the mascot. So what? She didn’t score the five goals against us that night.
I have never wanted Airdrie to win a game more than I did that night.
I am an Airdrie fan now and if anyone saw me that night they’d have known that.
It wasn’t Olivia’s choice to be the mascot that night it was mine.
In hindsight I shouldn’t have done it but what harm did it do anyone? I thought the abuse I got on Twitter the next morning was shocking.
WHEN GARY BOLLAN ELECTED TO LEAVE FOR FORFAR AND CUT THIS SEASON’S MANAGERIAL CONTRACT SHORT THERE WERE CHARGES YOU HAD HUNG HIM OUT TO DRY AND FAILED TO SUPPORT HIM. HOW DO YOU REACT TO THAT?
The simple fact of the matter with the incumbent manager and his staff I inherited is that we supported him early with 30 PER CENT MORE budget than he had the year before.
That didn’t increase the quality of the players, though, it increased the quantity.
Before I arrived there were first-team coaching staff who did it for the love of the game and when I got there all of a sudden they appeared on the payroll because I had rolled up with my hard-earned money.
So, yes, I get frustrated when people say I did not support Gary Bollan because I did.
I told him from Day One that I would not get involved in the football operation, I am not here to pick teams.
The manager or the head coach does that and I trust their judgement.
Right up to the day Gary Bollan walked out of the door for Forfar I did NOT interfere one iota in the selection or tactics.
Since I got involved in this football club I have heard and read a lot of rubbish, the accusation that I didn’t support Gary Bollan is the biggest load of rubbish of all.
I can’t help myself with social media, I have a wee look but some of it is incredible.
I am wiser now, I listen to the people from the Supporters’ Trust, to the guys who stand beside me on the terraces at away games.
They tell me their thoughts and I still get some belters like some guy saying an agent called Alan Love was at the heart of the club.
Alan is a football agent who had Kevin McBride, Taylor Morgan and Nico Sumsky as clients - none of them are in the top team squad now!
So to say he is at the heart of the club? Wow. Look, if I have ever had any involvement football-wise as far as it went was recommending Nico to the former manager.
I never once, though, interfered when he wasn’t played and was ultimately let go.
THERE WAS NO SEARCH FOR A REPLACEMENT BECAUSE YOU FELT WE HAD THE MAN IN THE CLUB ALREADY IN DIRECTOR OF COACHING EDDIE WOLECKI BLACK. SO WHY EDDIE?
Simple. Eddie shares the same thoughts on football as me, what was the expectation when Gary Bollan left? That we would get another ex-player who had been round the managerial merry-go-round?
Outside of detractors with an agenda most inside the game only have good things to say about Eddie Wolecki Black.
I love talking football with him and before he became Head Coach he was doing huge work behind the scenes with the Academy.
I couldn’t afford for someone to come in and dismantle what he has started there.
As a team the three of us have now put our ideas into place and there’s no going back now.
Listen, we are always going to lose football matches - everyone does - but we will never do it by not being prepared.
I first met Eddie the night Iain King left the Scottish Sun and had a do in Glasgow.
Then he was Kingy’s guest at the Rangers game and I had two minutes of chat and invited him in for a cuppa at M and H.
I had heard a lot about this guy and I wanted to know what he was all about.
I’d marked down half an hour in my diary and three hours later, he was still showing me stuff on a flipchart about how he felt clubs should develop.
I loved that, we spoke about the philosophy of a football club, how we should behave, how our coaches should educate our young players.
Now I will be honest here. I don’t know if I could have met anyone else who could have convinced me like that.
That meeting ultimately saved us hours and days of time searching for the right man when Gary decided to leave. I decided he should be Director of Coaching.
Eddie didn’t tailor what he said to suit me, he’s too straight for that and I know that now.
EDDIE SIGNED A TWO AND A HALF YEAR CONTRACT, DO YOU THINK THAT ALL HE NEEDED WAS A CHANCE AFTER ACHIEVING SO MUCH IN THE WOMEN’S GAME AT GLASGOW CITY?
The biggest challenge Airdrieonians FC will have in the future is keeping hold of Eddie as we move forward.
I think that he is destined to go to the very top in football management but no-one was brave enough to give hm a chance.
The way he prepares and his attention to detail, the way he lives, sleeps, breathes and eats football will ensure that.
Someone will come in one day and take him away from us.
HOW WOULD YOU RATE YOUR PROGRESS IN YEAR ONE SO FAR?
This football club is still bleeding, all we have done so far is put Elastoplasts over some of the wounds.
Within weeks of coming in we were launching community programmes and it became clear that they wouldn’t be as successful as they should be without a first team product on the pitch.
I am not surprised by the finances, I always said that Year One was about legacy issues.
We had to learn what we had to fix and put the right foundations in.
We are at the moment still dealing with legacy issues and by the end of the season we will find the floor with costings.
There’s money that goes out of the club that doesn’t have to and against that there are people getting two bob and a balloon for doing a real job for us.
The stadium issue is huge but if we are smart the gap between losing money every season and breaking even can lessen.
YOU TOUCHED ON THE STADIUM ISSUE THERE, HOW HARD IS IT IS TO MAKE THAT RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN TENANT AND LANDLORD WORK?
Until such times as this football club has its own home it’s very difficult to build a community around Airdrieonians FC.
Circumstances mean the stadium company has one set of priorities and the club has others and never the twain shall meet.
We set out every year to limit the amount of money we spend and they set out to earn as much as they can.
The aims and the objectives of the two parties are so different even though we try hard to work together.
I want to buy the stadium, that’s a logical objective but the other party has to be willing to sell and that’s not even close to being on the table.
We just have to work within the situation we are in.
WAS IT A CONSCIOUS DECISION TO DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY FROM YOUR AVERAGE CHAIRMAN? YOU ARE MORE BROOKS MILESON THAN DAVE KING!
I just don’t believe in hiding, from the supporters’ Q and A at the start to now.
I sit in the stand at home games and then I go to the terracing for away games.
I don’t pick and choose the games, I was there with our punters on Friday night at Dunfermline when no-one expected us to win.
I do that because I like to know how people feel about what we are doing.
I like to take a temperature of how people are thinking and I’d love those internet detractors to come and tell me what is wrong with what we are doing to my face.
I have a guy on there talking about how he has had business dealings with me and he doesn’t think much of me.
I did a tongue in cheek column in the programme after I was called a clown on the internet. Looking back that was a waste of time, the guy who called me a clown probably wouldn’t spend £2 on a programme to help us!
AS A TEAM AT THE TOP OF THE CLUB THE THREE OF YOU SEEM TO GET EXASPERATED BY THE NEGATIVITY AT TIMES, WOULD THAT BE A FAIR REFLECTION?
Yes, I saw Hugo Faria taking stick after one game at Brechin and then I get my motives doubted because we signed a 32-year-old midfielder?
We see Hugo as a man who will bring on our younger players and help to educate them. He has already done that with the likes of Academy kids Lewis Gracie and Arran Ross on the training field. People don’t see that.
And look how well he played at Dunfermline on Friday night. He was immense and showed every inch why we brought him here.
Remember, I used to get asked every second day if Barry Ferguson was going to be our new manager.
Now, look, Barry is one of my muckers but so too are Kris Boyd, Bob Malcolm and Arthur Numan.
The day Kingy left the Scottish Sun we had a lunch with some sporting people and Walter Smith was there - let’s get him in as Airdrie boss!
Look, if people had bothered to even check they’d know Barry and I are at odds with everything to do with our thinking on football.
Then we do a community programme and get it launched and Barry is patron of the Heartfelt charity who brought it to us.
We got no praise for that one, Kingy took pelters for having Barry there. That frustrated me so much.
HAS THERE BEEN A KEY LESSON IN THE FIRST SIX MONTHS?
There’s been way more than one. Yet a key one was that I thought we could fly under the radar, sort the Academy and all the other elements and let Gary Bollan get on with the first team but it doesn’t work like that.
We then got accusations we didn’t care about the first team at this Club because we did that.
I learned personally that at a football club everyone has to have the same objectives for it to work.
Ours are clear and they are not complicated. I have consistently said there are two targets.
One, within three years we should have 60 per cent HOMEGROWN players, not youth players as I was subsequently harangued about and told we couldn’t field a team of kids next season. We don’t intend to.
Two, we should be competing in the Championship by the end of those three years.
Look right now we have five from the 20 first team players who are homegrown - Rohan Ferguson, Jamie Bain, Chris O’Neill, Liam Watt and Nicky Cadden - that’s 25 per cent.
Three years on is it such a big leap to say we can make that 60 per cent?
A THREE-YEAR CONTRACT AT RAVENSCRAIG AND A NEW FULL-TIME TRAINING HOME WAS GREAT NEWS IN THAT BBC ALBA INTERVIEW. HOW DID THE DEAL COME ABOUT?
We had a series of meetings with North Lanarkshire Leisure and it progressed from there but we kept it under wraps because every sports team is this region would want to be the professional team based there.
We had to make sure it was going to be us.
Ravenscraig is a dream for a League One club, full indoor facilities. This is the positive behind not having your own stadium because if we had it you couldn’t justify this move.
Truth is we pay the same as Joe Bloggs off the street to train at the stadium so we had to look at it and we got a deal that has taken us to one of the best training facilities in the country.
FOR PART-TIME CLUBS THE BATTLE TO MAKE ENDS MEET IS CONSTANT. WE HAVE A NEW THREE-YEAR KIT DEAL WITH UNDER ARMOUR, WHAT ARE THE REST OF THE PLANS ON THE COMMERCIAL FRONT?
The commercial side of the Club will become incredibly important. We need a new shirt sponsor, there is no point in it being M and H Logistics all the time.
We need to get the local business community onside and that can be difficult because not owning the stadium means you don’t get all the revenue for the advertising boards etc.
We need to be smarter cutting things out of the business and bringing things in.
HAS THERE EVER BEEN TIME IN THIS FIRST SIX MONTHS WHEN YOU WONDERED WHY YOU EVER DID THIS IN THE FIRST PLACE?
Friday at Dunfermline was the high point, if there was a low point then it was the day that we lost 3-0 at Somerset.
We got absolutely hammered by Ayr United that day, we looked out of our depth and I had a sore neck watching the game.
I was down and then on the Thursday night Alan Upton and the Academy guys had organised a Parents’ Night.
It took me 15 minutes to get to Kingy’s office because people were stopping me in the foyer at the Excelsior to say they loved our work. I liked that, it lifted me.
All the things that I think are important we are looking after right now.
YOU HAVEN’T HIDDEN FROM YOUR RANGERS ROOTS AS A FOOTBALL FAN, ARE YOU FIRST AND FOREMOST AN AIRDRIEONIANS SUPPORTER NOW?
Yes. The win at Dunfermline was the best feeling I have had in football. It topped the penalty shoot-out as a Rangers fan in Florence when the team made it through to the UEFA Cup Final.
Friday beat that. Why? I felt every emotion and I felt it was massive in every way for us to win that game. That’s how I feel about Airdrieonians now.
It meant more than us winning a game, it came on a day when we had got to the point of announcing we were going full-time.
So for me, for Kingy, for Eddie, for the fans, it meant more than just winning a game. Lots of guys round about me knew what it meant, it meant everything to me.
I have not done anything here as a PR stunt. I love going on the supporters’ bus to away games, I love being in the Airdrie end watching Jamie Bain’s mum shouting: “That’s ma son!” when he scored at Dunfermline. Homegrown player.
By and large the people we speak to have been so supportive of us and the consensus is we get more right than wrong.
Look, we will make mistakes but there is a plan now and there is one for the next three years.
While we are trying to make that plan work the kind of night we had at Dunfermline makes it all worthwhile.