When the Steelmen went into meltdown

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Motherwell’s dreams of the big time crashed in spectacular style 17 years ago, before a painful rebirth. Key figures look back.

By Andy Ross

The headlines painted a bleak picture: “Motherwell in turmoil”, “It’s hell at ’Well”, “Motherwell on the Brink”. Thursday, April 25, 2002 and Scottish football writers tried to explain the dire situation at Fir Park.

One day earlier at a press conference held in the Davie Cooper Suite inside the stadium, ’Well chairman John Boyle had announced that the club was seeking to gain a court order to put the club into interim administration as a result of serious financial problems at the club.

It was a far cry from the bravado and confidence emanating from Boyle following his purchase of the club in 1998. He quickly introduced a number of plans to entice punters through the gates at Fir Park – from reduced entry, kids go free, bring a friend, no initiative was off limits.

Boyle also had a vision of making Motherwell the “third force” in Scotland, acknowledging that while they would be unable to match the financial clout and strength in depth that Celtic or Rangers possessed, there was no reason why the club couldn’t be the next best thing.

To achieve his goals Boyle would splash the cash both on transfer fees and wages with big names such as John Spencer and Andy Goram signing for the Steelmen. It was bold, exciting and it would also lead to their eventual downfall.

Financial troubles within the Scottish game were rife after the collapse of the Sky television deal and plans for SPL TV had fallen by the wayside. Motherwell’s troubles were compounded after losing their main sponsor Motorola.

Scottish football fans had already seen the demise of Airdrie and Clydebank, now crippling debts were threatening the existence of a top-flight team.  After the press conference it was down to chief executive Pat Nevin to break the crushing news to the playing and non-playing staff that many were being made redundant.

“My least favourite phrase in football is ‘let’s go to the next level’ as that more often than not means spending more money,” Nevin said. “When John and his advisors started saying that financially it wasn’t working and they were thinking of administration, I told them that I thought it was ridiculous.

“I had been running things on budget for all that time and now they wanted to scrap it, get rid of all the people and get them back in on cheaper contracts. You’ve got to remember I’m a former PFA chairman, I’m a union man – I’m not going to do that to people.

“What I did was suggest three plans: the first was that we sell the players of value like we had previously with Lee McCulloch and Stevie McMillan. I could get the wage bill down considerably and we’d be back on an even keel quickly. If you have debts it’s because you wanted and accepted them. It was important to consider that everyone else was going through this too and having to reconstruct due to the changing finances within Scottish football.

“The final plan which I made very clear was I had a buyer. I told them if they wanted to get out they could, and there would be no need to go into administration or anything like that, we could go on. The potential buyer was keen to get involved, he was going to take over the club and be quite strict in the way he ran it, which was good for me and that’s where we stood.

“There was a meeting set up between the potential buyer and John. I wasn’t allowed into this and unfortunately they couldn’t come to an agreement. One day later they placed the club into administration. John desperately wanted mayself and Eric Black to stay on, to which I said there was no way if he was sacking people and not paying debts owed to local community people.

“John and the directors asked me to do the press conference and I said I’d do that but was going to tell the truth. After that they decided that it wasn’t such a good idea. What I did instead was a much more important thing and that was to go downstairs and have a meeting with all of the staff. I told them all I knew about the situation and that they didn’t deserve to be left in the dark.

“Some of the people had been there for decades. I emphasised that I wasn’t taking a penny from the situation and that I was walking as well. I couldn’t watch on as people lost their jobs and swan about continuing to pick up money.

“All the players were asking questions and I was explaining everything, absolutely openly and straight to their face. That was one of the few positives that came out of the situation that many of the players came up to me afterwards, thanked me for doing everything I could and fighting for them.”

Bryan Jackson was the administrator tasked with saving Motherwell FC. Having previously worked on the administration process at Clydebank, he would later go on to oversee the same process at the likes of Dundee, Dunfermline, Hearts and Portsmouth.

Motherwell would release 19 players, including 10 players who still had a year or more left on their deals with the Fir Park club, something Jackson maintains was essential to become “leaner, more cost-effective and more attractive to a new buyer”.
Reflecting on his arrival at the club Jackson describes just how bleak the situation was and denied any suggestion that administration could have been avoided.

“It felt really dark and I think it was a real shock to Scottish football – there have been casualties here and there, but this was the first top flight casualty,” he explained. “People mistakenly thought, maybe understandably, that as football clubs have a fanbase, a scenario like this couldn’t happen and that the next white knight would be just around the corner.

“Pat was away by the time I arrived, though I’m unsure as to how he reached the conclusion that administration could have been avoided.

“Scottish football got overheated, the television money came in, and the wages went up as teams chased the Holy Grail. Unfortunately the television money dropped but the wages didn’t, certainly not at the same rate.”

Former Bolton and Wigan defender Greg Strong found himself without a club after learning he would be one of the 19 players made redundant. At the time he was public in his condemnation of the way in which the process was handled. However, 17 years on he admits his stance has softened somewhat.

Strong would move on to Hull City shortly after learning of his redundancy and the English defender believes he was one of the lucky ones, pointing to examples of players who fell away from the game after their time at Fir Park came to a sudden end.

“It was devastating really, there were a lot of us who had committed to the club and the club had committed to us by offering the contracts they had,” Strong said. “When all of a sudden the rug is pulled from beneath your feet, it’s horrendous.

“I had just bought a house and had a mortgage – we had no time to prepare for what happened at all. I won’t speak badly of the club, time moves on, though on reflection I’m sure those involved will now know that things could and should have been handled much better. We were all put in different rooms with people who didn’t know us and just told what our fate was.

“I remember the drive home and having so many things in my mind, thinking that I would have to tell my wife that I no longer had a job. It was even horrible for those who stayed. To this day I’m very good friends with Martyn Corrigan and he found it difficult being one of the ones who stayed. It was just seeing so many of his friends and their families upset and thinking how can I just carry on?

“I’m not sure Karl Ready ever kicked a ball again. It’s sad as that’s ultimately ended a player’s career.”

In the immediate aftermath of administration, a group of shell-shocked supporters put the wheels in motion to aid the cause and help the club they love survive.

Matt Johnstone was one of a small group of fans who had been invited to form a steering group shortly before the club entered administration. They would have just one meeting before the direction of the group swiftly changed and the ‘Well Worth Saving’ campaign was born.

Johnstone produced the popular fanzine One Step Beyond. He was backed up by John Wilson, who continues to run fan website Fir Park Corner, and other prominent members of the Fir Park fanbase.

He admits it was only at the press conference announcing administration that he realised the possibility of such a chain of events had been discussed previously – it was now down to ’Well Worth Saving to explain the situation to the fans.

“We had a meeting in the boardroom before administration where we were basically a sounding board for their ideas. The club was beginning to alienate supporters and the fans in turn were walking away in their droves,” Johnstone recalled.

“We represented a large chunk of the fanbase and knew the reaction that ideas would get. I think we had one meeting, but before we had the chance to get anything going, administration was put on everybody. As we already had that group in place, ’Well Worth Saving was basically already up and running.

“Keith Brown [a ’Well Worth Saving spokesperson] phoned me in the morning and explained we’d been invited up to the press conference, which was taking place at lunchtime inside Fir Park.

“We were just sitting there totally gobsmacked. We didn’t really understand what administration meant – it was a large step into the unknown. The press conference helped give us more information. We couldn’t go on what the papers were saying – they all had us liquidated.

“Keith reminded me that during the meeting in the boardroom one of the financial guys mentioned administration, which nobody else picked up on. As far as we were concerned he was just talking in business terms, though the plans were in place for administration before we even met with John Boyle and the board.

“After that we got our heads together and to work on getting some funds raised. It was at the forefront of our minds that the club might not survive, the fear that the club might disappear was there for us as much as it was everyone else.

“We were still responsible for explaining it all to the ordinary supporter, as not everyone had the access to the board that we did. We were able to put it in layman’s terms and get the message across that this didn’t have to be the end.

“The amount of money that John Boyle was spending just wasn’t sustainable and if he had kept on going like that it could have easily folded the club.

“We witnessed the players in tears and pointing fingers at directors, telling them they should be ashamed. Our main focus was Motherwell Football Club. You had Greg Strong slaughtering us in the papers but then walking into a contract at Hull City on more than he earned at Fir Park.

“It came to a point where although you felt sorry for some of the lower earners who were likely to struggle to find a club, it was the players earning the big wages that got all the attention.

“You begin to think, wait a minute here, I know what you are on, you weren’t complaining when it was offered to you and you weren’t good enough to be getting it – it became apparent how much overspend there had been on a very average squad.

“The priority was the football club, rather than the individual players and if they had to take these actions then that was something as a group we were going to support.

“Our focus was on raising money to keep the club ticking over and seeing the season through. We helped pay the wages of those who were left for the last few games of the season and help see the club through the summer –we left it for others to point fingers.”

The next job for Jackson was tackling the spiralling debts accumulated over years of overspending at Fir Park and ensuring the existence of the football club established in 1886.

He admits he had to show a ruthless side when it came to redundancies and his actions brought significant backlash from many of those who lost their jobs.

“Motherwell had a huge squad on very high wages – their wage bill was 130% of their turnover,” he explained. “What happens in administration is that you have to self-generate and it has to be pound in and pound out in order to keep the doors open.

“The second option is that you close down; the club goes into liquidation and dies, basically. I couldn’t get the doors open with the wage bill as it was and it certainly wouldn’t be attractive to any potential buyer at those levels. We had to make absolutely brutal savings – there was no other option.

“There was a huge amount of anger; this was unprecedented in the scale of it. A lot of the anger was directed at me personally, but I understand that and that’s part and parcel of the job.”

The hostility building towards Motherwell wasn’t just confined to the players and staff made redundant following administration.

After finishing bottom of the table at the end of the 2002/03 campaign the club faced another battle, this time for their top flight safety. It looked like the Steelmen’s run of 17 successive seasons in the top flight was over, though Falkirk’s failure to fulfil stadium requirements meant ’Well were given a stay of execution.

Ahead of the 2003/04 season Alex Burns and Stephen Craigan both joined on free transfers, prompting outrage from their former club Thistle and in particular Jags chief executive Alan Dick.

“There were some clubs and some people and there was some support from clubs and less from others,” he reflected. “Overall I felt we were a nice, well liked club, if there is such a thing.

“As time went on the hostility began to grow, partly because clubs like Thistle, who had done their own unofficial administration with the Save The Jags campaign, felt we’d cheated and taken an easy route.

“Both players were out of contract and free to go. I understood why they were angry and they were quite personal towards me – I was fairly thick skinned and took it on the chin.”

As time went on, it became clear to Jackson that his hopes for a buyer for the Steelmen were becoming slimmer by the day.

He did have a backup plan though. Motherwell, under the guidance of Terry Butcher, were giving youngsters a chance and the likes of James McFadden and Stephen Pearson were flourishing.

It wasn’t long before both players were attracting interest from a host of clubs both home and abroad – suddenly Jackson saw another route.

Ultimately, McFadden would swap Fir Park for Goodison Park, joining Everton for £1.25 million – a deal that Jackson believes saved Motherwell Football Club.

“I expected a club like Motherwell to find a buyer quite easily and perhaps that was my own naivety. It wasn’t expensive to buy it and it is a really nice community club that has always brought great players through,” he said. “There were plenty of rumours of potential buyers. I have to tell you that all of those stories were all exactly that and that’s backed up by the fact we got to the end of year one and there was no buyer.

“By then I was grasping at any option. At one point myself and Terry [Butcher] were pondering whether we could get a consortium together. He felt we would work really well together, but I told him that we’d fall out.

“Terry would be wanting a new forward or centre half and as a football fan I’d want to give him that, though financially it wouldn’t be possible and it would have caused a falling out.

“I began to see a different route; if we could sell players for enough money then we could do a deal with the creditors. James McFadden and Stephen Pearson were coming through and I thought if we could sell those players for a certain amount of money, then there was a deal to be done.

“There was a bid of £300,000 from Craig Brown, who was the manager of Preston at the time. I don’t blame him, he was only trying to do the best for his club, but I think it was derisory. I replied in writing and my response was I’d have to reject the offer and added: did you miss a zero?

“I was on a beach on the Maldives and it was coming up to the end of the transfer window. We’d started negotiations before I left and John [Boyle] was involved in the deal and did a good job.

“John isn’t a successful businessman for no reason, he’s fairly hardnosed. The bidding started at £500,000 as one lump sum and that was going to do it for us. We got them up to £750,000 and I thought if we could get them up to a million then we could do a deal with the creditors.

“James was ready to go at that time and take the step up – we didn’t want a disgruntled player and I was also mindful of what would happen if James was to pick up an injury.

“There was no escaping the fact this was a distress sale – we were in administration. John got it up to a million and continued to push on. We ended up at £1.25 million and he was still negotiating for more but I eventually managed to get him agree to take the bird in the hand.”

On April 21, 2004 the news arrived that Motherwell fans had been desperate to hear: the club had come out of interim administration to end a two-year chapter of uncertainty. The work of Jackson, ‘Well Worth Saving and all involved with Motherwell had saved the football club.

In the years that followed, John Boyle would return to the role of chairman, before handing over his shares to the club’s supporters in 2011.

Today Motherwell are the only fan owned club in the Scottish Premiership and in November 2019 announced debts owed to former owners John Boyle and Les Hutchison had been paid back in full.

“When I tend to get these jobs, I say it feels like it’s 50/50 as to whether you can get it over the line and I felt that at Motherwell, though it was always a confident 50/50,” said Jackson when contemplating his time at Fir Park. “My subsequent jobs I never felt that way at all for a number of different types of reasons.

“There was a feeling that the fans would not allow the club to die in any type of way, there was a community spirit there and a real optimism that we would find a way. I was confident the club would go on to do well, had a good set of players and that was a nice feeling.

“Everyone deserves credit for what they contributed, to get it over the line John Boyle waived a massive part of the debt owed to him so that the dividend could be paid to the creditors and that was absolutely huge.

“Part of my heart is still with Motherwell, you can’t be involved in such a process with the club and that not be the case –  part of me will always be there.”

Article featured in Nutmeg 14 – Available now HERE

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