Cowdenbeath’s Secretary, David Allan admits last season was a mixture of emotions, with the Fife club managing to stave off the threat of relegation to the Lowland League thanks to Liam Henderson’s successful penalty in a tense shoot-out against East Kilbride.
Allan, 60, has been a supporter for 50 years but got involved officially with the club a handful of years ago.
“In my working life, I worked with a bank where I rose to quite a high position. I was just a fan of Cowdenbeath – although I had been co-programme editor since 1992 – until Gordon McDougall left, in 2008. The club were bought by property developers but Gordon fell out with them. When he left, they needed some local people to become directors as they had no interest in football and didn’t know anything about the local community either. I refused twice,” explains Allan, “but I was persuaded that the club needed people there, at least on match days. I came on board and while we initially weren’t running the club, we were doing the match day stuff – liaising with clubs and such like.”
“In 2010, after the property crash came along,” continues Allan, “the property deal was then not going to go ahead. That is when I got involved with a “Save Cowdenbeath Football Club” movement. One of the things we did with that, was, to get prominent fans to come on board as the owners didn’t want to be on the board at all now; they would give the club to the fans, and we would need to pay them a rent as they were going to change the ownership of the ground to the Stock Car company, and reverse the situation.”
After managing to secure the services of Donald Findlay QC, the club managed to stabilise and build its way up to the Championship. However, it has found itself in a downwards spiral over recent years, with the prospect of playing Lowland League having become a real possibility over the last couple of months.
“It has been a bit of a more depressing time. If you are getting beat, season after season, it isn’t very exciting – certainly not as much fun as when you are winning promotion and playing in the Championship! Things were more positive then – it became increasingly hard work. When I first got involved in 2008 there were still legacy funds from the Stock Car days. The club, when they were sold to the new owners, had a six-figure sum in the bank and that is what helped Danny Lennon’s team get promoted. We were able to pay decent wages – we had good players, such as Darren McGregor, Joe Mbu and Gareth Wardlaw. We won promotion from, what is now, League Two then League One via the play-offs into the Championship. For a club of Cowdenbeath’s size, that was some feat. We then went down, but bounced straight back up as champions after keeping the nucleus of that squad. We also managed to sign other decent players such as Greg Stewart; Thomas O’Brien came through the youths, Kane Hemmings too. We managed to build a team and it stuck together for a few years. We were always up against it in the Championship, eventually coming up against Hibs, Hearts and Rangers. As a part-time team, we were mainly competing for the relegation spots with the other part-time teams, realistically. When you are competing for signatures against big full-time clubs, the players expect to be paid and you need to pay good wages – it was a bit more than what we were paying, for example, in League Two! When we won the play-off at East End Park against Dunfermline, I think that was the peak for the club…within a year, Greg Stewart, Kane Hemmings, Nat Wedderburn – all these guys had gone. We couldn’t replace these players with the same or better standard. We had a very unusually talented group of players at that time that we just couldn’t readily replace.”
After back-to-back relegations, Liam Fox was brought in as manager at the beginning of the 2016/17 season.
“The chairman is an ambitious person – he isn’t one for coasting along. His determination was to win the league straight away. My own view was that we’d had a lot of change, rebuilding to an extent, but we would compete for a place in the play-offs. We probably had a side good enough to do that, on paper, but, it never happened. We achieved the fourth goal we set last season: we didn’t win the league; we didn’t make the play-offs; we didn’t avoid the relegation play-off but we did stay up! In the end, it didn’t work out for us, or for Liam [Fox]. We needed to change manager and while you get lots of applicants, it is usually people who have done well on Football Manager or unproven guys or maybe people who have been on a losing streak. You don’t always get that strong an array of talent to look at, so, you tend to go and approach people. We had spoken to someone about becoming manager but at the same time, we had spoken to Craig Levein at Hearts. He suggested Liam, who Hearts would release to take the post in part for his own development, to be our manager. We got help with some loan signings too. I think the problem for Liam was, this was another season of wholesale change and again we didn’t have a lot of continuity. He had a massive slice of bad luck – our two most experienced players, Kenny Adamson didn’t play a single game due to a back injury, while Dean Brett had well publicised problems with gambling and his Twitter account so we had to part company with him. Then you look at the players we signed on 2-year deals: David McGurn who did a good job for us but we also had Craig Sives and Chris Turner, who were meant to be key leaders on the park. Craig found it difficult to adjust to part-time and his work commitments made it difficult for him and he gave up the game, while Chris Turner…it just didn’t work out, shall we say and we had to buy him out of his contract, if you like. When you have all these issues to deal with and when they are all your senior players, it was a difficult situation for Liam to be in. In hindsight, he maybe needed a more experienced old-pro beside him in the dugout, to give him a different perspective and a sounding board.”
When Fox left the club, Cowdenbeath moved quickly and gained the services of Gary Locke, who had recently parted company with local rivals, Raith Rovers.
“Fans think you send an advert out, get 46 applicants and you whittle it down and interview five of them. That is very rarely what happens – you may get one or two who you decide you want to speak to but generally, you know who you’d like. You have contacts in the game who you speak to and I don’t know who it was but someone suggested Gary to Donald Findlay and we got him in for an interview. There were three of us there – myself, Donald and another director Tom Ewing. It was a Thursday night and we knew his track record from his previous clubs – you do look at those things and question it. “What did go wrong there?”. But, to be fair to him, he came across really well and I was really impressed with Gary. He was very honest: he gave a clear view of what he felt had happened before. I felt he was the right man for the job, straight away. He gave me confidence. At the interview stage, he already had plans afoot – he already wanted Billy Brown in as his Assistant along with Neil Irvine, who we knew as a very committed Cowdenbeath captain of yesteryear.”
The realities which faced Cowdenbeath were difficult to imagine, with a potential of the budget being halved if defeat to East Kilbride was to occur.
“Being the finance director, you always have to look ahead. You have to complete your accounts for the year-end by February, for Companies House. One of the things we have to do, due to the ‘going concern’ aspect, is to produce cash flow estimates for the accountants and auditors to be satisfied that we will be suitably able to trade for another year. In February, it was either going to be League Two or the Lowland League, that we were going to be in. When you look at the nitty-gritty, you query “how much is it to get into a Lowland League game?”…not very much! “how much is it for a season ticket in the Lowland League?”..neither of the cashflows were particularly strong, to be honest; League Two, isn’t the most lucrative league for us. For example, when we were in League One, games against Dunfermline gave us 50% of our league income. Last season, our gate income was probably 30% of what it was the year before. But if we had gone into the Lowland League, it’d probably be half of that. It was a pretty dismal financial picture. There are other factors on top of that, too, however. The Fife Elite Football Academy is a heavy investment for us. With that, things are now impacted by Project Brave so we are discussing that with the SFA.”
Allan added, “Donald Findlay – at the AGM (which was held the week before the East Kilbride play-off second leg) – gave a very downbeat message because he was personally distraught. If he carried this team into the Lowland League, he wasn’t sure he could carry on. If Donald and his leadership wasn’t there, it’d make it more difficult for us to carry on, in the sense that we would need to try and quickly re-group and move forward. Donald would have felt as if he had failed, that is the bottom line – he is a man of honour. The real outlook wasn’t as stark as that [that there wouldn’t be a club anymore] however, with a severely trimmed back cash flow, to compete and bounce back straight away in the Lowland League would have been a challenge.”
It was on-loan Falkirk kid Liam Henderson who fired the Central Park club to safety, after slotting his penalty home in the penalty-shoot against East Kilbride. A defining kick in Cowdenbeath’s history.
“Going to East Kilbride in the first leg – it had a very strange feeling about it. They only have one small stand that holds 500 and some mesh fencing around the perimeter of the ground. It also has a plastic pitch. It is a very unusual environment – it didn’t feel like the normal match day experience. You then also have to contemplate that you are coming up against a team who, for the last two years, have been totally focused on building a team to get promotion. We go there, get a draw after missing a penalty right at the end and I went away with a splitting headache due to the tension. There was a good home support, at the second leg. We went at them from the start and we scored early. We missed 3 or 4 good chances and we could’ve been out of sight. Then, the game became tense. I didn’t feel as if East Kilbride were going to score, but then they did. We got to a penalty shoot-out and every Cowdenbeath fan must’ve went “oh no!”. We had missed our last 5 penalties in a row, the last 6 from 7. There was a huge tension amongst the home fans and I felt that myself. [After Liam Henderson’s winning penalty] only then did I realise how much it actually meant to me. I was celebrating with my fellow director, John Cameron, and we were dancing about like idiots. The SPFL had a board and a flag you could celebrate on the pitch and in the dressing room with…but we didn’t want that. It was nothing to be proud of, just staying up. We would be embarrassed to hold that up. We didn’t want it – what we did do in the closing weeks of the campaign though was a job well done. We – the board, the players, the management and the fans – had all achieved something together. It maybe isn’t the greatest achievement in the overall football world, but we did it by pulling together. Myself, and I know Donald too, felt really emotional about that fact.”
“Club135 is an idea the chairman came up with. It was last year it was proposed but it has taken a bit of time to come to fruition. We are in the launch phase at the moment. The “135” part is in reference to the 135 or so years the club has been in existence. It is still a “Save Cowdenbeath FC” message, to an extent. We no longer have money coming in from the Stock Cars, the impact of that on us is we are £70,000 a year adverse now. We pay rent the other way, we cannot lease out the ground for other events such as the weekly market…a lot of other clubs, that we compete with and own their own grounds, have got long established hospitality suites and facilities – we can’t easily do that, whereas, if you go to Forfar or Alloa for example, their hospitality is booked out season after season. The reason we don’t have it is that it wasn’t needed under Gordon McDougall as we had the Stock Cars and that made up that monetary deficit. It is difficult now, to get a lot of local businesses involved as there aren’t that many home-owned businesses anymore. You are competing against more glamorous teams such as Dunfermline, Hibs, Hearts, Rangers…so, the main aim of Club135 is to try and raise £135,000 for the club which will give the club a stable base for its future operations. Years ago, Cowdenbeath would have an overdraft from the bank for when your cashflow got tight, but you don’t get that anymore. We have raised around £7,000 so far but we are only in the very initial stages of promoting it and we will be getting the message out there much more over the coming months via our online channels. This will hopefully allow us to attract people who maybe cannot make or do not like football but have affiliations with the club or the town and would like to make a donation. It is in its infancy, but it is a good start.”
With the new season nearly upon us, the Board of Directors at Cowdenbeath are optimistic for the year ahead.
“I think that game, that penalty, that kick, was a defining moment. It was “do or die”, almost. I think then, a lot of people saw the reality that the club might not be in the SPFL any longer. Since then, I feel there has been a coming together of supporters and club, we have united to make sure that this scenario is to never repeat itself. Promotion is of course our aim for next season. As I said before, Donald Findlay never settles for being second best and that will continue to drive the club forward. We ended the season really well; in the 10 or so weeks Gary was in, he installed a new found confidence amongst players and supporters. We only lost, I think, 3 of our last 13 matches – he changed our fortunes about instantly. After the East Kilbride game, we all took a few days away from it all but when we sat down with Gary, he didn’t have anything else immediately on the table and he had enjoyed his spell here. He was happy to stay and we are delighted to have him for the upcoming season.”