New Livingston majority shareholder Gordon Ford is bracing himself for a rather bumpy ride as he aims to restore the trust that seems to have diminished between the club and its own supporters.
After acquiring a stake of 40 per cent from predecessor Neil Rankine, who severed his six-year involvement last week, Ford, a former deputy chief executive of West Lothian Council, says his utmost priority is to implement some much-needed stability to the club.
Despite last season’s Championship being attributed as the most captivating league in Scotland as Hearts outfought bitter rivals Hibs and Rangers to win promotion back to the top-flight as league champions, Livi were instead subjected to months of bad publicity that included two player registration embargoes, thousands of pounds in fines and a five-point deduction for tax irregularities – all which almost relegated the club to Scottish the third tier.
However, the SFA’s decision to lift the club’s transfer embargo this week has instilled some renewed positivity within the new regime, ardent Livi supporter Neil Hogarth, Graham Leslie and former chief executive Ged Nixon, making up the remaining 60 per cent stake in the club.
But, as Ford sat in the boardroom, with memorabilia of the club’s former glories surrounding him, he acknowledged just how far the club has fallen since the days when they were holding their own in the top flight.
“As a fan I want the club to have that stability again,” Ford said. “Livingston has had feast and famine. I’m fed up with all the lows so, as the major shareholder, I want to ensure the club operates within its means and I know the fans want that too. Let’s stay out of court and be on the back pages because we’ve performed really well. The club has a tradition of playing great football.
“I like this club... the town... the county and I want a successful professional football club in West Lothian and we want to be back up at the highest level, but it’s not going to be easy. We need to attract more fans and get their trust back. We’ve got a loyal amount but for all sorts of reasons people travel east and west on buses every Saturday. Do we have a product that can match what they’re going to? Well, we need to work harder on that and continue to play good football and have a winning team. I want to try and get the club onto a pretty firm foundation, try and clear the backlog of issues that we’re having to deal with but are still tied up with lawyers.
“And, I can assure you I wouldn’t be sitting here if Neil Rankine was pulling the strings here or anywhere. I’ve not had a problem with any of the directors, although they’ve had their own relationship problems. But Neil Rankine is gone, he couldn’t sell his shares for the money he wanted so I’ve acquired the shares. If I can now sell them off and put the money into the club then great.
“I would have thought the club would have moved on from the terrific ending we had to last season and perhaps become a serious promotion contender next season. But the signing ban and the delay in getting that lifted has just made things really difficult.
“We need to support the manager [Mark Burchill] in putting together a strong squad,” Ford continued. “There were things that had to be done [before the embargo was removed] but we had a good legal firm supporting the club. We had to convince the SFA, quite rightly, that the club was now run by fit and proper people. What you have with myself, and Neil Hogarth, who are fans first and foremost, is we’re committed to the club. We need to bring people onto the board who are like minded and who might be able to help with investment as well.”
It would appear that a fans’ trust and similar model to the one deployed at Hearts is Ford’s preference in taking the club forward. Having been instrumental in setting up the Livingston Youth Foundation with chairman Gordon McDougall in 2012, a position he hopes McDougall will retain when he returns from holiday in Panama at the end of this month, Ford says that he is keen to gauge the view from the already operationl Livi For Life Supporters’ Trust.
“I’m very keen to talk to fans about fan ownership,” he explained. “Directors come and go but when you’re a fan of a football club, that’s it for life. It would be good to gauge if there is an interest out there. What Ann Budge has done at Hearts is unbelievable. The Hearts supporters that are making a monthly payment to the club are fantastic and that’s something we maybe need to look at here. The more money we bring into the club, the more money the manager will have in the kitty to strengthen the squad.
“But I’m very open to other investors coming on board. We’ve spoken to people and there are people who are interested but we’ve got to convince people it’s a wise investment and that we’re not going to end up in court and what we had to put up with last season.
“We need change or we need to move on in another direction.
“We’re all volunteers and we’ve got a fan base out there who have a whole range of skills that could help the club and I would welcome them to help us. We’ve got great pride here.”
Ford has, for the time being, stepped aside from his dealings with the Almondvale Stadium Community Enterprise, a stadium management company that he hopes can, from the beginning of next season, agree a leasing contract with West Lothian Council that will enable an artificial surface to be installed at the Energy Assets Arena for the benefit of the football club and its surrounding communities.
“I think the stadium management company, what it can do for both the football club and the local community could be tremendous and that’s where I see my efforts being directed in the years ahead,” he said. “I was instrumental along with a few others in setting up the stadium management company, but I’ve stepped away from that just now because I don’t want anybody to say there is a conflict of interest between the stadium management company and the football club. The football club is the priority at the moment.
“My hope is that the stadium management board can start negotiations with the council on a lease. I would like to think by August next year, the stadium company will be running the stadium with the football club as one of the tenants and an artificial pitch having been installed. We’ve seen the model that North Lanarkshire employ at Broadwood [Clyde FC] and it’s outstanding. It’s a no brainer as far as I’m concerned.
“I commit to as open a communication channel as I can possibly do. Now that might start with the Trust, I certainly want to see the website carrying up-to-date information and build good relationships with the media, which I don’t think we’ve always enjoyed in the past because of certain issues. The fans all know there’s been a division between the directors and shareholders but that now has to stop. Directors in a football club don’t have to be great buddies, it’s not a social club. They need to at least be able to respect one another and if they’re not prepared to work together then we remove the people who are holding that up.”