Man who saved Hearts writes play on ‘insanity of Scottish football’

Administrator Bryan Jackson giving updates on the financial situation at various football clubs has become a common sight. Picture: Jeff Holmes/SNS
Administrator Bryan Jackson giving updates on the financial situation at various football clubs has become a common sight. Picture: Jeff Holmes/SNS
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When the observation is put to him that he is among the most influential people in Scottish football over the last 20 years, if not the most influential, Bryan Jackson coughs, splutters, then accepts the compliment with good grace.

Put it this way, without his head for figures and ability to put the frighteners on supporters, this weekend’s fixture card would be robbed of some grand old names. The Scottish football landscape would likely look a lot different.

Heart of Midlothian v Partick Thistle would not be half as romantic-sounding because of the former’s demise. There might be no Motherwell, no Dundee, no Dunfermline. Clyde would be mourned like Third Lanark.

As a financial Red Adair, Jackson is a chief reason why all these clubs, and their fans, continue to harbour ambitions for the future after near-death experiences. An accountant, he does issue a reminder that in each case he was acting on behalf of creditors. But their interests were always best served by the continued existence of the club that owed the debt. Hence Jackson’s determination to keep them plugged into life support machines, despite encountering some bleak situations. Perhaps the direst, he says, was Hearts.

“There was £7,000 in the bank, £2 million of season ticket sales for a season that hadn’t started sold and the money all gone to pay prior debt,” recalls Jackson. “There was a month’s arrears of wages to players and non-players and no games because it was close season.”

As often happens, from misery has sprung art. Jackson, who is now a consultant at Johnston Carmichael, has taken advantage of his new semi-retired status to write a play based on his experiences in Scottish football, called The Pieman Cometh.

Despite Jackson’s links to Hearts, this is not a reference to Chris Robinson, the catering magnate who, during his time in charge of the Gorgie club, struck a deal to sell Tynecastle for housing. On day one of a job – he won’t say where – one colleague turned to Jackson, amid general financial ruin, and asked: “But what about the pies?” There was an ongoing pie supply issue.

“I said ‘listen, I don’t even know if we’ll be around in a few weeks!’” recalls Jackson. “So I was muddling along, forgetting about the pies. I then get an email from the same colleague that said: ‘the pie situation has come to a head’. And I thought: what a great title for a play.”

Written in conjunction with journalist David Belcher, who advised a slight re-working of the title, The Pieman Cometh begins a four-night run tonight at Oran Mor as part of the Glasgow International Comedy festival.

Jackson, 61, is keen to stress his play is dark comedy. It has to be when the subject involves him having to make people redundant.

“It’s about the insanity of Scottish football, good and bad,” he says. “Also I was trying to put out the message that it’s all very well I worked at seven clubs [including English club Portsmouth] and seven were saved. But people very quickly forget about the jobs that were lost, the creditors who did not get their dividend, and the knock-on effect for other jobs. People forget about the seriousness of it.”

Jobs were lost, regrettably, but clubs, and many people’s way of life, survived. It’s why Jackson merits being described as the most important man in Scottish football this millennium. “That’s a really nice thing to say,” he replies. “Quite frankly, I’ve never sat back and thought about it that way. I suppose, yes, I have been if I think about it, in some respects. These clubs are part of the establishment, part of society. I am delighted I got them over the line. I do feel part of Scottish football to an extent.”

Jackson never played professionally. However, he facilitated keeping the doors open at clubs so, he says, “other guys can go out and show their skills and keep the fans happy”. But that’s the thing. Supporters are not always happy, even following back-from-the-brink experiences. Fans quickly forget the pain and focus on success, to hang with the cost. “Dundee’s situation is a great example of fans’ aspirations,” he says. “How can they possibly be in debt again? The club was bought by fans because all the white knights had disappeared.

“The last four or five clubs I did were all bought by fans because no one else will buy clubs now, unless of course it is the wealthy people who want their toys, which ends up being the demise of the club when they get tired of it. When fans buy the club at least you know their agenda. When someone has never been involved with a club, what’s their agenda?”

Only Vladimir Romanov can answer that, wherever he is. “If I was being honest, I would say what he did was an absolute disgrace,” answers Jackson, who never met the former Hearts owner.

“He had no regard for the fact his actions nearly caused the extinction of a club with a heritage and nor did he care about the people there, the fans or the jobs or the players.”

The normally simple question – so what score do you look for first? – is a complicated one in Jackson’s case.

He grew up a Morton supporter because of his grandfather. When a friend signed for Celtic on an S-form he started to follow them. He still does, if he had to choose. However, his experiences over the last 20 years means he spreads his love around.

He looks out, in no particular order, for the results of Hearts, Dundee, Dunfermline, Clyde and Clydebank, the first club he ‘saved’ and who are now preparing for a return to senior football. If pressed, his deepest association is to Motherwell, where he stayed for two years. He would be happy to offer free consultation to Cowdenbeath, the latest Scottish club to fear the reaper’s scythe.

It’s particularly awkward when teams with whom he has forged a connection through adversity play each other, as often happens. Shortly after he started at Hearts, there was a benefit game v Dunfermline. He emerged into the directors’ box to be presented with a dilemma. On which side should he sit?

“I walked down the steps and sat on the steps in the middle,” he recalled. “Eventually I sat on the Dunfermline side since they were home team, and I was appointed there first!”

The Pieman Cometh: A Cautionary Football Tale is at Oran Mor in Glasgow, starting tonight for four nights to 21 March. Tickets from venue or 0844 8737353.