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Up in the Ayr!

by James Proctor

If you exclusively read the mainstream media then you'd think that it was every fans dream to have their club owned by a millionaire builder and property developer who was actually a supporter of the team. This is reported across the country as the ownership model of choice for your average fan, apparently. And yet as so many of us know, with only a few notable exceptions, the reality rarely lives up dream. James Proctor takes a look at the fortunes of Ayr United and finds that life after the sugar daddy can be a struggle.

It's one of the curiosities of football that the man whose company built new stands and stadia all across the United Kingdom was never able to provide the same facilities for the very club he chaired. Bill Barr's chairmanship of Ayr United coincided with an upturn in the playing fortunes of the team, especially in cup competitions, but it's questionable if the infrastructure was put in place to allow the club to build a base and become successful once he was gone.

The saga of Ayr's stadium started with the Taylor report and creation of the Scottish Premier League. As with all ambitious provincial clubs it was clear that in order to progress to the highest echelon the club would have to have a stadium with 10,000 covered seats. Somerset Park is a neat and tidy football ground but one which needed serious upgrading if it was to satisfy the requirements of the brave new world of Scottish Football.

In conjunction with the local council a site was identified and planning permission sought for the new stadium. However the addition of a retail park, which the club wanted in order to provide an additional revenue stream, complicated matters and led to the development being called in by the Scottish Office. After many months and years of to-ing and fro-ing the plan was finally rejected and Ayr were left back where they had started, with a ground that barred them from promotion to the SPL but now with a chairman who was ever closer to retirement.

It could be argued that this decision was a fork in the road for the fortunes of the club. If one path led to a new stadium capable of opening up new opportunities, the other path led to an uncertain playing future but at least without the risks of a major building project.

However on closer inspection it's hard to get away from the feeling that the club has been left with the worst of both worlds; no shiny new stadium but a financial crunch to knock the stuffing out of even the most committed fan.

As the stadium issue was coming to a conclusion it was also becoming clear that Bill Barr would, at some point in the future, no longer be in charge of the club. Indeed it was generally thought that the club was an effective subsidiary of Barr Holdings and may well be seen as surplus to requirements at any reorganisation of the company.

Around this time The Honest Men Trust formed in order to give the fans the organisation they required should the handover to 'whoever' become drawn out and complicated. As it was only a few months later the club was indeed sold and Donald Cameron, who already sat on the board, was announced as the new owner with over 80% of the issued shares.

Unfortunately with Mr Cameron living in the United States the initial positive energy surrounding the takeover was injected with a harsh note of realism; How would the club make progress with the majority shareholder overseas?

A difficult season in the 1st Division ended with relegation to the 2nd, and the problems didn't end there. Amid talk of major cash flow problems and a poor start to the playing campaign, the situation in the boardroom became ever more complicated. Various directors resigned and Roy Kennedy, a former employee of Barr Holdings and director of the club, threw his hat into the ring and declared his intention to make a bid for the club.

The trust formed a joint partnership company with Kennedy called Ayr 2010 Ltd in a move similar to that which brought Clyde FC into supporters hands, however the formative bid to Cameron didn't get past the initial enquiry.

As we now arrive at the close season the event that caused the formation of the trust has come to pass, but is no nearer to a conclusion. The ownership of the club did indeed pass from Barr Holdings but with Donald Cameron recently intimating a willingness to see the club sold on again there seems to be little stability at the club and the situation has yet to resolve itself into a long term solution.

Therefore it looks like the next season will start in much the same fashion as the last. Talk is of a playing budget which is being further reduced and of course there are still no plans to either redevelop Somerset Park or to move to a new all-seated ground albeit that the SPL rules now allow for a more reasonable 6,000 capacity. And now everyone is a little bit older and a little bit wiser.

Ayr's situation is illustrative of what seems to be a very Scottish approach to crisis. The impetus and drive that normally occurs when a club is close to collapse doesn't really happen in Scotland. Instead we have a drawn out, seemingly endless battle as provincial clubs struggle to come to terms with the harsh financial realities in the game today. This is compounded by general decline in the standard of football and inevitably a reduction in the paying audience. All in all it's a vicious downward spiral and one which is very difficult to reign in.

However this is counterbalanced by the passion and drive that makes up the core support of any club. It is this determination that all trusts need to harness in order to create the plans that are necessary to help move football clubs forward.

Within days of the collapse of Ayr 2010 Ltd, the Society Board of The Honest Men Trust were asked to attend a meeting with the board of AUFC, where they were asked if the Trust wanted to sit on 'new committees' of the club. Following a positive response from the members at a convened meeting, there will now be an 'ordinary' Ayr United fan, discussing solutions, alongside directors of the club, over a full range of responsibilities.

Time will tell if this is the spur that can put the club on an even keel after the loss of the individual benefactor. Just don't expect it to happen overnight.

This article originally appeared in Supporters Direct in June 2005.


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