We’ll Support You Evermore

Supporting a football club is an inherently irrational decision which is more about emotional attachment than solid logic.  Many of us follow our sides across the country week after week, regardless of how the team is performing on the pitch.  Against all logic, we make long journeys to watch run-of-the-mill league games, even if form suggests a victory is unlikely.  Supporters of most clubs will endure far more bad days than they will good ones, but it’s the great ones that make it worth it.

For most, that support is unconditional – they’ll support the team regardless of what happens on or off the pitch.  But many clubs take advantage of this blind loyalty, taking their supporters for granted when making decisions and hoping that people will keep coming back regardless of how they are treated.  Clubs do occasionally listen to their supporters – the Rangers newco vote in the summer of 2012 would be the most obvious example of that – but more often than not, decisions are taken from a business perspective without consideration of the impact on fans.

But surely there still has to be a breaking point?  What if your star centre-forward is outed as a racist?  Can you still support him?  What if your club sign a convicted rapist or killer?  Would you still back them?  What if your club was bought by an exiled despot who had allegedly ordered the murder of thousands of people?  Could you continue to support that team?  The logical answer is “No, of course not”, yet each of these things has happened at British clubs in the last few years and there seemed to be little appreciable difference in the level of support.

Presumably supporters were concerned by these incidents, but decided that it wasn’t enough to stop them going along to see their team.  You often hear comments along the lines of “players/managers/chairmen come and go, but I’ll still be here supporting the club after they’re long gone”.  At some point, though, constant unpopular decisions will affect a club’s level of support.  Crowds may not instantly be affected, but slowly year on year people will drift away, and the club may be less likely to attract new fans.  At that stage, the remaining supporters may have to re-evaluate their position and ask themselves if their continued support is actually doing damage to the club in the long-term?

This very question has tortured me over the summer.  I’m a Killie fan, and over the last few years the club’s chairman Michael Johnston has made a number of unpopular decisions which have alienated supporters.  It’s also becoming increasingly apparent that he has alienated local businesses, to the extent that a group of them are involved in a bid to oust him from the club.  His reign hasn’t been all bad – the club’s debt has decreased by around £3m since he took over in 2005, although it should be noted that this has primarily been via the sale of assets.  Over the last couple of years I’ve tolerated his unpopular decisions and have continued to buy my season ticket at Rugby Park, but recent incidents have brought it all into focus a bit more for me.

While there have been numerous minor irritations during Johnston’s tenure, the first major issue for me came on the final day of the 2010/11 season.  Killie had enjoyed a very successful season with the management team of Mixu Paatelainen and Kenny Shiels and made it into the top 6 of the SPL.  The final game of the season saw Killie hosting a Rangers side who required a win to secure a third consecutive league title.  With Rugby Park holding over 18,000 people, and with Killie’s average home support that season being in the region of 5,000, it was clear that there was a huge risk of Rangers fans getting a hold of tickets for the home end.  Rather than introducing security measures to discourage away fans from buying home end tickets, Johnston appeared to tacitly encourage it.

The outcome, as you can imagine, was chaos in the Killie end.  Thousands of Rangers fans gained access to the home sections of the stadium, and openly celebrated goals as their side won 5-1 against a Killie side who had run out of steam.  I personally had a Rangers fan sitting next to me, and he challenged me to a fight for having the audacity to tell him to sit down when he jumped up to celebrate his side’s opening goal.  Johnston endangered the safety of every Killie fan inside the stadium that day, and if Killie had taken a point or more from that game, things could have ended up a lot worse than they did.

Many supporters contacted the club expressing their disappointment at how things had been handled, but to the best of my knowledge not one of them received a response.  I certainly didn’t.  Johnston didn’t even apologise for what had happened, and even had the brass neck to blame the situation on season ticket holders selling their vouchers to Rangers fans.  Unless the club suddenly acquired extra thousands of season ticket holders, that blatantly wasn’t the case.  But in spite of the chairman endangering our support then attempting to absolve himself of all blame, I still purchased a season ticket for the next year.

A year later, there was yet more controversy, this time surrounding the club’s position on the Rangers newco vote.  Johnston had clearly positioned himself as being in favour of allowing the newco into the SPL assuming a number of compromises were made, which again was unpopular with the Killie support.  Again, he ignored correspondence from supporters, though he did turn up to an open meeting of the supporters’ association open meeting where he attempted to justify his position in terms of his “fiduciary duty” to look after the club’s employees.

Over the summer, it became clear that the majority of SPL clubs would be voting against the newco proposals, and at this point Johnston decided to consult the supporters, sending out a survey to the club’s “stakeholders”, which included season ticket holders and shareholders.  When the vote was held, 10 SPL clubs voted against the newco entering, but Johnston abstained.  He would later attempt to justify this decision by claiming that just 36% of supporters consulted voted “No”.  The wording of this statement suggested to me that the 36% referred to all surveys sent out (whether returned or not), rather than that 36% of those who responded to the survey.  For the second consecutive season, he was happy to absolve himself of “blame” by pointing the finger at the club’s support.  And yet, for the second season in a row, I decided to buy a season ticket against my better judgement.

The 2012/13 season more or less passed without incident, but at the end of the season, Johnston made the decision to sack Kenny Shiels.  Shiels had been in charge of the club for just over two years, and had guided his side to League Cup success in 2011/12.  Last season was a disappointing one – we threw away a top six spot by picking up just one point from two games at home to the bottom sides in the league, coupled by a last minute goal Dundee Utd goal, and we self-destructed in a Scottish Cup quarter-final at home to Hibs.  After being consigned to the bottom six, Shiels decided to introduce a number of young players to the side, and results suffered as Killie slumped to 9th.  Nonetheless, he had the vast majority of the support behind him, and fans were excited about the young talent he was bringing into the side.

Johnston’s decision to dismiss Shiels was met with widespread shock, and was made worse by the undigified way he carried out the sacking.  The whole thing was carried out via the newspapers, with Shiels being made to wait a week before learning his fate.  Johnston attempted to justify his decision by citing the club’s poor league performance, Shiels’ disciplinary record, and, ludicrously, the fact that he had introduced too many young players to the team.  Needless to say, this did not go down well with supporters.

Meanwhile, Johnston has been rebuffing approaches from a group of local businesses to buy the club.  This group includes the club’s shirt sponsors QTS and the Brownings Bakers who produce the famous Killie pie.  For years, Johnston has claimed that he would sell the club if he received a “credible offer”, yet it has transpired that he has placed a valuation of £2.5m on the club which he bought for £1 in 2005, and which still carries a £9.8m debt.  To me, this made it absolutely clear that he is more interested in personal gain than he is in the future of the football club.

At that point, I decided to consider my own position.  Last season, I spent a great deal of money travelling through from Edinburgh to Rugby Park for SPL matches, as well as travelling to the majority of away games.  I enjoyed the away games a lot more, and most of them were quicker to get to.  Nonetheless, I felt it was my “duty” as a supporter to attend home matches.  But why should I feel like that when the club clearly don’t really do anything to make me want to go?  As I pointed out earlier, the club has treated its fans abominably in the last few seasons.  It seems unlikely any Killie fans would feel valued as a “customer”.

So, with a very heavy heart, I made the decision that I would not renew my season ticket, and that I would instead spend my money travelling to away games next season.  And when the club was at home, I would either spend some time with my long-suffering fiancee or attend some nearby games as a neutral.  I came to this decision independently, as a result of my own personal circumstances, and it turned out I was not alone, as many Killie fans have taken a “Not a Penny More” approach, deciding not to pay money into the club while Johnston remains in charge.

This approach has, unsurprisingly, led to some disagreements amongst supporters.  Some have argued that starving the club of funds will only hurt the club.  While I have sympathy with this viewpoint, it seems to me that the club is already being hurt by the stewardship of Johnston, and that the long-term repercussions of him staying in charge may be worse than the short-term issues caused by a reduction in income.  I would never tell someone else not to support their football club, and it goes without saying that I respect the decisions of people who have decided to continue to go to Rugby Park last season.  After all, I was in their position last year.

Rather than attempting to attract these lapsed supporters back, Johnston has chosen to attack them via the media.  He claimed that they were a small minority of supporters hiding behind computer screens, and that he would be happy to have a discussion if someone came forward.  However, I approached him for an interview three weeks ago, and he has completely ignored my request so far.  It is somewhat ironic that he accuses others of “hiding behind computer screens” whilst himself being happy to make comments in the press without following them up with action.

I have no doubt that over the next few weeks, Johnston will attempt to guilt trip supporters such as myself into buying tickets by claiming that the future of the club is being put in danger.  However, any actions taken by fans are as a direct consequence of his stewardship of the club, and as such, he is the one who would have put the club in danger.  When Woolworths went bust, nobody blamed the customers who started shopping elsewhere because it was becoming outdated and no longer met the needs of your average shopper.  If a football club is losing customers, it should be looking at why people are no longer attending and taking steps to address it.

If Killie do end up in perilous waters or even administration, and potential new owners are looking to help rescue us, then they can count on my support to keep the club I love afloat.  But at the moment, I’m not willing to prop up a regime which has shown scant respect for me as a customer over the last few years.  If Johnston is going to lead the club to the precipice of oblivion, then I’d rather make a clean break now than have my heart gradually broken.

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Motherwell FC in Europe 2013/14

The draw for the Europa League 3rd Qualifying Round will take place on Friday at noon, with Motherwell entering as an unseeded side.  Stuart McCall’s side will have to progress through two rounds if they want to make it to the group stage for the first time.  The 3rd Qualifying Round matches will take place on 1st and 8th August.

Motherwell are playing in Europe for the 8th season in their history.  They made their debut in 1991/92, and have become regular qualifiers in recent years, with this season’s campaign being their 5th in the last 6 seasons.  In total, they have played 13 ties against opposition from 13 different countries covering almost the entire geographical spain of Europe.

Motherwell

The countries and cities Motherwell have travelled to for European ties.

History

Their first taste of Europe was in the Cup Winners’ Cup after that famous 1991 Scottish Cup win, and their campaign started inauspiciously with a 2-0 defeat to GKS Katowice in Poland.  That made it a tough ask for the 2nd leg at Fir Park, but Stevie Kirk scored their first ever European goal to give them a 1-0 half-time lead.  Unfortunately, Katowice scored just after the hour mark, and despite two goals in the last 5 minutes the Steelmen lost out on away goals.

They had to wait 3 years for another chance, this time in the UEFA Cup.  HB Torshavn were thrashed home and away in the Preliminary Round, setting up a glamour tie against Borussia Dortmund.  The first leg in Germany finished just 1-0 to the Germans, but any hopes of a shock result were extinguished by a 2nd half Karl-Heinz Riedle double at Fir Park.  The Motherwell midfield for those games featured Paul Lambert, who impressed enough to win a move to Dortmund, where he would go on to win the Champions League.

The following season saw Motherwell qualify again – as Premier Division runners-up – but the Preliminary Round tie would see the club’s most embarrassing European defeat.  They were drawn against Finnish side MyPA, and despite taking the lead through Shaun McSkimming after 9 minutes at Fir Park, things swiftly unravelled, and they lost 3-1 in front of a shellshocked home crowd.  In the 2nd leg in Finland, they restored a bit of pride with a 2-0 win, but it wasn’t enough to prevent a defeat on away goals.

After a long 13 year wait, they returned to European competition in the 2008/09 UEFA Cup – the final season before it was rebranded.  They had a tough draw against Nancy, but a 1-0 defeat away defeat gave them a fighting chance at Fir Park.  Their hopes were short-lived though, as future Celtic striker Marc-Antoine Fortune scored an early goal in a 2-0 win for the French side.

They redeemed themselves the following season in the first ever Europa League, but only after suffering early ignominy.  Their qualification came via Fair Play, so they had to enter at the 1st Qualifying Round, which started on the 2nd July.  Due to pitch improvements at Fir Park, their opening match at home to Llanelli was played at the Excelsior Stadium, Airdrie, but even the early start and unfamiliar surroundings couldn’t excuse an embarrassing 1-0 defeat.  They rescued the tie with a 3-0 win in the 2nd leg in Wales.

The 2nd Qualifying Round saw a 1-0 defeat in Albania against Flamurtari Vlore, but they turned things round emphatically in Airdrie with an 8-1 win.  Jamie Murphy scored their only European hat-trick (to date), as they rushed into a 6-0 half-time lead.  The next round was a step too far, as Steaua Bucharest crushed them 3-0 in Romania and 3-1 at the Excelsior.

A 3rd consecutive qualification was secured for the 2010/11 season, and the European experience from previous seasons paid off.  After a 1-0 win over Breidablik at Fir Park, they secured a nervy 1-0 win in Iceland through a Jamie Murphy goal.  The following round saw them comfortably defeat an Aalesunds side which had Anders Lindegaard in goals.  Murphy scored his 6th European goal in a 1-1 draw in Norway, making him the club’s all-time top European scorer, and he took his tally to 7 with another goal in a 3-0 2nd leg win at Fir Park.

Despite being unseeded for the play-off round, they were handed a winnable tie against Odense which gave them a chance of making the lucrative group stage.  After going 2-0 down in Denmark, Tom Hateley scored a stoppage time free-kick to secure a crucial away goal ahead of the match at Fir Park.  A crowd in excess of 9000 turned out, but Odense scored a crucial goal midway through the first half.  Despite dominating the 2nd half, and seeing their opponents reduced to 9 men, Motherwell couldn’t find any way through, even squandering a penalty as Jamie Murphy hit the post.

In 2012/13, ‘Well made it into the Champions League after Rangers’ administration and eventual liquidation meant they couldn’t get a UEFA license.  The 3rd Qualifying Round saw them drawn Greek side Panathinaikos, whose substantial Champions League experience paid off as they won 2-0 in a fairly even match at Fir Park.  In the second leg in Athens, Motherwell held out until half-time, but eventually lost 3-0 to suffer a harsh 5-0 aggregate defeat.  Their adventure didn’t end there though, as they dropped down into the Play-off Round of the Europa League, where they met Spanish side Levante.  Another 2-0 defeat at Fir Park, followed by a 1-0 loss in Spain meant that that they ended their campaign with four defeats and no goals scored.

2013/14 Europa League

Motherwell will have to progress through two rounds to make it to the group stage of the Europa League.  Stuart McCall’s side will be unseeded for Friday’s draw, which makes things a great deal tougher for them.

Due to the short turnaround between the 2nd and 3rd Qualifying Rounds, the draw for the 3rd Qualifying Round will take place in between the two legs of the 2nd Qualifying Round ties.  So, for the purposes of the 3rd Qualifying Round draw, UEFA assume that the seeded side will win each of the 2nd Qualifying Round ties.  If any unseeded side wins their 2nd Qualifying Round tie, they would therefore assume the seeding of the side they beat.

All the information on seeding comes from Bert Kassies’ website, which is a must-read for anyone who is interested in how the competitions work.

3rd Qualifying Round

Matches: 1st & 8th August

18 clubs, including Motherwell, will enter the competition of this stage, where they will join the 40 winners from the 2nd Qualifying Round.

As mentioned earlier, the winners from the 2nd Qualifying Round will be unknown at the time of the draw, and UEFA will assume that the seeded sides win each of those ties.

The list below shows the seedings for the 3rd Qualifying Round.  Country protection means that Motherwell cannot draw the winners of the Rosenborg v St Johnstone tie, but they could face any of the other seeded teams.

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