PTFC Trust Interview Part I: Engagement, representation and beneficiaries
THE PTFC TRUST became the majority shareholder of Partick Thistle on Tuesday and now holds a 74-per-cent stake in the Championship club after Three Black Cats transferred the shares held by the late Colin Weir’s company.
Here, four Trustees – Richard Beastall, Ali Campbell, Neil Drain and Fergus Maclennan – speak exclusively to Herald and Times Sport.
When we last spoke, you said ‘we want to consult fans in everything that we do’. How have you been doing that?
RB Before we get started I would just like to reiterate what we said last time. We are genuine Thistle fans and we are doing this for the right reasons. We want to engage with the fans. If we weren’t genuine Thistle fans we could’ve taken the shares and ran away but we are not going to do that. Beyond that, things just moved too quickly for us. There was a momentum gathering, some impetus growing, and we felt that it was right to move things on to the next level rather than allow the noise to grow and grow and grow. We knew there was going to be a rammy when this happened and we felt that it was better to have the rammy, get it out the way and then start the conversation with fans. When we did engage with fans – when we had Q&A sessions in the Aitken Suite at Firhill – it was literally people standing over you, shouting at you and banging the table. It just felt that a public meeting would be more of that, which wouldn’t be constructive for fan engagement.
So the Q&A sessions weren’t constructive?
ND They were almost divided into two sections. A group of people would come over, there would be five or six of them, and they would just fire questions like “on such and such a date” – very specific and trying to trip you up. They had no interest in any kind of discussion. But then when they went away, you would get one or two people sidling up and then we went round the room, as it were, and spoke to people one-to-one. They were brilliant, they were absolutely superb. And it’s worth pointing out – it was probably in the first Aitken Suite meeting, with Randle, Richard and myself, that led us to really gauge that some representation on the board was what was wanted – because every single person we spoke to that day said, “we think we should have someone on the board”.
On the club board?
ND On the club board, yes. That was something that because we knew we could do it at a later date and we still can, we weren’t that concerned about doing it as quickly as we can. But that is certainly something that came from those meetings – and individual chats, going person to person. That led to us going “wait a minute, we heard nobody saying they were against that. It was all for that”. That was the question that came back – “why is there nobody on the club board? Why is there nobody on the club board? Why is there nobody on the club board?”. Fair enough, you know? So in that way they were useful but they also just got folk… they were less constructive unfortunately. That’s pretty much all I’d want to say on that.
RB It’s worth just adding to that we then went back to the board – and this is one of the questions The Jags Foundation asked – we went back to the board and said ‘right, we need a board seat’. We were in constant negotiations with the board. The Three Black Cats negotiations were largely over and we were in constant negotiations with the board for about three weeks about how things would work going forward. And that concession was made after we met with the fans – as was the free buses to Aberdeen. We approached the club about that. So there has been some positive fan engagement but it has generally been emails and one-to-one chats. When it has been a more public setting, it’s been challenging because people are asking very specific questions about minutes and meeting dates and all this kind of stuff.
FM I totally agree, it wasn’t constructive. At times it was pretty heated. At the end of the day, why are we involved? We are all passionate Thistle fans and we want the very best for the club. There are a lot of wild conspiracy stories out there, tales of all sorts of things that have happened, how we came together. And there has been a kind of obsession about that – in terms of every little intricate detail – and a lot of the questioning was around that. Which, to be honest, I find it amazing. You have had that interview with Stewart Macgregor, which has given you a lot of that detail, but we have got nothing to hide here. We are involved for the right reasons and we are focused on delivering what we feel is a sensible model for fan ownership. We can get into the detail of that in time.
RB We want to be judged in a year’s time, not a week’s time, as to the fan engagement.
You said you would get a deal that the club board have signed off on then put it to fans. Why has that not happened?
ND It was a very difficult decision to be honest with you. Our gut instinct has always been to get this done. A lot of it was to do with time, genuinely. To put the question back to you – how would you propose we would actually do that? I’m not talking about the whole idea but actually how would you do that? How would you get… I mean, are you just talking about engaging with one group of fans? We would need to try and get the beneficiaries, we need to try and talk about the season ticket holders, the non-season ticket holders, the Nomads – there are a lot of groups. We looked at that and that would have been almost the preferred option – it would have been the preferred option – but realistically we were… it was being moved slightly outwith our control, at a faster pace. There has been a lot of nonsense on Facebook and things like that but there has been one or two good things. One of the comments that somebody said was “this seems backwards” and I can understand that sentiment – because in essence we are doing this backwards from the way that would seem the normal way to do this. But we haven’t had two or three years to prepare this. We have had such a short time. We had to take a view of ‘are the shares better in the hands of the PTFC Trust or are they better in the hands of Three Black Cats?’ Because that is the only two places they were going at this time. People will argue about that but I can’t see from the statements that were made from other parties how it would have been anywhere else. They would have stayed in Three Black Cats’ hands. So we have taken them way earlier than we thought they would be offered to us and way earlier than we probably would have liked but because of the set-up we have got we can now move forward with a great number of shares – and look to engage much, much more. The criticisms about engagement with the fans, it’s difficult. We have tried to engage but a lot of the criticisms are probably fairly valid.
FM In terms of the nature of this deal, it’s like any business transaction – there is always going to be confidentiality in certain parts of these discussions. So this is a football club and it is passionate, absolutely. And there are a lot of opinions out there. We get that, people care. But we ultimately had to deliver a model which we feel we can work with. We can still adjust that and bring in engagement through time but time was against us. We didn’t have the time that The Jags Foundation… in all honesty, we were all expecting that The Jags Foundation would get the deal through. They have had various attempts at it and it didn’t happen. That’s why we all got involved, because we could see that that was faltering. We either try and make fan ownership work or it wouldn’t happen.
A few of you have made reference to the fact that it had to be done quickly. Why did it have to be done quickly?
ND For stability of the club that’s doing well just now. We didn’t want this rumbling on for another six months while we’re trying to gain promotion, that’s the main reason – for stability for Partick Thistle. Short-term stability like this is probably good – or it’s not ‘good’, it’s probably the best time to do it.
Why would this create instability? You say you didn’t have time to deal with supporters because the deal had to be done, but the only reason is to keep things stable? I don’t understand.
RB I think it was to end the uncertainty that was happening here is very much what was driving it. Once we were announced as the preferred bidders things went up a notch, I think it would be fair to say. And it was felt that stability would be brought by bringing this to a conclusion, and then talking to the fans. As we have said in the FAQ document, we have a majority shareholding, we have control of the Trust deed, we have the ability to appoint and remove directors should we choose to do so, so we are in control now. Now it is about talking to the fans about what that looks like. It’s not talking about meeting minutes from a meeting in April, it’s not talking about how we came together. It's about how we are going to take Partick Thistle forward as a fan-owned club. And to be honest, that’s all we want to talk about now. We don’t want to talk about meeting minutes or any of this other stuff. We want to talk about how we can engage with fans genuinely and start to have positive conversations with them about taking the club forward.
FM The other thing to mention here is that there are obviously various fan ownership models up and down the country, and I think every club has its own story. Hearts, St Mirren – quite often these situations come out of distress and that’s why these models are born. Partick Thistle has its own very unique circumstances where the shares are being gifted by Colin Weir. So even the whole situation around that is completely different to every other club. So it’s easy to make comparisons, saying “this works for them, that works for them” but these shares have been gifted to the fans. We have developed what we feel is a sensible structure which will bring the club stability. We want to work with the current board, who people are quick to criticise but quick to forget what we have come through in the last couple of years – through the pandemic, through the relegation. No one is going to praise them about the good things they have done. I read your articles regularly and your coverage is great, and I know you have credited the current board regularly in terms of how they got though that period. I think people forget that. So we want to give the board every opportunity. We want to work with them, we want to understand what’s going on – what initiatives are there, how we can help them, how we can bring the fans in to help it. But it is sensible. We are not in here to sack the board like others are claiming. There are a lot of pretty nasty claims out there. To try and obtain the shares when these are the kinds of things you are shouting aggressively about – it’s not going to work unfortunately.
You said there would be a public meeting in September. Why did that not happen? Is that because things sped up?
ND I covered that, to be honest.
You have set up an email address for fans to send in questions. How many responses have you sent out from it?
FM We have grouped together these Q&As which we have added to our site as FAQs. You have seen social media, there are a lot of responses. I think we need to be honest here guys – we are busy and this has come about really quickly. But a lot of it is not constructive, some of the abuse that has been out there.
Was the idea that fans would send in their questions and you would then address them in a Q&A document, as opposed to replying to individual emails?
RB Yeah. Ali and I have replied to, between us, in excess of 20 emails I would say. And if somebody contacts us with a positive suggestion or wants to get involved, we reply. If somebody contacts us and says ‘show us the meeting minutes’, frankly we don’t – because we already answered that when we spoke to you [Editor’s note: Beastall mistakenly believed this was previously discussed with Herald and Times Sport but it was not. He later apologised for the error], we already answered that in the Q&A. A lot of frankly templated emails come in about meeting minutes and things like that but we haven’t answered them because we have already spoken publicly about that.
ND We have grouped together some of the main questions that have been repeated again and again and again. You get 20 questions asking slightly different versions of the same thing, so we have put something together that tries to answer that.
There is currently no representation on the club board and you say there won’t be any until there are Trust elections. Do you know when you will hold these elections?
RB I think we are probably looking towards the end of the season. We need to get things together. We want things to calm down, to settle. We want to have positive conversations with fans. We want fans to tell us how they want that to work, frankly. We need to set up the database, the voting mechanism. We need to discuss with fans how the election process will work and who gets a vote. Is it all season ticket holders? Is it the current beneficiaries? Is it members? We need to get all these things agreed with fans rather than saying “let’s elect somebody quickly”. The last thing that we are going to do, and this is one of the questions that has been raised – ‘why has Euan Couperwhite [who stepped down from the Trust after his Twitter account was found to have been interacting with pornography] not been replaced?’. Because we didn’t want to co-opt somebody else in because we felt that was wrong.
If you’re going to hold an election, you want to make sure it’s done properly. When that comes around will anyone be able to stand? Will there be restrictions?
RB We need to ask the fans that.
AC Yep. That’s a fans’ decision.
Who is currently a beneficiary of the PTFC Trust?
RB It’s quite a woolly definition but it is basically anyone who has a season ticket this year and had one for the two previous seasons.
So it’s still the previous definition?
RB Literally, everything that is published on the website is the Trust deed, which is the old Trust deed with a couple of amendments. It costs quite significant legal fees to amend the Trust deeds. So we thought ‘well let’s not go through reams and reams and reams of revisions. Let’s find out what the fans want and revise at that point’.
How have you communicated with your beneficiaries?
RB Via the website, via social media. Via lots and lots of one-to-one conversations. I have been in the Aitken Suite before every single Thistle game since this happened.
FM I think what you are getting at is how do we do that officially. Is that your question?
I suppose so. I think that’s fair.
FM We need to go through the steps. Ali, this is more your field. GDPR, we have to get all that sorted out with the club to understand who actually are these people. There are logical steps and that is where we need that time to get that in order, and then we move forward.
AC The club will need to approach season ticket holders. We can’t do that because of GDPR. And then season ticket holders need to opt in and agree to being beneficiaries actively. And from there we can then have our database of beneficiaries.
RB At the same time we are going to give people the opportunity to opt in to our communications via a link on our website.
AC Yep. Around about the same time.
RB That will be stored in a GDPR-compliant way, I think it’s important that we say that. We are not going to have a spreadsheet on a public server that you can see people’s email addresses and things.
Of course. So just to clarify – right now you are saying you don’t know who your beneficiaries are?
RB We know the category of who they are but we don’t know their individual names because we haven’t gone through that GDPR process. And we have to do that.
AC We know who the beneficiaries should be.
RB We know there are around 1600 Partick Thistle adult season ticket holders. We just don’t know their names or their contact details because we don’t have that information – because we need to get it in a correct and legal manner.
ND And the previous Trust have it.
FM I was going to say – there is a lot of confusion here, right? In terms of PTFC Trust and what went on before us. It is important to just confirm again that we have got five new Trustees here. So this is new for us all here. The PTFC Trust is completely new, fresh faces. So our journey has started from now really. So we have to go through these processes. We are reading all this stuff online, criticising what went on before us. I’m sorry but we have got no control over that. It’s not really relevant to be honest and we are keen to focus on moving forward and what’s best for Partick Thistle and the fans.
I understand you’re not responsible for the previous Trustees’ actions.
FM You can imagine there are a lot of probing questions into all these details but as I say, we are aware of all these things and we are working through that. But there is a process here that we need to work through.
How do you know that your beneficiaries approve of your proposal if you have not been able to canvas them?
RB I think we would argue – why would they not? Because we are bringing them a greater share in the club, we are bringing them greater control over the club. We are bringing them frankly – and this is not what it’s about by the way but it is an important point to make – because of the way the Trust is constituted, we are bringing them greater financial value. So I can’t see why that wouldn’t be of benefit to them. They might think at the moment that we are five rogue guys who are not going to do what they want to but we’re not, we’re absolutely not. And this is where our biggest frustration comes from. We know what we want to do and we know we will follow through on everything we said we are going to follow through on. And we are not being given the chance to do that. We just want to get on with doing that – and not talk about who was at a meeting in March.
ND It’s important to say that although we have taken the shares initially, everything going forward – once we get our databases up and running through the GDPR process – our stuff going forward will be in consultation with our beneficiaries. That’s kind of our job.
RB And ahead of that process people can send us emails, they can come and speak to us, and we will answer them. As I say, we will answer the ones about how we work together to build a positive future for Partick Thistle, rather than ones that are perhaps not going to contribute towards that. We came on this call saying we want to talk about the future, not the past.
Why does the proposal vary significantly from other fan ownership models in Scotland and indeed the UK?
FM It doesn’t vary.
RB Every fan ownership model is different.
My understanding is… I don’t know of any other football clubs that operate with a memorandum of understanding.
RB This is one of the questions in the FAQs [Editor’s note: this interview was conducted before the FAQs were published].
Oh really? Fantastic.
ND I don’t the numbers of clubs around it but I am assuming, correct me if I’m wrong, very few clubs have 74 per cent of the shares in the fans’ hands. So the level of power that we have with 74 per cent of shares means that we genuinely don’t need a legal document to safeguard our position. A memorandum of understanding – because we feel that we are in a power position with 74 per cent of shares, not necessarily the Partick Thistle Football Club board. So if we go in with a memorandum of understanding, that can be changed very, very easily. It’s not a legal document so it can be fluid. If things change we can change how it looks, how it’s structured, because we don’t need legal guarantees that other clubs need – because we have 74 per cent of the shares. And it’s also a very non-confrontational document. So we go in with the feeling that the board is doing quite well and we come in agreement in how we are going to interact with the board, what we expect of the board and what they expect of us – behaviours and such like. And it means that if we don’t get the behaviours that we expect from the PTFC board, we are not limited to what we can do by a legal document.
So you think it gives you more scope to operate within?
ND It gives us loads of scope to operate. Our ideal would be for the memorandum of understanding to move us closer and closer and closer together – the Trust, the fans and the club. Because that is what’s been dividing just now. If we can move that closer and closer and closer we don’t need to change legal documents. The memorandum of understanding can be changed every season to bring the fans closer and closer and closer to Partick Thistle Football Club. Now, it is an easy document to do that with. It can be easily revised and that’s the plan. Obviously we don’t know how it’s going to work out but we will not be legally penalised if the memorandum of understanding doesn’t work – because we have got 74 per cent of the shares. If anything, you could argue that a legal document would restrict the power of the PTFC Trust and the fans.
I see. Thank you for the thorough answer.
RB Just adding to that – I think we said this in the announcement statement – we did get written guarantees from the board around the very, very key issues for us. Which were ownership of the land – Firhill won’t be sold without shareholder consent. There has been a question raised numerous times over whether the board can issue new shares – they categorically can’t. The resolution that was passed expired in 2020 I believe. There was a resolution passed that allowed the board to issue shares but that has expired. That’s a thing that we have seen on numerous occasions so we have done our homework. We have asked the questions and we have got the guarantees that we felt were important to the Thistle fans, which to us were that Firhill is sacred. And our position as fan owners can’t be diluted.
What have you made of the reaction to the announcement to the share transfer? We touched on this previously. Obviously social media is not always the best barometer but it is only fair to point out it has been largely negative.
FM I don’t think that’s true. There has been a lot of noise. I think like all social media, people are more likely to shout negative things. Some of it is completely inappropriate. I think that’s society but we have had a lot of positive discussions out there as well, people that don’t want to get into the tit-for-tat type discussions. A lot of it, as we spoke about, you’re going over old ground over and over again. It’s not constructive. A lot of it is a lack of understanding, they don’t have the detail. Yes, of course, we need to provide more of that detail and it’s coming. But we have had hardly any time. The deal only just happened. So I think that’s where it’s good to speak to you and explain to you that we have got a process here that we are working through and it will come.
To clarify – you think that the negative reaction online is not representative of the fanbase?
FM I think it’s been mixed. You can see that.
RB Absolutely – we have had as many positive messages to our email address as we’ve had negative messages. As one of the guys said earlier, people don’t want to put their head above the parapet. You say something positive on social media and you get all sorts of nonsense thrown at you. People don’t want to do that and they have told us that. I have had conversations with people in the Aitken Suite who are very supportive of what we are doing and they are saying that they don’t want to say that on social media because they know that they will be shouted down. That’s what social media is like. That’s not a Partick Thistle thing, that’s a social media thing.
ND I think we were expecting it. We weren’t naïve enough to think this wasn’t going to happen on social media. We knew there was going to be the storm on social media.
[Editor's note: At this point there was a break in recording. Another Zoom call was made and the interview restarted. You can continue reading here.]