Trust the process: PTFC Trust ask Thistle fans to wait before they judge
THE PTFC TRUST say they are determined to engage meaningfully with Partick Thistle supporters in the wake of the controversial share transfer at the Championship club.
Five supporters – Richard Beastall, Ali Campbell, Neil Drain, Fergus Maclennan and Randle Wilson – were last month co-opted as Trustees by their predecessors, who they then replaced with no consultation with their beneficiaries, or, indeed, the wider support, with a view to inheriting Colin Weir’s 55-per-cent stake.
Three Black Cats (3BC), Weir’s company that held the shares of the late Euromillions winner, were charged with delivering fan ownership and were in discussions with The Jags Foundation (TJF), a grassroots supporters’ body comprising more than 850 members, for over two-and-a-half years until talks collapsed a month ago.
The Trust – which has effectively been lying dormant during that period – already owned 19 per cent of the Maryhill club and approached 3BC last month with a proposal that they should be the vehicle for fan ownership, 3BC agreed and on Tuesday the share transfer was pushed through, giving the Trust a 74-per-cent stake.
The Trust’s handling of the situation has been criticised by some supporters – Tuesday’s announcement was met with an overwhelmingly negative reaction online – primarily over their lack of engagement with supporters, and they have been accused by TJF of accepting a form of fan ownership “designed to marginalise rather than empower fans”.
A month ago, the Trust revealed their intention to canvass their beneficiaries at a public meeting in September, to put the ownership proposal to them and ensure their interests were represented. An email address was set up and fans were encouraged to send in questions to the Trust, who would respond to them. Before each home match, Trustees would be available in the Aitken Suite at Firhill to answer questions fans had.
No public meeting has been held and the Trust do not reply to every email they receive. “Ali and I have replied to, between us, in excess of 20 emails I would say,” says Beastall. “If somebody contacts us with a positive suggestion or wants to get involved, we reply.”
Rather than communicating directly with fans, a FAQ page on the Trust’s website was set up and went live on Thursday night, where nine recurring questions from supporters have been answered. Meanwhile, Q&A sessions at Firhill on matchdays have often been counter-productive, the Trust say.
“When we did engage with fans, it was literally people standing over you, shouting at you and banging the table,” said Beastall. “It just felt that a public meeting would be more of that, which wouldn’t be constructive for fan engagement.”
Drain says: “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 oneto-one. They were brilliant, they were absolutely superb.”
“It wasn’t constructive,” adds Maclennan. “At times it was pretty heated.”
The Trust’s original proposal saw no requirement for the majority shareholder to have any representation on the club board but after engaging with fans, they discovered unanimous support for the idea. They went back to the club and gained the concession of a seat on the board but they do not expect it to be filled until next summer, when they hold elections for an additional two Trustees. They expect the entire Trust board to be democratically elected by May 2025.
“We want things to calm down, to settle,” says Beastall of the plans to hold an election. “We want to have positive conversations with fans. We want fans to tell us how they want that to work, frankly.”
The alacrity of the share transfer going though has been disconcerting for some supporters. It was only a month ago that the Trust confessed they did not know how long it would take for the deal to be finalised but they say it had to be done quickly in order to provide stability – even if that came at the cost of no meaningful engagement of the fans.
Beastall said: “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 FAQs 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.”
Drain added: “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.”
Part of the engagement problem is that the Trust have no way of contacting their own beneficiaries, and by their own admission they do not even know who they are. Under the terms of the Trust, season-ticket holders for the current campaign and the two previous are beneficiaries but GDPR data protection laws prevent the club from providing the Trust with their contact information.
It means the Trust’s only engagement with supporters has come from replying to a handful of emails, the occasional Facebook post responding to a FAQ and unconstructive Q&A sessions before matches. It raises the question: how do the Trust know their beneficiaries approve of their proposal?
Beastall said: “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.”
While social media posts on Tuesday announcing the share transfer were largely met with an angry response by supporters, the Trustees do not believe the online dissent is representative of the fanbase. Mhairi Black, the MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, was particularly stinging in her criticism, branding the fan ownership process as “disgraceful”.
Despite the barrage of criticism, the Trust remain unperturbed.
Maclennan says: “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.
“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.”
Beastall adds: “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.”
As for the disparaging comments from Black?
“Mhairi Black is one Partick Thistle fan,” says Maclennan. “There are a lot of Partick Thistle fans. Everyone has got a view, everyone has got an opinion.”
There have been questions, too, over how the Trust and club boards will interact with each other. A club-trust agreement is the industry standard for a fan-owned football club but instead of this legally binding document, the Trust instead have agreed a memorandum of understanding with the club board. It is an unprecedented approach to fan ownership in the UK.
“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,” says Drain. “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.”
Beastall adds: “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.”
TJF released a seven-page document on Wednesday morning in response to the share transfer announcement. In it, the fans’ group accuses the Trustees of colluding with their predecessors – which included three individuals who sit on the club board – when drawing up their proposal.
“We categorically deny that there’s any involvement from outside parties in the running of the Trust,” says Beastall.
Minutes of Trust meetings were posted online every month up until April of this year, when the process was halted without explanation. Fans have asked for their release in the interests of transparency but those requests have fallen on deaf ears.
“There are commercially sensitive things talked about in meeting minutes,” says Beastall. “For example, there could be – I don’t know – there could be something happening involving an allegation against a Trust member. You don’t publish a minute that talks about an allegation against a Trust member. You don’t publish a minute that talks about a commercial aspect of a conversation you’re having to do with the share gift.”
The Trust add that they hope to start engaging meaningfully with beneficiaries within the next two weeks.
“We will meet with the club board and make sure they’re happy and we’re happy that we can reach as many people as possible without causing any issues with GDPR and so on,” says Campbell.
Beastall concludes: “We want people to engage with us positively, and we want to judge us in a year, not a month or a week, six months, not six days – however you want to phrase that. We are at the beginning of a journey. Judge us further on in the journey, not now.”