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Stirling Albion finding its feet thanks to supporter-owned scheme

STIRLING, Scotland -- "You!" growls Stirling boss Jocky Scott across the dressing room. One of his players, half-naked, freezes like a child with his hand caught in the biscuit tin. "No fannying about today! You leave your f-----g circus tricks in here!" He stares his prey down just long enough for the moment to become deeply uncomfortable and then turns his gaze elsewhere.

"Work for each other," shouts assistant boss John Blackley. "You'll get nothing without hard work." And he should know. Like Scott, Blackley is 63 and he's spent his entire adult life in the game, both as a player and a manager. A genuine double act, they prowl around the dressing room, poking and prepping their young players. They're about to trot down the tunnel for their final preseason friendly against Cliftonville and both Scott and Blackley know that the owners are watching. But then again, the owners are watching every week. Stirling Albion are Scotland's only 100 percent supporter owned league football club, dragged from the brink of financial oblivion last year. Many of the people in the Doubletree Dunblane Stadium won't just be fans. They'll be shareholders.

With the fans' trust in control, the club is run with a strict financial policy designed to prevent a repeat of its brush with liquidation. There is no overdraft at all, so the accounts are tightly controlled. Trust members do not have direct control of team policy, as seen with the ill-fated Ebbsfleet experiment in English soccer, but they do have the chance to elect board members.

"Stirling Albion was a classic story," says director Paul Goodwin. "A local businessman, Peter McKenzie, had owned the club 17 years but, by the time we came in, he was 83, his business wasn't what it had been and he'd just run out of money. I think the club's assets were listed as about £362 ($594). We thought that might be the hamper, but we haven't been able to find it yet, so perhaps not. It was really precarious."

"We raised £100,000 ($164,000) from a share scheme, with fans buying small stakes in the club, but we were still 12 hours away from the club going into administration. Fortunately, Mr. McKenzie wrote off £1.3 million ($2.1) of outstanding loans, we raised another £100,000 privately and we were able to clear the books. But that first season, well, I got the keys on July 2 and we had six players, no friendlies organized, no kit, no kit supplier, nothing."

"Mr. McKenzie's generosity saved this club," says Acting Operations Director Stuart Brown. "And we should never forget that."

Brown has been watching Stirling for more years than he'd care to admit. After a career in the civil service, he's the man now tasked with organizing and arranging the day-to-day operations of the club.

"My wife often wonders where I am," said Brown, whose son is the club's kitman. "The job takes you over. I can have a plan about what I'm going to do, but that plan disappears very quickly and I never get it back. The phone never stops, but it's a fantastic buzz.

"I suspect people have no conception of what goes behind the scenes at a football club. I certainly didn't before I arrived. What happens on a Saturday is the result of a lot of hard work, most of it nothing to do with football. What I try to do, more than anything, is make sure that Jocky has nothing at all worry about except the team.

"I still see myself as a fan, I feel the pain of defeat and the joy of a victory. Last season it was mostly the pain and that was hard."

Last season was horrendous. After a poor start to the campaign, the new board sacked manager John O'Neill and replaced him with Scott. With barely any resources available to reshape the team, the going was tough. Stirling hit a bad run of form, failed to recover and were relegated from the Scottish First Division with four games still to play.

"Last season was not enjoyable," rumbles Scott when we meet in his office. "I hate getting beat and we seemed to be getting beat every week. I released some players, I offered to keep others, but six of them have gone as well."

As a result, Stirling will start this season with a young, hastily assembled squad. Just a handful of players have survived from the team that was relegated last April. And it shows. From the first whistle, Cliftonville take the game by the throat and squeeze. The Northern Irish team have already played in the early rounds of the Europa League this season and they look superior in every department. They score twice in four minutes, once through an unopposed close range header and again after a rather soft penalty decision. Stirling fail to create a single chance of note until just before the break when Alan Cook strokes home clinically and very much against the run of play.

Though almost all of the players are new to the club, they seem to know what's coming. In the dressing room, they stare at their boots in silence as their manager paces in front of them, grinding his teeth. If he were a mountain, the local wildlife would be fleeing into the forest and, sure enough, Scott erupts moments later. But this is no witless tantrum. With the skill and precision of a surgeon, albeit a particularly furious surgeon, he dissects Cliftonville's goals, and the reasons for their creation while convincingly deconstructing errors in the basics of Stirling's game, including the way it wasted all three of its kickoffs. He breaks his team down into three departments and spends an equal amount of time breathing fire at each one, highlighting the individual faults, the shortcomings as a team and casting doubt upon the legitimacy of the player's parentage. Finally, as the glue between the ceramic tiles on the walls begins to bubble, he lays down a wholly convincing argument for a sharp increase in effort. There is little in the way of dissent. The players, suitably chastised, stomp back out for the second half. Cliftonville score a third within minutes of the restart.

But Scott's message has not fallen on deaf ears. Despite the goal, Stirling are suddenly quicker to every loose ball. Their movement improves sharply and the players are more willing to pass the ball to each other rather than blasting it hopefully into the channels. Ten minutes into the second half, they get their reward, as Darren Smith puts the finishing touch on a genuinely delightful team move. As the game wears on, Stirling grow in strength and substitute Josh Flood almost equalizes, denied only by a brave stop. Cliftonville, also a fan-owned club, hold on and lift the Ladbrokes Supporters Trophy with a 3-2 win. Scott hangs around pitchside long enough to politely applaud them and then marches back to the dressing room for a far calmer debriefing.

Does it make any difference when a manager works for a board made up of fans, rather than a board of directors? Scott doesn't think so.

"Everybody," he tells me, "regardless of whether they're a fan or a director, everybody thinks they know better than the manager. That's why so many managers get sacked. The directors here are not any different in that respect from directors on other boards."

Scott's challenge now is to stabilize Stirling quickly and settle his new squad down for the coming campaign.

"We're working with young inexperienced kids. Standing on the side, you can shout at them, but it's difficult. You never know what you'll get. They have to listen, they have to learn and they have to learn quickly."

As this season progresses, Stirling's owners, the fans, will find out just how much this new squad has learned. But back in the boardroom, Brown is taking a longer view.

"I remember when we used to play Celtic and Rangers quite regularly and there would be 20,000 at our old Annfield ground. I would love to see days like that again. But we need to be realistic. With the budget we have, with the amount of people coming through the turnstiles, we'd be kidding ourselves if we think we can become a big club. But Scottish football is changing. If we can be well managed and well organized, perhaps we can become an established first division club. But there's a long way to go."

Iain Macintosh is the UK Football Correspondent for The New Paper in Singapore and the author of Football Fables. You can follow him on Twitter (@iainmacintosh).

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