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It was November 2004 when this page last reported on the affairs of East Stirlingshire Football Club. At the time, they were bottom of the Third Division of the Scottish League, the lowest a team can get without sinking into the cold northern earth.
Fourteen months on, they are in precisely the same place. They are likely to finish there for the fourth successive season, and there seems little to stop them being there till kingdom come. The Shire have not won in more than three months; they have lost their last two games 4-0 and 5-0. And today, as they face a crucial match at Albion Rovers, the second-worst team in Scotland, Firs Park is
not bursting with optimism.
But actually, not everything is the same. For a start, East Stirling’s continuing incompetence has acquired celebrity status. Their performances last season have been the subject of a (very readable) fly-on-the-wall book: Pointless by Jeff Connor, which manages to be incisive and kindly as well as getting the easy laughs. And the club have reached their 125th birthday, marked with celebrations some way short of, say, Elton John’s wedding, but a birthday they were relieved to reach – because, frankly, they are as sprightly as most of us will be at 125.
This is largely because East Stirling’s wage structure is pretty close to where it was in 1880: the players earn £10 a week, slightly less than their kids might earn washing cars or walking the neighbours’ dog.
Some things have changed, though. Ladbrokes has snaffled the £1 placed by a punter at 10,000/1 that Wayne Rooney would sign for East Stirling during 2005. And there is now no manager: Denis Newall was sacked in November after Stenhousemuir, playing with nine men, knocked them out of the Cup. The sacking was handled with typical East Stirling finesse: Newall was told at lunchtime to await a call from the chairman and waited six hours before he was told to get out.
“The only reason I didn’t get a text to say I was sacked is because they probably didn’t know how to send one,” Newall told The Sun. He was at least rewarded with a year’s salary, or maybe five years: i.e. nothing, since Newall worked for £10 a week less than his players. “We were not getting the results,” said chief executive Les Thomson. Well, that IS a surprise.
The real surprise is that East Stirling keep going at all. It’s partly because they can. Scottish football does not have the pyramid structure of the English game: the bottom club in the League are not relegated. In fact, the club would be in breach of contract if they withdrew for any reason short of insolvency.
There is a new rule specifically designed to nail them, but it is pathetically weak. If a club finishes bottom twice running (starting from now), they will lose their voting rights, and if they don’t improve in the two seasons after that, they might – just possibly – be booted out. So it is conceivable that East Stirling could go in 2009. If everyone agreed.
So there is no urgent pressure to improve. Rival clubs like having East Stirling around because they play them four times a season, and expect 12 points. The chairman, Alan Mackin, a tax exile who rarely attends matches, appears mainly interested in selling the ground, nicely positioned in the middle of Falkirk (most people think it’s in Stirling, which may be one reason why only 200 usually turn up). He has not succeeded yet, but he has no incentive to invest in the football.
The situation suits the players too. Of course, you can’t get good ones for 10 stinking quid (some are complaining it’s below the national minimum hourly rate). But you can get keen ones. Because East Stirling count as professional, their games get reported. Half-decent players are noticed and can move on: Ian Diack, the top scorer, quit when his friend Newall was axed, moved to top-of-the-table Stenhousemuir, and cheerfully slotted home the first of the five goals his old club conceded on Monday.
The same goes for managers. Sir Alex Ferguson began his managerial career at Firs Park; his, um, forthright style attracted immediate attention; within four months he was hired by St Mirren. And the rest is history.
Unfortunately, the club’s ambitions and those of their staff may not be compatible. For the board, being a national joke has advantages. Littlewoods Pools, enjoying the laugh, came in as shirt sponsors last season, a great deal more lucratively than their predecessors, Finewood Joinery Products. Even Connor paid £2,000 for the right of access. None of this would have happened if East Stirling were as moderate as the likes of Stenhousemuir or Cowdenbeath.
That doesn’t mean East Stirling can laugh at themselves. After they saw Connor’s book, he was banned from the ground. His next is about Manchester United.