The tabloids have characterised him as some sort of footballing grim reaper. If this man turns up at the front door of your club, it’s not going to be good news. There’s a certain truth to that. Bryan Jackson is Scottish football’s go-to guy for those who find themselves on the bring of financial oblivion. He’s on the speed dial of anyone in trouble.
Of course, this paints a rather one dimensional picture of a man many in the Scottish game have plenty to thank for. Jackson is credited with saving Motherwell, Clyde, Dundee, Dunfermline and Hearts, as well as Portsmouth down south, in his role as an administrator. There’s a reason these clubs specifically request Jackson’s services – his track record is unparalleled.
The fact that he has been called upon so many times over the years says a lot about the troubles Scottish football has faced. That was the zeitgeist for a long time, as club after club teetered on the edge. “Clubs were chasing the holy grail a bit,” he says. “The TV money came in and wages went up because everyone was chasing that – the higher you finished the more TV money you got. When that money dropped in Scotland, it was a problem club because their wages ratio to their turnover wasn’t right. There’s nothing in players’ contracts that says their wages come down if the turnover comes down. That caused a bit of overheating.”
This characterises the recklessness that saw so many Scottish clubs enter difficulty. Now, things are better. “There are more financial people that are involved with clubs now,” says Jackson. “Budgets are more realistic.” There has been a sea change, with the episodes concerning Hearts and Rangers serving as a watershed for Scottish football.
Jackson, of course, knows just how close Hearts came to falling over the edge. He admits that at a point he doubted that the situation could be rescued. “It got to the point where I didn’t know where to go with it,” he says. “I had this sinking feeling. It was a huge feeling of relief when we got out of that one.”
Part of the problem is that football clubs are so far removed from other industries. As Jackson points out, there are so many different factors to take into consideration when running a club, so many different stakeholders – fans, shareholders, directors, the footballing authorities, players, the players union etc. All these people have competing agendas, pulling the discourse in different directions. For an administrator charged with serving creditors and saving the club, that doesn’t make things easy. “And because it’s football you’ve got a bit of insanity. It’s emotional.”
Even in the midst of an administration, with the future of the club at stake, fans are sometimes guilty of failing to grasp the true gravity of the situation. Jackson has, on occasion, found himself a target for no other reason than being the face of an institution at threat of going under. “When you go to the doctors when you’re ill, you don’t blame the doctor,” explains Jackson. “But quite often when we go into a club in administration, we’re the ones who get blamed and targeted, as if it was our fault. I think it’s because there’s nobody else to blame because by that point the directors are gone.”
Indeed, administration never makes for a pleasant atmosphere, with fans frustrated at how the club’s assets, whether that be players or stadiums or training grounds, are being siphoned off, and fans of other clubs, as well as pundits and experts, sour at the carelessness that got them there in the first place. It takes a certain sort of character to enter such an environment and Jackson is open in admitting his reluctance in some instances to take the job on.
“The more time goes on, the more difficult it’s getting to take a club out of administration,” he says. “I think other clubs are a bit more hostile now about clubs going into administration. They feel that they’ve been cheated, in a way. Attitudes are changing. People have had enough of it. They’re much more conscious of how clubs should be managing their finances.”
However, there is a certain leeway afforded to football clubs that isn’t to other businesses in other industries. Their detachment might get them into trouble, but it also helps to get them out of it. As Jackson points out, football clubs have fans in a way that an engineering company, for example, doesn’t. “If you’re trying to save an engineering company, you don’t tend to get donations from employees, or anybody else.”
Fans are a “hidden asset on the balance sheet,” as Jackson puts it, and each of his last three football administration jobs (Dunfermline, Hearts and Portsmouth) have culminated with some sort of fan ownership model being adopted. But because of this unique dynamic, it can be difficult to know what the societal duty of a football club is upon entering administration.
At the time Jackson was requested by Dunfermline Athletic as administrator, a colleague of his at the same office in Edinburgh was nominated by HMRC to liquidate the club. In this decision the debate over a football’s civic duty was encapsulated. “Internally, we discussed what we should do,” says Jackson. “There was a part of us that thought it might be a good thing. Why should a football club not pay its taxes while all other companies are liquidated for it? We were left with a difficult decision.”
Once a club is out of administration, things return to normal pretty quickly. Just two years after Hearts had stared the financial abyss straight in the face, they were back in the top flight, playing in Europe. Football fans have short memories, so Jackson chuckles when he hears grumbles about a team failing in Europa League qualification, or failing to finish in the top six, when there was very nearly no club at all. “As soon as administration is out of the way, you’re on your way again,” he laughs. “I understand it. I’m a football fan.”
Now, Jackson is putting on a show at the Glasgow Comedy Festival based on his experiences in saving Scottish football clubs (details and tickets here). The title, ‘The Pieman Cometh,’ references how many, when faced with a club in administration, get caught up in the small things while failing to see the bigger picture. At one club, Jackson received a phone call from a gravely worried associate who believed the continued supply of pies to be the deepest concern at hand.
“You wouldn’t believe it to look at me, but I’m actually only 35,” he laughs, talking about the stress of his role. “It does take its toll. What keeps you awake at night is that you know how important it is to fans that you save their club.” But at least Jackson had fans who cared, even if it was about the pies, to count on in his many salvage jobs at Scottish football clubs.