You seemed so full of sweetness at the start…
It was what you did when Danny Coffey died, you see. You made sure the club supported the family, you made sure the whole of the Park Hotel was available for after his funeral and you stood at the door of the hotel personally greeting everyone who arrived. Elsewhere, the then manager Jim Jefferies led a goodly number of the first and youth playing squads into the chapel, all of them there to pay respects to the tragic early loss of a lifelong Killie fan. He had been a stalwart too of the supporters’ association and countless other related club initiatives.
Then there was how you responded to the news that the town was to lose its century old connection with Johnny Walker whisky. “Diageo’s decision to close the Johnnie Walker plant in Kilmarnock must be reversed. Kilmarnock Football Club will support the employees whose jobs are under threat and our local politicians in their campaign to keep Johnnie Walker in Kilmarnock where it was founded in 1820.” The club was at the forefront of that campaign, launching a petition, taking part in the march and rally.
Here was a man with not only the best interests of the football club at heart, but who also understood that those interests were intertwined with those of the town as a whole. Who seemed effortlessly to get that it really was all about club and community.
So, how did we end up here?
But like a big red rose that’s made of paper, there isn’t any sweetness in your heart..
There was the sacking of Kenny Shiels. Now managers come and they go. But it is widely acknowledged that Scottish football has to do different if it is to survive, as an entity and as the sum of its parts. The splash and bling model of old is over, except that clubs are still nursing their debt hangovers and will be for a long time yet. For those who cannot come up with a suitable, sustainable future model the writing is on the wall and for Hearts and Dunfermline, the fat lady has indeed sung her last.
But Kenny Shiels got it. The way of the future was to develop the youth and bring on our own players. Killie has had a fine tradition of doing so – it’s a little known fact that Kris Boyd donated his Rangers’ signing on fee to Kilmarnock youth development to say thanks for what it did for him. Shiels was determined to use his talent, tenacity and temerity to deliver more, with a five year plan at least that kept the footballing side of things healthy. The fact that he was a character, that he stood up to the suits and defended his wee diddy club’s right to exist and to be treated fairly was a bonus. At times, his philosophical ramblings were hard to decipher but that was all part of the charm. Here was a thinker and a do-er and we were lucky to have him.
Then there was the dumping of Garry Hay. The boy who was only ever Kilmarnock and while his best days were behind him, a more loyal servant on and off the field in Scottish football is hard to name. He played all his career at his hometown club and Kenny Shiels realised the value of that commitment, ensuring he went for his coaching tickets, guaranteeing him a start on the managerial rung where his heart belonged. But with Shiels sacked and Nicholl departing, you decided to call time on Hay’s career too. Eighteen years and gone in a phone call. Shocking.
Many have commented on Killie’s shoogly finances – a debt of £11 million is pretty huge, much of it incurred before your time in the hotseat. But that ignores the overall financial picture and here you deserve praise. Costs are generally down and the club has significant assets and alternative income generators in the hotel, the flats and the fitness centre. Kilmarnock has suffered badly in the economic downturn so the fact that these assets are continuing to generate similar income and profit to sustain the club as in previous years is evidence of sound fiscal management. And if the worst came to the worst, a fire sale would at least realise sufficient to cover the principal debt sum. The fact that you have resisted temptation to sell anything off is welcome.
But you have also closed the door firmly to the prospect of alternative investment. During your time as chairman, you have increased your shareholding, spurned the chance to bring others on board and tightened your grip on power. There is only one director these days, you.
When key club sponsors – even the bakers of the famous Killie pie are rebelling – then the game’s a bogey. In a few short weeks, you have managed by your actions to unite the town, the fanbase, local businesses, the football commentariat and segments of the wider Scottish footballing community. No mean feat.
They are all of a mind – Johnston must go. They might disagree on the tactics: not everyone agrees that the way to force your departure is by starving the club of bums on seats. You might calculate that this provides a glimmer of hope, a sliver of a wedge which you can wield to cling on to your power base. You’re wrong. This only demonstrates that some love their club so much they are prepared to follow it no matter what happens off the field. For you, of all people, to try to use such commitment to your advantage sums it all up.
And for you to try to stave off the inevitable by conducting public slanging matches with potential investors, in an attempt to demolish their credibility, suggests that it has indeed, become all about you and no longer about Kilmarnock FC.
Therein lies the crux. When it comes down to it, you want to preserve your fiefdom at all costs, even if that results in the demise of one of Scotland’s oldest and proudest football clubs.
As the song suggests, no matter how real the roses and the love for Killie seemed in the beginning, they have been found out, in the end, to be only imitation.