N.B. This interview was conducted in early March, before the indefinite postponement of the SPFL. 

THE last 12 months have been remarkably eventful for Partick Thistle, to say the least. In that time, the Firhill club have survived back-to-back relegations. Long-serving players like Kris Doolan have left, while other fan favourites in the shape of Alan Archibald and Ian McCall have returned to Maryhill. There has been interest in buying the Championship club from a billionaire consortium, and there has been a successful takeover from Colin Weir – with a view to transferring the majority of shares over to supporters – who then died a little over a month later. And all that is before we even mention the global pandemic that has sent Scottish sport into lockdown.

It is these off-field matters which are of greatest concern to many of the club’s supporters, with Thistle’s longevity at stake. After Weir’s company Three Black Cats bought a controlling stake in the club – and, crucially, some of the land that the stadium is built on that the club did not own – a Working Group was established to oversee the transfer of shares to supporters.

The Working Group, made up of around 40 volunteers, faces an unenviable task. The original deadline for the share transfer to be completed by the end of March was optimistic at best and Weir’s death in December made this highly unlikely. But Ian Wright, chairman of the Working Group, has urged his fellow fans to see the bigger picture. After all, he says, it is more prudent to ensure the transfer happens successfully than to rush to meet arbitrary timescales.

“Colin’s death was an immense blow to us. It did take the wind out of everybody’s sails a little bit,” he said. “Everybody has had to take a step back, just to make sure that what we’re doing is correct but that commitment is still there and I have no doubt that it will happen.

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“It’s important that we get this right rather than get it done in a hurry. Colin’s wishes were that we would get it done by the 30th of March. That was possible but it was always going to be a big task. Unfortunately, when Colin passed away, the technicalities of it became very difficult and it became obvious that we weren’t going to make that target.

“It will happen in the near future. It’s not going to get dragged out. There is an absolute commitment from Three Black Cats to pass over these shares to the fan group, there’s no dilution of that. We’re not talking years from now.

"There isn’t a timescale worked out yet. We are working backwards from the type of company that will need to be set up to hold the shares for the fan group and we’re working back the way in the legalities of how we put that together."

One area of concern amongst some Thistle supporters is that of the land purchased by Weir. In the initial announcement of the deal back in November, the area known as ‘the bing’ – which was owned by a third party, Firhill Developments Ltd – was to be transferred back to the club within seven days. We are now five months on and the land is still owned by Three Black Cats – but Wright was at pains to point out that there is nothing untoward about this.

“[Chairman] Jacqui [Low] has said that there is an agreement giving the club exclusive use of the land until it can be transferred back,” he said. “It’s not that it isn’t going to happen. All transactions involving any legal elements have to be looked at very carefully. There is a fully-binding legal agreement giving Partick Thistle exclusive use of that land until that can happen and I am absolutely confident that it will happen.

“There’s maybe some breathing space that we now have because the deadline has been relaxed. It allows us to look at thing a little bit differently. We can go back now and look at the structures, make sure that the right ones are in place and that the fans are behind us.

"We can engage properly with the fans to make sure that we’re setting up what they want rather than rushing ahead to a date where we have to have the shares transferred. That will happen but it isn’t actually so important that it happens at the beginning of the process. By the end of the process, it absolutely has to happen and we have a guarantee that that will be the case.”

Low was reinstated as chairman of Partick Thistle last month after the club’s board voted unanimously for the appointment, leaving her in a curious position. A close friend of Weir, Low is a director of Three Black Cats and with her return as club chair now has a leading role in two of the three bodies (Partick Thistle, Three Black Cats and the Working Group) involved in the negotiation to ensure the share transfer goes ahead.

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In usual circumstances, this could be seen as something of a conflict of interest. But as Wright points out, there is nothing conventional about this negotiation.

“There isn’t really a conflict of interest,” Wright asserts. “You have to take on board that we’re not opposite parties here; this is not a normal business negotiation. We’re negotiating with people that essentially want the same outcome as we do. It isn’t a hostile negotiation, as some of social media might have portrayed it to be. It doesn’t have to be that way at all and it isn’t that way behind the scenes.”

Wright says that there is no strict model of fan ownership that the club are looking to replicate in its entirety, but he says it would be remiss not to look at two high-profile examples close to home. Hearts are on the brink of becoming fan owned, with the club's share transfer expected to go through once the coronavirus pandemic subsides and normal life resumes, while Motherwell have been a fan-owned entity for a couple of years now - and relatively successful, too.

"You basically have two different bodies – and this is the way that the Well model is set up as well," Wright explained. "There will be a fans group that owns shares in the club and there will continue to be a separate Partick Thistle football club run along the lines it is now but with more fan influence. The new entity will essentially be able to build up funds and be able to direct the club.

"There are specific groups within the working group looking at different models. There’s a group for a model for community ownership that are looking at models that are already there, and the two most successful ones are the Motherwell model and the Hearts scenario.

"Obviously, the Hearts model has to be set up to cope with their 18,000 subscribers. Realistically, we will never get that. The Motherwell model isn’t too far away - Colin himself said that he thought we should be looking at something close to the Motherwell model.

"We’re hoping to get representatives from Motherwell and Hearts along to try and explain to our fanbase how theirs work. Now, we’re not saying that we are just going to copy what they’re doing, we’re not. We’re looking for a Thistle model but certainly it would be based along the principles of the Well Society. We’re going to have a good look at how it works for them. There’s no point in reinventing the wheel if there is a model that’s proven to work."

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The Well Society operates with supporters signing up and making a monthly contribution, thus becoming members. Wright was quick to stress that nothing is set in stone yet, but reckons that only by being a member will an individual have a say in the running of the club.

"We have to look at the structures of all of this but more than likely yes, you would have to be a member. It will be a legal entity in its own right so for you to have a say in that legal entity, you will have to be a member," he said.

So, will there be any restrictions on who can join as a member?

"I would like to be able to say no but there may be some financial ones, where it’s simply not viable to pay in a pound a month if the admin costs to manage that are higher than that," Wright admitted. "But we are looking to set it at a level where anyone who is seriously a Partick Thistle fan can look at getting involved.

"They can ask themselves: ‘What do I spend my money on? If I was to give a little bit to the club, where would I see that being used? Is it going to make the club better? Will it take the club forward?’. That could be someone that wants us to put more money into the women’s football team, that could be allowing the fans to say they want better disabled access to the ground, we want better facilities at the ground, and some of that could be directed to specific projects. So it will allow the fans to have a great deal of influence on the direction of the club.

"The club will still be an independent body in its own right. The club board will still make the decisions for Partick Thistle and the manager will certainly still pick the team.

"The fans' entity as a whole will gain power and they will always have that, when the shares are transferred they’ll be the biggest shareholder. These things are all very much in discussion at the moment and this is part of the fan engagement process.

"It may be that we set different levels [of membership]; there might be different advantages to those member levels, there might be different perks to those member levels that could maybe involve matchday hospitality or other benefits when they’re actually at the game. These are the things we have got to take on board from the fans and figure out what the fans really want, so we can encourage people to put their hands in their pockets."

Whenever Scottish football resumes, attention will once again turn to on-the-pitch matters. With the club embroiled in a relegation scrap, the Jags will be fighting to survive in the Championship once again. The prospect of relegation is very real, but Wright insists that this will have no effect on the transfer of shares to supporters.

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"This process is absolute and will happen," Wright insisted. "Relegation would obviously have financial effects on the club. It might make it more of a call to arms for the supporters to get behind their club if that happened.

"My understanding of the club’s finances – and I am a shareholder – is that we are in good, robust health. Obviously dropping out of the division would put a strain on that but I have every confidence in the current Partick Thistle board that they will be putting plans in place and it’s their job to do that.

"It’s not the fans’ board’s job to make those kinds of decisions and it never would be. The balance is the influence that the fans group will have on the club board."

So, looking ahead, what does Wright hope the future of the club will look like?

"My vision of the future is involving all of the Partick Thistle fans in a community structure, getting them to feel and realise that this is their club," he said. "That’s what Colin Weir has left us, he’s left us a football club. That will be his legacy. What we have to do is convert somebody who turns up to watch Thistle now and again to believe fully that Thistle is their club, that ‘We Are Thistle’ could not be any truer.

"If we can get that feeling behind the club, if we can harness that power of the fans we have, if we can grow the fanbase then we will take Partick Thistle to a stronger level than it’s ever been at. The need for a benefactor, the need to bring in somebody with a pile of cash every so often – sometimes it’s worked, sometimes it’s went horrendously wrong. In fact, it’s went horrendously wrong more often than it’s worked. You only have to look at some of the bigger clubs, or what happened with Gretna. It’s not a sustainable model.

"What is a sustainable model – and what Colin Weir’s vision was – is to give the shares of the club to the fans and to make the fans the custodians of Partick Thistle, to set up a structure that allows the fans as much input into their club as is possible, and to grow that club. And actually to become the club’s benefactor because pledges to the club, as that side of it grows, will one way or another work its way back to bring Partick Thistle onto a new level. Whether it’s disabled facilities or helping the club out, there are loads of ways that backing by the fans can help. We’re looking to grow to promote Partick Thistle and show what a community football club really can be.

"That’s my vision of it. And my vision is that in 20 years’ time, we’re playing at the very top level in Scotland that we possibly can with substantially bigger crowds than we have now – with fans that believe Partick Thistle really belongs to them."