THE Jags Foundation (TJF) were involved in negotiations for over two-and-a-half years with Three Black Cats to receive the late Euromillons winner’s 55-per-cent stake in the club before talks were concluded in August and the PTFC Trust was named as 3BC’s preferred bidder.

Last month, the share transfer was finalised, bringing the Trust’s total shareholding to 74 per cent. Here, two TJF directors – Sandy Fyfe and Graeme Cowie – discuss what comes next for the fans’ organisation in an exclusive interview with Herald and Times Sport.

You can read part I of the interview here.

TJF have claimed that club finances aren’t as healthy as the club are saying. Is that fair of me?

SF No. That’s not a TJF official position and we have never said that as an organisation.

So TJF doesn’t have concerns over the club’s financial position?

GC I think it’s fair to say that when there isn’t financial transparency, people start to ask questions. You look at Firhill at the moment and you see that the stadium isn’t in the greatest state of repair. You know that these things are expensive to fix and at some point the club is going to have to put up money for it. Even if the club is being run well, you would like to think that the club has a clear plan for those types of things and that in the longer term, we will be able to accommodate and cushion that. That’s why it was so important in our model that we raised money for the club so that additional projects could be undertaken. Where the suspicion has come in has been this refusal to allow due diligence first to us, and an insistence on saying they don’t need or want our money. That raised alarm bells for us. Why not? No company in their right mind would say to their best customers, when they’re offering them free money for nothing back essentially, “no, we don’t want that”. We do know that football clubs throughout the UK struggled throughout the pandemic. It is a matter of public record, if you look at the statements made by the club, they were making a big deal out of the fact that they didn’t get as much Covid support when they went down to the third tier. That was obviously not insignificant. We know that there was a big reduction in turnover when we went down to the third tier – that happens with big clubs like ourselves. But we need to know that we can robustly recover from that, and that involves a little bit of honesty. The atmosphere of suspicion was created by us not being allowed to do a quick check. If you look at all of the other acquisitions of fan-owned clubs – even when they have been done for nominal amounts, as was the case at Motherwell – there was still a due diligence exercise. At Morton they pretty much opened up the books to the incoming group and so they knew what they were letting themselves in for. That’s what any responsible owner of a football club would want to do. Some people are more sceptical about Thistle’s financial position than others. We no longer have the Queen’s Park money now we’re not groundsharing, we know Covid funding from government has pretty much fully fallen away. There are non-recurring sources of income there that form the basis of the last accounts we saw – and so we thought it was reasonable to ask, “what’s filling that gap in future seasons?”. It may well be that they have brought in new resources, it may well be they have cut their cloth in other areas. We just wanted to know what they have done.

In Jacqui Low’s interview with the Daily Mail, she referenced a supporter that approached a sponsor and urged them to withdraw their support from the club. Jacqui said that any entity hoping to take on the shares wouldn’t condone this behaviour. Have you got a response to that?

GC She is absolutely correct that any responsible fan ownership body would not condone people threatening and intimidating sponsors or encouraging them to withdraw funds from the club. That’s why I personally, on the forum where that was being discussed as a potential course of action, actively discouraged fans from engaging in that sort of communication. For context here, this goes back to when we had access to the ground briefly withdrawn before it was reinstated. One of the reasons that Gerry Britton gave in an email to us was that a TJF board member had sought to potentially harm the club by encouraging intimidating stuff being sent to sponsors. What had actually happened is that there was that thread on Wearethistle where some folk had discussed whether to do this. Someone had clearly sent something to a sponsor. We had been alerted to it by someone who was concerned and had become aware of that correspondence. We then sought to actively discourage any such correspondence and the club then misinterpreted our efforts to discourage that sort of thing as somehow condoning it. In reality, we were aghast. We were mortified at the idea that anyone would be purporting to do this, even if they saw it as advancing TJF’s interests – because it wasn’t. It was never going to advance our interests because it was more likely to alienate sponsors, which was one of the things I told them. It’s stooping down to the lowest level by threatening the club and it is not something that we were prepared to support, and we said as much at the time. I explained this to Jacqui Low in an email. I provided her with the full quote in the email and I said, “I hope you will withdraw the allegation and that under the circumstances we can draw a line under this and move on”. I have received no response to that email, I have received no apology and I don’t expect I will ever receive one.

The Jags Foundation is still a fundraising vehicle. What is that money going towards at the moment?

GC A combination of things. You will have seen that we recently donated £845 to the Jags for Good energy fund, which is a fantastic initiative that’s helping to fight fuel poverty in north-west Glasgow. It represented one pound from every member at that time. We were able to do that because we sold more Doolan pins than we originally anticipated we were going to sell. The fans love that piece of memorabilia, that bit of Thistle history. We thought, ‘what better way to support the wider Thistle community than through a great initiative that’s already there?’. Supporters’ organisations always have to build up a little bit of a sink fund to ensure that if any little shocks or unexpected expenses come a cropper, that they are ready to be able to meet those expectations. That is one of the responsible things that we have done – we have built up a comfortable cushion there. We also have operating costs to hold things like events. When we held the barbecue, that was free admission to everyone and we had to hire a hall for our EGM. You have got admin costs when you run an organisation to run it properly and run it well. But also, we’ve had to take professional advice on things in this process. We thought it would be prudent to retain lawyers to be able to make sure we were doing things the right way and that costs money. But in the future our priorities on this might change a bit, particularly now that it is clear that we are not intended to become a majority shareholder anytime soon. One of the things that we mentioned in the EGM is this idea of participatory budgeting where you get your members involved with deciding what projects you should financially support. There is a great precedent for this at St Mirren with SMiSA. We had a couple of their guys on a fan ownership panel at our EGM and they were telling us how that helped them support particularly the youth team there but also lots of other community projects. The idea is that you get fans to pitch good and new ideas for how their money can best be used. That might be to improve the matchday experience at Firhill if the club is willing to work with us on that; it might be helping the wider Maryhill and Thistle communities in other ways. But we would have loved, in this process, to have been able to go to the club to improve its position. They told us they don’t want that money. So we will take a steer from our members on where they think it should go and we will go from there.

What was your reaction to the news of the share transfer going through?

GC We weren’t entirely surprised. It was a real gutter punch. You put a lot of your own time – now, we’re all professional people, a couple of us are retired but I’m not one of them – we have day jobs, we have other commitments. But this is something we decided to take on over and above that because we all love our club. And to see potentially a lot of that effort to have appeared to have gone to waste or not to have been appreciated by those with the ability to recognise and make use of it – it’s really frustrating. It makes you feel a bit disillusioned but then you dust yourself down and think, ‘we never expected this to be easy, we signed up for this and we have a duty to our members to keep going until they tell us otherwise’.

SF I think my feeling was that this was the end of a chapter but we just move on to the next chapter. As an organisation, at our board meetings we are looking ahead now. We are looking at how to best represent our members, how to continue engaging with our members, how to get their input into what we do next, and how we move forward from there. And try to be the best possible version of a supporters’ organisation that we can be – as a supporters’ organisation with or without shares. There is precedent for that – there is an example of it at Brentford, where there is a sort of ‘golden shares’ scenario from one supporters’ organisation to another, who incidentally have no shares, and get virtually the same input and representation that the PTFC Trust have negotiated for themselves. There has been some studies done in English football and there is increasing voices for supporters’ organisations. That’s not supporters’ organisations with shares, that’s supporters’ organisations generally and we don’t see why that can’t be appropriate to The Jags Foundation in the future.

GC Also, bluntly, we know that about half of our members are season ticket holders and will have a say in shaping what the PTFC Trust looks like. We are here to try and provide leadership, resources and thinking about how they can best influence an organisation of which they are, after all, intended to become beneficiaries of and have a say over. If and when they ever get round to their elections – for what it’s worth, we think they should have a full slate of elections before the end of this year – we will try to give fans more control of that organisation. That’s going to have to be one of the important starting points if we are to get proper fan ownership at Thistle that’s worth a candle.

I know you have said you need to consult your members but what do you envision for the future of The Jags Foundation?

GC That’s going to depend, in significant part, on whether the PTFC Trust are willing to work with us. If they are willing to work with us then we can explore ways to improve their model, to point out best practice from other clubs, to encourage them to engage and to learn from our experiences of engaging with the Thistle support so that they can do that better. If they are genuinely serious about engaging the Thistle support then we are happy to provide advice to support and to help that. I suspect some of our members will be interested in directly influencing the elections of the PTFC Trust. We will provide encouragement there where we can. But in terms of our organisation, at the bare minimum we intend to be the primary supporters’ association, the body that fans want to be represented by. And for as long as there are many hundreds that want to do that, we will find ways to articulate and amplify their voice. I think we have learned a lot in this process about how to amplify our fans’ voice, how to make it heard, and that is something that we intend to carry on doing.

SF It’s not mutually exclusive either: you can be a beneficiary and a member of TJF. I think in future we want to be where the cool kids hang out and everyone can come and we can have a vibrant supporters’ organisation that’s fun to be a part of. We don’t want this negativity any more than anyone else; we want to be positive, represent our members, engage with other supporters – be they the Jags Trust, PTFC Trust or people that are not aligned to anyone. The starting point for that is any engagement we can get with the PTFC Trust.

GC The other thing is that we want to grow the Thistle support. The great thing about engagement activity, whether it’s through or with other community organisations, is that you start to get people along to Firhill that weren’t going before. In the long term that creates new Jags fans. That is the virtuous circle that leads to greater success on the pitch. When you have got bigger crowds and more feet through the gate, that’s really what a football club is all about in terms of building that community that’s successful on and off the park. We will play any role we can in that – whether it is bringing out the best in others or whether it’s taking the lead on specific things.

TJF have accused the Trustees of colluding with their predecessors when drawing up their fan ownership proposal. The Trust categorically reject any accusations of outside influence. What evidence have you got to support your theory? Why does TJF take this position?

SF We have said to people before – Thistle supporters are a community and people in the community talk to each other. I have said to people involved in this process, “you have to assume we know everything”. I read the reply that Richard Beastall gave you last week about the minutes. We tried to professionalise the process and make it more like a formal transaction, and we were told over and over that we didn’t need ‘x’ suggestion, whatever suggestion we had just come up with, because this is a gift. I would say that equally there is no commercial sensitivity with a gift. Commercial sensitivity goes with a commercial transaction. So there must be reasons that they don’t wish to publish those minutes – and if our thoughts on those minutes are wrong, they could simply dispel them by publishing the minutes. And then they could just own what happened, you know? They might be able to justify it to the support. But in terms of the specifics of what Richard said to you, he referred to a Trust member – what even is a Trust member? Trusts have trustees and they have beneficiaries. Regardless of that, I’m confident there is no such allegation in those minutes so that’s just a red herring. Thirdly, commercial sensitivity surely only applies before a deal is done; once the deal is done, what commercial sensitivity might remain in a gifting scenario? It’s hard to think what that might be. Fourthly, even if the commercial sensitivity argument was accepted, the Trust claimed they only came together in late May. If you recall, we were asking for the minutes from April and early May so I don’t even see how that’s relevant and how that links to them. Fifthly, and finally, normal practice where commercial sensitivity is required and minutes are required to be published is to simply redact the areas that are commercially sensitive. So there is a mechanism to still publish them with those areas redacted.

GC The one other thing I would add is that if these minutes that contain what we think they contain really do contain commercially sensitive information, is it not a bit telling that they had no problem publishing the minutes every single time up to and including March 2022? If this was a forum in which commercially sensitive things were discussed, why were those minutes routinely published to the extent where there was an established practice, and an expectation that that’s where beneficiaries would find out about Trust activities? If commercially sensitive information was being discussed at those meetings – and bear in mind, this is when the Trust still had two club board members and the club CEO as Trustees – why? Commercially sensitive information to whom? Are we talking about commercially sensitive information about the club? And if so, was it appropriate for that to be shared with the Trust? That’s a question I would ask. Bear in mind how little access to information that TJF, as the only public expressed interested party in acquiring the shareholding, was being given. That just raises more questions than answers for me. If they are talking about commercially sensitive things, that’s as good as admitting that there was something pretty significant and substantial in the note of interest that as a matter of public domain, the earlier Trustees expressed. We are confident that if they publish the minutes, our understanding of the situation will be borne out by the facts. If they have nothing to hide, publish.

Is there anything else you would like to discuss that hasn’t come up?

SF I think we have covered virtually everything that we think are the current issues. I think we definitely would like to mention, anytime we speak to anyone, how grateful we are towards our members. They have been hugely supportive. Sometimes they have challenged us and that’s good, we welcome that challenge. It is really refreshing and it keeps us on our toes. It has been great for us because there is always a danger of groupthink and so these external voices are great for us to hear. In terms of the future – we can see a vision where sure, we are disappointed not to have the shares, but we think we can represent our members effectively and make this a great members’ organisation that people just want to be a part of because of the good, creative, innovative things that we choose to do.