St Mirren condemned by a simple error of judgement

By Richard WilsonBBC Scotland
Liam Boyce celebrates as Ross County defeat St Mirren 3-0
St Mirren lost 3-0 to relegation rivals Ross County on Monday

Recriminations have begun to gather around St Mirren. The club is now adrift and certain to be either relegated or involved in a play-off, so the only purpose left seems to be to apportion blame.

Supporters are aggrieved at the helplessness of the team's situation and patience has worn so thin that only indignation remains. Players were booed off the field after the 3-0 defeat by Ross County that condemned the Paisley side to finishing in the bottom two.

The ringing despair would have felt familiar since the team has won only once, scoring just eight goals, at home this season. Fans want change, inevitably, but they also want answers. Or at least for their own views of why the club is in this position to be validated.

The theory is commonly held: the St Mirren directors want to sell the club so have no intention of investing further and, in the meantime, the team stagnates. That is too simplistic, of course, but there is an element of truth to it also.

Stewart Gilmour, the St Mirren chairman, spoke before the Ross County game about the personal nature of some of the criticism directed towards the board. He sounded emotional and the sense was of a raw, exposed state of mind.

St Mirren chairman Stewart Gilmour and former manager Tommy Craig
St Mirren chairman Stewart Gilmour admits Tommy Craig was a bad choice of manager

The reality, as he might have pointed out, is that he and his fellow directors pooled their resources to save the club - one took out a second mortgage on his house - and steered the club to a debt-free existence in a newly-built stadium and, along the way, to two League Cup finals.

It is not apathy, a lack of willingness, or any kind of indifference that has led St Mirren to the brink of relegation. As Gilmour admitted, the board made a mistake in appointing Tommy Craig as successor to Danny Lennon last summer, an error compounded by the recruitment decisions that followed.

Few would have argued that there was a need for change, since Lennon's reign had run its course. There seemed no logic in promoting his assistant, though, since Craig had been an integral part of Lennon's coaching regime.

The frustration of the support partly stems from the fact that many fans and voices around the game immediately identified it as a flawed decision. Gilmour and his fellow directors might accept that analysis, and the consequences of it, but beyond that they have run the club as they always have - soundly with care and sensibility.

This is where fans rail. Craig's successor, Gary Teale, worked tirelessly through the January transfer window to try to bring players to the club, only to watch his targets end up moving to other teams - in particular, those facing St Mirren in the relegation battle. At the end of the window, St Mirren then sold their best player, Kenny McLean, to Aberdeen for a comparatively low six-figure fee.

Could the situation have been different? Only if the St Mirren board had spent beyond their means and the directors had rescinded an agreement struck with McLean when he signed a new contract that he could leave for any offer above a certain fee.

Further investment by the directors would also raise the asking price of the club, since the shareholders who want to sell are only looking to recoup the money they have put in. St Mirren can be bought for around £1.3m, although it is of course only worth what a buyer is prepared to pay.

This is the simple truth for St Mirren: the directors want to sell, feeling that they have taken the club as far as they can, but no committed purchaser with enough resources has emerged. In the meantime, they run the club on the money it brings in so that it does not go into debt.

St Mirren manager Gary Teale
St Mirren have lost five games in a row under Gary Teale

If clubs around them are prepared to gamble because wealthy individuals will spend money that in all likelihood they will never recoup then that is a problem outwith St Mirren's control.

The board cannot be absolved of blame, but neither can they be vilified. Similarly, Teale has managed his resources as best he can, but he is a rookie and the team was already bereft. Younger players will play more often in the coming weeks, yet even then, other clubs have made more profit from assets they have developed than St Mirren in recent years.

The club needs an overhaul and the board has discussed the structural reorganisation that might be required if it is to operate on a Championship budget. In truth, it is a small workforce and the players' contracts have relegation clauses that will immediately reduce the budget.

St Mirren have spent within their means and, while some fans will gripe that investment might have saved them, that prudent approach also means that the club is better prepared to survive relegation.

It will not be financially catastrophic. What lies within the anger around St Mirren is a fundamental question: should a club be reliant on a benefactor, in the way that Motherwell currently have Les Hutchison and Ross County have Roy MacGregor, or should it live within its means?

A group of St Mirren fans once tried to raise the money to buy the club. They fell short and, while fan ownership brings long-term stability, fan groups do not generally hold the kind of resources that allow investment beyond the funds that a club raises itself.

In the end, what is condemning St Mirren to their likely fate is a simple error of judgement.