The Merger That Shook Scottish Football – The ES Clydebank Story

The 1964/65 season in Scotland featured the highly unusual anomaly of a new football club created by means of a merger. In a move more akin to American Major League Baseball than Scottish Second Division football, East Stirlingshire and Clydebank Juniors, whose grounds were 32 miles apart, merged to form East Stirlingshire Clydebank. American baseball team owners routinely cited financial problems and/or fan indifference as the reason to move to an area they saw as more prosperous and that was also the claim, one later disputed in a 1965 court case, that led to Falkirk-based East Stirlingshire making the journey to Clydebank.

The story starts some years earlier, in 1957, when the brothers Jack and Charles Steedman acquired a 51% share in East Stirlingshire. At that time the club held virtually no assets; indeed, there was only one signed player and the Firs Park ground they called home was rented from British Railways on a year-to-year lease. Gates in that first season were often less than 200 and The Shire had duly finished bottom of the Second Division.

To attract more spectators the Steedmans radically changed existing policy and concentrated, often at their own expense, on signing players from the Junior leagues. The model was to acquire youth, bring them on by coaching and sell them on for a profit once larger clubs became interested with profits to be re-invested in good quality Second Division class players.

“When we took over we ran them in such a way that we were signing players who were not good enough to play for other teams,” Jack Steedman said when I spoke to him for my book on Clydebank. “Free transfer players. We knew there was no future in that, so we started looking for young kids.”

A new found enthusiasm from the fans also contributed to a turnaround in the club’s fortunes with their weekly sweepstakes contribution playing a major role in the increasing success. In 1962-63 East Stirlingshire completed the transformation from perennial Second Division strugglers to earn a place in Scotland’s top league. The Shire pipped Morton by a single point to achieve promotion along with champions St Johnstone. They were now a First Division club for the first time in 30 years and attendances were on the rise as well with around 7000 fans turning up to home games to see them during the run-in to the season’s climax.

Celtic v East Stirlingshire, February 1964

Life was tough in the First Division and after 11 matches The ‘Shire were just above the two relegation places. The Steedmans decided that action was required to halt the slide and in November 1963 they announced that 13 of the playing staff would go full-time. Before the club could get the benefit of full-time training they had lost another two league matches and the first match for the full-time squad was a midweek friendly against Chelsea, as the London side fulfilled its obligations in respect of the transfers of Eddie McCreadie, Tommy Knox and Jim Mulholland. The sides drew 2-2.

Although the first league game as a full-time side was won, 2-1 vs Third Lanark, Shire went on to suffer six straight defeats. Moving full-time midway through the season took its toll on the players’ stamina. Without a pre-season of full-time training to adjust, some players found that the extra work through the week took its toll on their bodies come match day. Money too was an issue, as although players were now on a full-time wage, they found that items such as travel expenses were now no longer being paid by the club.

East Stirlingshire recorded a victory in just one more league match, the penultimate game of the season against Aberdeen, and ended the season bottom of the division. The entire team was put up for sale. It was at this point that Charles and Jack began to think of relocating as they had come to believe that in order to sustain football in Falkirk, the team must have a minimum home attendance of 5000 with the development club providing a weekly income of £200. The average attendance for season 1963-64 was around 3000, and the development club was turning in just half of the directors’ target.

The Steedmans began to look around for a suitable location to move the club to before the start of the following season. Cumbernauld and Grangemouth were both rejected. The next place they turned to was Clydebank, located just 7 miles away from where their successful car dealership was based.

ES Clydebank team shot

They contacted Clydebank Juniors match secretary Ritchie MacDonald. “I was delighted to learn that the club was extremely solvent,” Jack said. “They had considerable assets and virtually no current liabilities.” The brothers met with Clydebank officials in March of 1964 and a board meeting was called at Firs Park for 8th April. At that meeting the directors unanimously approved the merger proposal.

On 9th April at the Clydebank Juniors AGM their members voted 21 votes to 7 in favour of merging. A week later Charles and Jack Steedman, held a press conference in Glasgow to announce that a merger between East Stirlingshire and Clydebank Juniors had been agreed.

The governing bodies had no reason to block to the merger. Scottish Football League Secretary Fred Denovan said, “There is nothing in the constitution of either the SFA or the Scottish League to bar the amalgamation and the playing of the amalgamated team in the League next season.” The Scottish Football Association confirmed that they too would have no objections over the move, so long as Clydebank’s ground conformed to their existing regulations.

While the reaction among the locals in Clydebank was positive the news was far less welcome on the streets of Falkirk. The Supporters Club chairman John Crozier said, “We are shocked at the decision to take the club away from Falkirk and will try to do what we can to keep it in the town.” The Supporters Club were the largest shareholders at the club, outside of the Steedman brothers. Treasurer Tom Brown was adamant. “We must fight the move,” he said, “the cost is no object.”

The fightback began with a public meeting on 21st April at Oddfellows Hall in Falkirk. Although invited, the Steedmans declined to attend. Here it was decided that the Shareholders would take up the fight to keep the club in Falkirk. At this meeting the supporters and shareholders checked the voting rights in the Articles of Association and realised that there was a potential weakness in the Steedmans’ position and they could potentially be outvoted. The Provost of Falkirk, John Maxwell, attended the meeting and used the platform to lambaste the Steedman brothers. An action that did not sit well with Jack Steedman.

The EGM scheduled for the 24th April was subsequently cancelled in writing by the Steedmans in a fit of pique as much as anything. The letter was a sound rebuke to those who disparaged the brothers at the Oddfellows Hall meeting and closed with an offer to sell the club if someone made a suitable bid within seven days. Robert Corbett led a consortium in an attempt to take up the Steedmans on their offer to accept any ‘realistic and genuine’ offer within seven days but the Steedmans turned the consortium’s offer down flat.

In May Charles Steedman released a statement confirming that the merger between The Shire and Clydebank was complete and ratified by solicitors for both sides. The company would still be known as East Stirlingshire Football and Athletic Club, Ltd, but the registered office would move to Glasgow. The team would be known as ES Clydebank, a name inspired by the Hungarian side MTK Budapest. Work then began on dismantling the enclosure at Firs Park in order to transport it to Clydebank. The Shire supporters held another meeting further expressing their anger and frustration. The result of this was that East Stirlingshire Supporters club sent letters to all senior teams in Scotland asking for their help in blocking the merger, but only four clubs replied.

ES Clydebank v Stenhousemuir

The Clydebank public welcomed the new club in numbers. A crowd of 6000 turned up for their opening game. Eight of those lining up had played in East Stirlingshire’s last game of the 1963-64 season. The entire Clydebank Juniors team had been freed or had signed up with other clubs at that season’s end. The first-half was goalless, but the home fans had something to shout about five minutes into the second. Andy Roxburgh, the Steedman brothers’ nephew, sent over a cross that was perfectly met by Arthur Hamill to head ES Clydebank into a one goal lead. Four minutes later Stenhousemuir were level when Pat Henderson shot past Johnny Arrol. In the 60th minute Stenhousemuir went in front when Bobby Bryce scored. But the new team weren’t to open with a defeat. With only a minute left on the clock it was Hammill on target once more, this time sending a right foot shot into the bottom corner to make the final score two-all.

ES Clydebank’s first win came in the league, 4-1 away to Alloa Athletic on Wednesday 19th August to set in motion a fine run of results. Attendances at Kilbowie were still healthy with 6300 coming to see a one-all draw with Queen of the South in October. Raith Rovers stopped ES making it nine games undefeated on 7th November when they won 3-0 at Stark’s Park.

In the New Year of 1965 ES lost the derby with Dumbarton while back in court Lord Hunter’s latest judgement on 20th January suggested that things were not looking good for the Steedmans. Another significant shareholder James Middlemass had contended that the Steedmans’ transfer of shares to individuals outwith the company was in contravention of the club’s articles and associations. In court the Steedmans admitted they had transferred shares to employees of Milngavie Motors but denied however that the transfer was invalid. It was Lord Hunter’s view that Mr. Middlemass was entitled to an inquiry.

ES Clydebank v Sunderland programme cover

In the first round of the Scottish Cup ES Clydebank had drawn 1-1 away to Hibernian. ES had lined up a glamour friendly that would take place only two days after the cup tie and two days before the replay. Sunderland had been invited for the official inauguration of the new floodlights at Kilbowie Park. With a 7.30 kick-off the game attracted an attendance of over 10,000. The teams came on to the pitch in darkness as Provost Donald Paterson formally switched on the £10,000 floodlights, which Jack Steedman called, ‘The best in Britain’. Roxburgh scored for ES Clydebank two minutes from time as Sunderland won 5-1.

On the 10th February Kilbowie Park was full once again, this time for the Scottish Cup replay with Hibernian with an attendance that is commonly referred to as a record for the ground at 14,900 though contemporary sources attribute the attendance as closer to 11,500. A fighting performance from the home side wasn’t enough as Hibs went through with a 2-0 win. With a postponement of the league fixture with Stenhousemuir, ES Clydebank’s next game was another floodlit friendly against English opposition at Kilbowie, this time Ipswich Town were the visitors. A crowd of 5000 watched ES Clydebank win 2-1.

Hibs v ES Clydebank, Scottish Cup

The court case was brought forward to begin in front of Lord Hunter on 16th March so as to not adversely affect preparations for the 1965-66 fixture list. The requests being made by Mr. Middlemass and his fellow directors’ case included a banning of the transfer of business from Falkirk to Clydebank. The Steedmans’ response was that club business can be and is being conducted more profitably and successfully at Clydebank. They also denied that the transfer of shares was invalid.

Had the move to Clydebank been justified Steedman was asked. “There is no doubt,” he replied. “The profit to the end of December last year was £2600 and today it must be in the region of £7000 or £8000 for the year ending May 31, 1965. There is no comparison with the figure of a year ago.” The hearing ended on Friday 26th March 1965, with Lord Hunter promising his decision would arrive in the not too distant future.

The ES Clydebank side was always in with a chance of promotion, but in the last few weeks of the season an inconsistent run of form saw them miss out. Only one win in their last ten games, saw them finish fifth in the table, ten points behind second placed Hamilton Accies.

East Stirlingshire new chairman

In front of a packed Court of Session on Friday 7th May 1965 Lord Hunter ruled that the transfer of shares which resulted in the move of East Stirlingshire to Clydebank was invalid and should be nullified. On the geographical location of Clydebank being an attraction to the brothers, Lord Hunter said, “I am satisfied that they also had reasons of a more personal character for supporting an amalgamation with Clydebank Juniors Football Club.” Lord Hunter turned next to the Steedmans’ assertion that East Stirlingshire were facing financial catastrophe and creditors’ liquidation. “This was, in my opinion, an exaggeration, and it is probable the company and its team had weathered worst storms in the past.”

The EGM took place six days later. Jack Steedman told the Evening Times that he and brother Charles would be attending. “The average attendance at East Stirling meetings has been eight or nine in the past, but I have no doubt it will be a record tonight. It will be an interesting meeting.”

At the meeting it was decided to move East Stirlingshire back to Falkirk and return to the name East Stirlingshire. The club colours would also revert back to black and white horizontal one-inch stripes. The 35 shareholders from Falkirk all supported the election of five new directors to the board, taking the number from five to eight. Charles Steedman was deposed as Chairman and Jack Steedman voted out of office as Secretary. The new chairman would be James Middlemass. The brothers resigned a few days later. They would join the Clydebank board and a new company Clydebank Football Club Ltd was formed shortly afterwards.

Firs Park Miracle

Twenty years later Jack Steedman would admit that the move to transport East Stirlingshire to Clydebank was morally wrong. “As far as the emotional side was concerned we were totally in the wrong,” Steedman said. “We knew at the time that it was wrong of us to deprive the handful of people immersed in the club of the right to watch the team on Saturday.”

Clydebank FC were now in a footballing wilderness. Having vacated their position in the junior ranks they had now lost their place in the senior league. The plan now was to apply for membership of the Scottish League in their own right. With the Scottish league having 37 teams, leaving one team sitting idle each week in the Second Division, it seemed that acceptance of Clydebank’s application was virtually assured. The League Management Committee called a special meeting where Clydebank’s proposal would be put to the ballot needing a two-thirds majority to be carried. When the result of the secret ballot was announced 19 clubs had voted in favour of the proposal with 18 against. Far from the two-thirds majority required. Clydebank had been refused admission to the Scottish League. The decision was condemned in the sports pages of both the Daily Record and the Evening Times.

Clydebank had a back up plan however. They would now apply to join the Combined Reserve League where they played for one season before being accepted into the Scottish Football League for the beginning of the 1966/67 season.

Brief footage of East Stirlingshire and their fans on their first game back at Firs Park against Alloa Athletic in August of 1965.

The season that ES Clydebank played in Scottish football is one that doesn’t sit easily in the history of either club. Although, with the court judgement, it does appear that the season could be regarded as East Stirlingshire playing out of town for a year, East Stirlingshire fans are content to disregard the season from the club’s history. Clydebank’s formation as a senior club goes down in the record books as 1965, although the reported 14,900 attendance vs Hibs remains in the club’s record books as a record attendance.

Clydebank lost their league status in 2002, having been bought over by Airdrie United chairman Jim Ballantyne, but that’s a story for another day. The club name lives on with the formation of Clydebank FC as a Junior club in 2003. East Stirlingshire also lost their league status, in 2016, although through footballing means, as they found themselves relegated into the Lowland League. Of the clubs’ respective plights Jack Steedman wrote to me in an email in 2016, “We saved the ‘Shire from certain extinction in 1957 and so it is most depressing for me to see them lose their league membership and play at Stenhousemuir as a non-league club, and after 32 years with Clydebank to see them playing as Airdrieonians. Despite all the criticism and ignorance of many we know our efforts over 40 years gave dozens of players and hundreds of fans and we ourselves a mountain of happy memories.”

Many thanks to Tom Scott for his assistance in the writing of this article. Pictures c/o the author and Clydebank Programmes Online.

Tom Brogan’s History of Clydebank FC in the 1960s and 70s is due to be published this year.

Bibliography

The Falkirk Herald
The Clydebank Press
The Glasgow Herald
Evening Times
Daily Record
‘Soccer in the Dock’ by Simon Inglis
ES Clydebank FC match programmes
Court Transcripts Middlemass and Others vs Steedman and Others, Court of Session, Edinburgh
Author interview

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