Nairn County was saved this summer by a town rallying behind its club. Chairman Donald Matheson tells Jamie Durent why there is a fresh sense of optimism for the future at Station Park
AS a proud Nairnite, it was a distress call Donald Matheson could not ignore.
His home-town club needed him and after it passed the vital family-approval test, Matheson was ready to step into the breach to try steer Nairn County into calmer waters.
The bombshell of Nairn’s long-term sponsors, Narden Services Ltd, withdrawing their financial backing in the summer took everyone by surprise. Throw in the resignation of manager Les Fridge, then the longest-serving manager in the Highland League, and the club was in a tailspin.
Concerns were that the club would struggle to survive and that investment was desperately needed. But, led by Matheson, the community rallied to prop up the proud club; Ian Finlayson, Shona Devine, Graeme Macleod and Alexander Macdonald were appointed to the board before the end of May and have been key figures in the rebuilding job.
“It’s tiring – it’s like two full-time jobs,” said Matheson, a plumbing and heating engineer by day. “You wake up in the middle of the night wanting to write things down and there are emails flying in and out at all hours. But I’m really enjoying it and I’ve got a good group of folk behind me. The supporters and businesses have been fantastic, so we just have to knuckle down and keep going the way we’re going.
“We’re in a good place. It’s been a struggle – the first eight weeks were difficult as we didn’t know how to do a lot of things. Everyone worked quickly on a steep, stratospheric learning curve. We’ve got a handle on it now and can hold our heads up high.”
Under the Narden stewardship and with Fridge leading the team on the park, the Wee County regularly appeared in cup semi-finals and finals.
In Fridge’s spell as manager from 2004 to earlier this year, they won the North of Scotland Cup three times and the Highland League Cup once, as well as being beaten finalists in both competitions last season.
They also had the memorable Scottish Cup adventure in 2012, which saw them dump Scottish league side Clyde out in the second round and take Forfar Athletic to a replay, in which they were edged out 3-2.
That afternoon in mid-May, which saw Mackintosh brothers Peter and Michael and their father, chairman Peter snr, end their 20-year association with the club not only prompted a monumental change in boardroom personnel, but also in the playing staff, which had formed the backbone of Nairn sides.
Regular figures in Nairn’s recent history, such as Martin ‘Bobo’ MacDonald, Michael Morrison, Robbie Duncanson, Sean Webb and Conor Gethins, all departed for pastures new, while numerous others moved on, such as Alan Pollock to Brora Rangers, John Cameron to Forres Mechanics and Andrew Skinner and Sam Urquhart to Buckie Thistle, with some transfer fees being recouped.
Of the players that remain, many took substantial pay cuts, according to Matheson, which all helps the club in planning for the future.
“Initially we were worried about where money was coming from,” said Matheson. “We lost a lot of players and sold some on, which brought some money into the club. We’re just keeping a tight rein on things, which we have to do.
“We’re ticking along fine and the winter will be the big test. If you haven’t got a game, you’re not taking money in. I’ve got Shona (Devine) in the boardroom looking after the pennies and she tells me what to do! We’re pretty good in that respect. We’re on a good footing; nothing compared to where we were in the past but we’re in the black, which means we can continue as a football club.”
The club’s under-20s side are now playing home games at Station Park, while an agreement with Caley Thistle will see their Development side play a set number of fixtures there this season. Motherwell boss Mark McGhee, a visitor when the Steelmen’s youth side played the Caley Jags in Nairn, was an early sampler of club hospitality.
While countless business have come on board over the intervening months, signing sponsorship agreements with the club and taking up advertising hoardings at Station Park – crucially owned by the club – a main sponsor remains elusive.
The timing of Narden’s departure was a factor, with companies setting their budgets in March and April for the next financial year. This first winter without a main sponsor will be crucial, particularly with likely postponements, meaning it will be all hands to the pump at Station Park in the next few months.
Offers of help have come in from across the Highland League and although gratefully received by the board of directors, they are keen to do this on their own. The Wee County has got a big heart.
Five months down the line, when I speak to Matheson before a midweek game against Forres, stability is slowly creeping in on Balblair Road. Manager Ronnie Sharp, who returned to the club as a manager in the summer, recently signed a new contract until 2020, while a settled squad has taken shape on the pitch.
The Main brothers, Gregg and Glenn, Ross Naismith, Kenny McKenzie, Paul Macleod, Wayne Mackintosh, Callum Maclean and Dylan Maclean remain from the team of last season.
Players from the under-20s side, like Jordan Macrae and Jack Maclean, have been given the chance to step up, while Calum Riddell and Jason Morganti have made the progression from junior to semi-professional football.
A number of old faces have returned to the fold too, with Chris Moir, Jamie Mackay, Willie Barron, Gary Kerr and Marc Macdonald, all ex-Nairn players, rejoining under Sharp. Former Caley Thistle and Clach defender Stephen Mackenzie was a further addition as Sharp sought to rebuild his squad.A particularly proud moment for Matheson was the response to Davy Johnston Day a fortnight ago, which saw the fans enclosure on the hospital side of Station Park formerly named in honour of Nairn’s greatest footballer.
Matheson expresses a debt of gratitude towards Narden for their contributions towards the project, adding to the incredible £56,000 that was raised by supporters to make the dream a reality.
“We had a great turnout against Rothes. Some of the Johnston family were here, some of the Davy’s team-mates in the old 1975-76 championship-winning team were here, the oldest being George Welsh, who’s 93 and was Innes Macdonald’s assistant,” said Matheson. “It was really good and getting a home win was so important, especially with it being Davy Johnston day.
“I sent a message to both the Peters to see if they wanted to come down. Without their input it probably wouldn’t have come to fruition, without their generosity and paying off some of the bills. I apologised to them because it’s a 24/7 job at the moment and the days blend into one at the moment. You’re constantly thinking about stuff to do with football and work.
“I have been very interested in the way everyone has stepped in. John Maclean from ISS Facility Services Landscaping comes down to give advice on the grass. Robbie Stuart is down here every day working on the ground. There’s people here every day doing little bits and pieces – I’m still cleaning the changing rooms!”
If Nairn County does not run through his veins, then decency may well do. Speaking to the 53-year-old, you cannot help but smile at his understated desire to make sure his club has a future. Tellingly, he holds no animosity towards anybody regarding the summer’s events.
“It’s done and it’s in the past. There’s no point crying over it,” he said. “It’s a new beginning at Nairn County – I’ve been involved 10 years this November and I never thought I’d be chairman. The survival of the club is the most important thing and we had to make sure everything was sorted so we could compete.
“Some of the players have taken quite a substantial wage drop for the club. Some of the others didn’t and I’ve got no animosity towards them – it’s nobody’s fault. It’s just circumstances.
“It’s my local town – everyone knows me and my wife. It’s been difficult to hand over the reins on things I know how to do. There’s about three A4 sheets filled out with what’s to be done to open and close and I’ll go round finding things that aren’t done properly. Finlay Noble at Fraserburgh hasn’t done the kit for 20 years but it still rankles him when it isn’t done right. I know exactly where he’s coming from.”
He bids a great deal of thanks to his “good lady” Susan, who is stood waiting for him at the end of the game against Forres, a pulsating local derby which sees the visitors snatch a late 4-4 draw. Matheson admits to “brainwashing” his better half to get involved in football, to the point where she is enjoying coming to Station Park.
“Susan gave me two years,” added Matheson. It was for the good of the club initially and I offered my services to the committee and they gave me the vote of confidence – that’s strange because usually when you say that people get sacked!
“I had to make sure the club was on sound footing. Once we got that sorted out, if I could do it for 10 weeks I could do it for longer.
“It’s been really good and the supporters have been very helpful. It’s important to keep them onside and even speaking to the ones that haven’t been here for years, they understand it’ll take a while to get things sorted.”
With Nairn sitting 15th in the Highland League, they are in a lower position than they are used to. But perhaps more importantly, fans are coming back and it has been noticed by the players. Both Kerr and Glenn Main have noticed an increase in attendances this season.
The community is embracing its football club and rightly so, because without them there may not have been a team to support.
“Other clubs have been asking what’s going on and there’s a lot of positivity. It helps when you have a dark day and someone comes along and gives you some positive news. There’s a lot less dark days now,” said Matheson.
“The players have been tremendous and extending Ronnie’s deal gives him security, potentially seeing some of the under-15s into the senior squad. That brings a lot of stability to the club.
“None of us are expecting miracles. As long as we have a competitive team on the park and get points here and there, it’s fine.”