By Matt Greer
It’s been a tough time for Partick Thistle. Ever since a historic top six Premiership finish in April 2017, the club has struggled for form and finds itself bottom of the Championship. Since top six was secured, Thistle have averaged just 0.74 points per game; for context, Brechin (who went an entire season without winning a single game) have averaged 0.59 points per game, while Ayr United have amassed 1.73 points per game in the same time period. There are a number of factors you could point to for this drop-off in form. There was an injury crisis at the start of last season; you could perhaps point to the pressure of relegation as to why the players didn’t perform after that; and this season it’s easy to argue that recruitment has been poor. But even after taking all of that into account, it’s very rare that a club suffers such a plummet without an overlying reason.
All fans of football clubs think their club is special, and Partick Thistle fans are no different. It’s tough being a Thistle fan in Glasgow. Often you are asked “But who do you really support?” Fans of larger and more successful clubs may not appreciate what following a club like Thistle is all about. It’s about treasuring that infuriating maverick player, being loyal to those who’ve served the club well, and following the team, not necessarily to see them win, but to enjoy watching a hard-working team, alongside like-minded friends and family. And that’s what led to the top six success. The team was built around fans’ favourites. The likes of Tomas Cerny, Chris Erskine and Kris Doolan were on the top of their game, and there was a real feel-good factor around the club as they secured their highest league finish in decades. Led by Alan Archibald, who the club had stuck by to their credit, and he had stayed loyal to them despite interest from elsewhere, the summer of 2017 is when Partick Thistle should have kicked on and consolidated their position in the top flight. Instead, the club endured a nightmare season.
On a cold December day in the snow last season, the Jags fell to a shocking 5-1 defeat at Rugby Park to Kilmarnock to remain bottom of the table. It’s fair to say that a number of clubs would’ve probably acted then and dismissed their manager, but not Thistle. Despite rumblings from the fans beginning to get noisier and noisier, the club stuck by Archibald, and form picked up just before the winter break, and all looked to be heading back on track. As admitted by Alan Archibald himself this week on radio, January was misjudged by him and the club. A lengthy list of players were returning from injury, and rather than going out to recruit in bulk, Archibald stayed loyal to those who had been out, and placed faith in them to pull Thistle up the league. Only Baily Cargill arrived in January, on loan to replace Jordan Turnbull who had been recalled by his parent club. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and to be fair there weren’t many amongst the fan base at the time who were critical of the club’s lack of transfer activity. But the failure to strengthen cost the Jags. Captain Abdul Osman failed to return to any kind of form after injury. Arguably Archibald’s loyalty to him through a tough few months cost the side some crucial points, before he was finally dropped in April. The club was relegated via the play-offs, and once again in an honest interview, Archibald admitted he had been too loyal to certain players.
The club kept Archibald on as manager over the summer, a decision that split the support. In June, Jacqui Low was appointed Chairman, while Gerry Britton replaced Ian Maxwell as Chief Executive.
The changes at boardroom level seemed to bring a new ruthlessness to the club. Some sections of the support were tired at the club’s apparent lack of ambition and acceptance of just being “little” Partick Thistle in the Old Firm’s shadow. And the new board deserve a lot of credit for having the ambition to improve the stature of the club. A statement was issued outlining the plans for an instant return to the top-flight.
After a slow start to the season, picking up just nine points in the opening eight games, Alan Archibald was dismissed, and it was the first real sign that the new board meant business. Sacking a club legend can’t have been easy, and it was done ruthlessly, announced just three hours after a 2-0 home defeat to Ross County. It was a decision that saddened the fans, but ultimately most accepted that something had to change. The statement that demanded an immediate return to the Premeirship ultimately left the board with no choice though, and maybe taught them a lesson that such goals should be kept private.
I mentioned earlier that supporting Partick Thistle can be tough, and it’s about more following a team for reasons other than winning. It’s hard to describe what Partick Thistle is really all about without going all pretentious and sounding like a disgruntled East Londoner banging on about the “West Ham Way”. But there is something more to Thistle than just winning, and it’s something that I don’t feel Gary Caldwell quite understands. The new manager has struggled to connect with fans, despite an open day and a supporters’ Q&A session since his arrival. His “modern manager” attitude, where he cites plans to improve every individual player, powerpoints and training days at the SAS may sound good in sound bites, but they’ve done nothing to warm himself to the fans, or turn the club’s form around. Caldwell has won just one of his first twelve games in charge. Silly little changes like warm-ups on the pitch before each half kicks off, swapping dug-outs around and the team shooting a towards a different end of the ground in the second half have made no difference, in fact they’ve been laughable. He’s often come across as arrogant, and his discarding of Chris Erskine during the week has led to some fans questioning if they’ll return to Firhill while he’s still in charge.
Letting go a club icon like Chris Erskine was always going to be a risky move. He is that frustrating maverick that adds a few hundred onto the gate, as he has the ability to light up a game on his day. Despite sentimentality costing the club in the recent past, this felt like a decision that was not representative of what the fans consider Partick Thistle to be. Erskine took a pay-cut in the summer to stay at the club, and has consistently given his all, despite some below par performances. It would have been a much easier decision to let him go if the club was flying in the league and Erskine was being kept out of the side fairly by players in form. But he’s being kept out of the team by misfiring attackers, and it’s hard to fathom how top six chasing Livingston feel the need for him in their squad, but we don’t, despite being on the brink of League One.
Erskine’s departure on its own would be enough to peeve some fans, but it’s been the straw that’s broke the camel’s back for many. For a few years, the club has offered JagZone, a service that allows subscribers to catch up on highlights and interviews. In the Premiership days, the club streamed matches for foreign subscribers, a good idea for those who couldn’t make the games to feel like they’re still supporters and contributing to the club. But since relegation, streaming of live matches has stopped. Only interviews and highlights are behind the paywall, and we’re now the only club in the Championship without a free YouTube channel offering free footage for fans. It might only be £6 a month, but it just seems stingy, especially for season ticket holders, and is another stick for supporters to beat the club with.
The communication from the club has been poor too. Videos released by Gerry Britton and Jacqui Low outlining the club’s progress and current status have become more sparse as the season has gone on, despite promises of this area to improve. The latest video was almost comedy, with none of the fans’ true concerns really being answered. Despite the club languishing in the relegation zone, the word “promotion” was mentioned by Chairman Low, with no talk of the prospect of going down at all. While the ambition she has for the club is admirable, it was a cringeworthy end to what was essentially a Gary Caldwell propaganda video.
If you look back over the last two years, the club has been managed in two completely different ways. The Premiership days were all about loyalty to those that had served us well and a connection between players and fans that spanned back to the promotion winning season in 2013. Eventually, the loyalty to some individuals did cost us our top-flight status, and Alan Archibald could be included in that. Since the summer, the new board has taken it a completely different way and installed a ruthlessness in the club that wasn’t there before. They’ve sacked a club legend and continued to back a manager who’s discarded a fans’ favourite and whose popularity is at an all-time low. It’s hard to gauge what all fans are thinking through social media, but it’s clear to see that the opinions being voiced are mainly negative, and several are staying away from Saturday’s cup game at Firhill to send the board a message. The club has lost its way and its identity. Those running it seem out of touch with what the fans want. A balance between the new regime’s ambition and cold decision-making needs to be found with the club’s traditional loyalty and connection between players, manager and fans. It might get worse before it gets better, but Partick Thistle need to recapture what makes them Partick Thistle again.