At the end of last year, former Rangers goalkeeper Cammy Bell made the announcement that he was hanging up his gloves after a successful 14-year career in the Scottish game.
Following spells between the sticks at some of Scotland’s most successful and historic clubs, the former shot stopper has returned to his boyhood club Annan Athletic to take on a new challenge.
Speaking exclusively to James Rhys for PureFitbaw, Bell shares his ambitions for Annan, lessons learned from his playing career and what attracted him to a role in the boardroom.
“Over the last 5 or 6 years I’ve started to think about a Director of Football role. Getting to understand the different departments of football clubs that I’ve been at as a player, and I took a bit more interest in commercial departments, and the financial and business side of things. If there was a Football Operations Manager or a Director of Football, I was always asking them questions. I had a good interest in the role a fair few years ago.
I’ve got a small property business myself, so the business side of it has always interested myself… it sort of made sense for me to step in to a role that is in between the business and footballing departments, and sort of linking them together… To understand them both is key to, and vital to, building a vision for where the club can go in a realistic fashion.”
Bell is currently studying toward a degree in Football Business Management, adding academic experience to the insight he has gained from his playing days, however, despite being a local lad, securing his role at Galabank was no walk in the park.
“I’m originally from Annan, and being a small town of about 10,000 people, I knew a lot of the board members. They got a whisper that I was sort of looking to do this kind of role and that I was thinking of retiring from playing as well.
We had a conversation, just a brief conversation to start with, to see if I would be interested, and if it was something that was going to work for me and the club.”
After a few informal chats with the Chairman and a few board members, Bell was invited to present his vision for the future of Annan Athletic Football Club.
“After I outlined the plans that I had, and the way I wanted this club to progress and the future it can have, the visions that I see the club going in… They then got the whole board and the chairman together and I gave a presentation of where I saw the club being in the future, where it is just now and what needs changed, short term, medium term and long term goals I have for the club and I outlined that and they shared the same views I had, just that they maybe didn’t have the drive to implement it.
They quickly made a move to get myself on board and it’s went good so far. Obviously, I’ve only been in the role for 8 weeks now and it’s been challenging, I’ll not lie, there’s been times that I sometimes think I’m banging my head against a brick wall, but I knew that would happen.
You’re coming in to a club that’s been set in its ways, maybe for 10 – 12 years, since they’ve came in to the league and they’ve probably not really changed much. Coming in with all these fresh ideas, changing mindsets of people, and how they think, it’s a big challenge in any industry, never mind in football where everyone has all these opinions and different views.
It’s a learning curve for me, it is. And I’ve enjoyed it, there have been days where I’ve thought I’m going absolutely nowhere here, but there have been other days where there’s been huge progress.”
Despite his short time in the role, Bell feels there have already been positive signs of change that have been felt by people both inside and outside the club.
“A small indicator for me, of a little bit of success and positivity, is me speaking to the players in the club and asking them how they feel and if they see any positives coming out of the small changes I’m making, and they’ve all been really receptive to what I’ve done.
I’m pretty sure that they’ll like having me on board because I am an ex-player and I understand the professionalism and the way things should be done.
We’re now in a culture of football where players want professionalism, even at the lower levels. If we can offer them facilities and nutrition and sports scientists, massage and proper physiotherapy, and have everything being done correctly, players nowadays buy in to that more than they ever have, certainly when I started playing, it was a little bit unprofessional and a bit slack, even at the top level. Whereas now, the whole mindset of your fitness and how you live, everything is taken in to account.
Players, even at this level, when we try to sign them in this window or in the future, if we’ve got everything in place, and players can go ‘oh Annan have nutrition, they have a sports scientist… they do everything correctly’, that’s a selling tool within itself. That’s where I see us getting a better calibre of player without having to spend more money. “
One of the most important things for Bell is that the changes he implements have long lasting effects that will continue to be felt even after his time at Galabank has been and gone.
“One of the key things is that we implement a structure, and stick to that structure. There’s no point having a structure, and this was something I said to the board, we build a structure and we all agree to it at the start, and we think that this is a structure that can carry us on for the next 10 years.
You’ve got to be strong, and there have to be a lot of hard and tough decisions made. There will be people who are resistant to this structure, you’ll try and change their mindset and try to get them to buy in to what we want to achieve as a club. It’s not for me, it is for the football club, and if they don’t buy in to it, they move on.
People will leave the structure, and can be plucked out of it, including myself, but the structure remains.
You have to be strong, and make decisions that won’t always be popular, but you’re doing it for the longevity of the club and the stability of the club.”
This is clearly a long-term project, but Bell feels the changes they are implementing now enable Annan to set their sights firmly on a move up the table.
“We don’t want to be looking at the bottom of League 2, and thinking can we get relegated in to the Lowland League here. That’s not a long-term plan. I see financial stability and a footballing stability as well. I honestly think we can sit in League 1, work towards a push for play off spots, and you never know. You might not have the financial power to win League 1 but with the right structure and the right people in place, you can go and get in to the play offs, and everybody knows anything can happen in the playoffs.
It would be unbelievable for Annan, to go in to the Championship.”
He is under no illusions that this will be an easy task for the Black and Golds.
“There’s many challenges. Obviously, we’re in a pandemic at the moment and Covid is difficult to deal with for any club. The restrictions, the financial implications that have been put on every football club in the country, but again, it’s something I didn’t fear coming in to. We have to deal with it, it’s here… we can’t keep using Covid as an excuse, we have to navigate the best we can through this pandemic as a football club so we can survive.”
Financially, with no fans coming in and not a lot of money coming in to the club, we’re looking for more sponsors to come on and support the club. Alpha Solway are one of our main sponsors and they’re one of the biggest employers in Annan and have backed the club massively.
It’s massive for us that we are engaged with businesses and companies and local people that will help us become the community hub that I see Annan Athletic as.“
Finances are always going to be an issue for clubs the size of Annan, so building from the bottom up is a key part of Bell’s plans.
Luckily for him, Annan have a thriving youth set up, that may help unearth future home bred stars to follow in the footsteps of recently retired club stalwart Peter Watson.
“We’re in an area that we don’t have a great pool of players, we’re having to look at players from the North East of England and the central belt in Scotland. We’ve some local players, and we’d love more, but they’ve got to be to the right standard for the football club.
Part of my job was to look at the youth system. Can we give more tools to our coaches and help them become better coaches, who can give better information to the young kids so in the future we can see more young stars playing for Annan that are from the area?”
Bell’s playing CV boasts spells at some of Scotland’s biggest clubs, but his time spent helping steer Rangers back up the leagues has undoubtedly had the biggest impact on his ambitions for his post-playing days.
“You learn something from every club. Obviously being at Rangers myself was a dream, it was something I always wanted to do as a kid, and I appreciated every moment and made a lot of good friends that I still speak to now.
The finance director Andrew Dixon, who’s been there for over 20 years… Ross Wilson, their Director of Football is a figure that I really do look up to… and Craig Mulholland, the Academy Director… they’re vital to my new role here at Annan. To be able to pick up the phone if I have any questions and to have relationships where I can ask them the difficult questions…”
Bell has taken inspiration from other key figures, including Ray McKinnon and Brendan Rodgers, both fantastic man managers that the former Rangers man aims to emulate in his new role, but it is the Rangers Director of Football Ross Wilson that he singles out has having the biggest impact on him.
The former Falkirk, Watford, Huddersfield and Southampton executive has taken him under his wing and Bell feels this experience has given him a blueprint to follow at Galabank.
“For the last sort of year I’ve been going up and meeting him and having a conversation and seeing what he’s doing and what his ideas and visions are for Rangers, and how I can take snippets of that in to wherever I got a job. He’s a great mentor for me to have.
Ultimately, we can never get to where Rangers are, that’s just the size of football club that we are, Rangers were still a huge football club, even when they dropped down the leagues… but again, speaking to Ross, his principles at Rangers are similar to what I have here at Annan… obviously just on a different scale. “
Like all clubs plying their trade at the lower level, Annan rely heavily on the support of their local community, but their new Director of Football feels that this is something that has been lost since their entry to the SPFL structure.
The club are already putting in the work to ensure that when they are able to welcome supporters back through the turnstiles, Galabank is a place for the whole community to come together.
“We’ve got a great community programme here, but for me, we can do better.
We should have more fans coming to the games. More kids coming to our home games. When I was 10 year old, all I wanted to do was go and watch Annan first team, and they weren’t even in the leagues at that point.
We’re in an age now where we’re facing a lot of competition, from video games and loads of football on TV, but I really think we can re-engage with the kids, and with people who maybe fell away from the club a little bit.
We need to make our match day experience very good, we know that, because sometimes what happens on the pitch is secondary to people who actually come. It might be a family day out for them… if we can make the match day experience appealing to everyone, and it’s a fun place for them to be, the results can almost come secondary, not for me, but for the actual fans.
For me it’s about re-igniting that passion for the club and the community spirit.”
Speaking to Bell, it’s abundantly clear that while he may have grand visions for Annan Athletic, he has the knowledge, range of skills and support network required to execute them too.
With the success of Rangers for inspiration, the backing of the board and a dedicated and passionate group of volunteers dedicated to taking the club to the next level, there are undoubtedly exciting times ahead for the Galabankies.