One thing you often hear when fans talk about their team, is the idea of identity, or the lack of it. They mean the defining characteristics of a particular club, manager or set of players. That identity is different for different teams and can change all the time.
For some clubs, that identity is woven into its fabric and always remains constant no matter what goes on around it. The most famous example is Athletic Bilbao whose Basque identity is so important to them that they have a self-imposed unofficial policy of only signing players who are from the Basque country.
Another club who had a clear identity was Glasgow-based Scottish League Two club Queen’s Park. They were notable for two things. That they played at Hampden Park, the stadium that’s used by Scotland and one of the stadiums that’s regularly used by UEFA. The other was that they have gone their entire 152-year history retaining their amateur status.
But now both are about to change. Queen’s Park will leave Hampden at the end of this season, and yesterday, its members voted to allow players to be paid for the first time in the history of the club.
Queen’s Park were formed in 1867, which makes them the oldest football club in the world outside of England and Wales. Their club motto is Ludere Causa Ludendi, meaning ‘to play for the sake of playing’, which reflected their amateur status.
Queen’s Park are an incredibly important club in the history of football. When they formed, football was actually a prohibited activity in Scotland thanks to a law from 1424, and was played under weird sets of rules that each team could set. It was Queen’s Park that established the association rules from England as the dominant code in Scotland, and later into Ireland.
They organised and provided the entire Scotland team for the first ever international game v England in 1872, and the reason that Scotland today play in dark blue shirts is because that was the colours of Queen’s Park back then (they adopted the black and white hoops they play in now a few years later).
The reason we have half-time, free-kicks after fouls and a crossbar on the goals is because they all were innovations introduced to the game by Queen’s Park. Passing the ball to teammates was a radical idea introduced to the game by Queens Park and replaced the old kick-and-rush style of play common at the time.
Queen’s Park were one of the eight founder members of the Scottish Football Association (SFA) and, alongside Kilmarnock, are the only ones still in the Scottish League system today.
Initially, they were incredibly successful. They won the inaugural Scottish Cup in 1874, and won it another nine times in the next 20 years. They were invited to play in the English FA Cup on several occasions and made it to the final twice.
But, as with the other amateur clubs of the time, Queen’s Park couldn’t keep up with the advent of professionalism and started to fall behind. They resisted joining the Scottish Football League for 10 years, until they found arranging fixtures too difficult and joined in 1900.
For most of that time, they’ve been in the lower divisions of Scotland and are currently in Scottish League Two, the bottom division in the Scottish Leagues.
That’s still an incredible achievement as for all of that time, they’ve remained amateur, paying players nothing more than their expenses. That amateur status though means that the club has always been vulnerable to losing their players for nothing, as they are free to leave should they get offered professional contracts.
In the bottom two divisions of the Scottish League, and the Highland and Lowland League below that, virtually every club is semi-professional and operates on a part-time basis. Players will have day jobs, or be in full-time education, but will be paid to train and to play football, with the amounts varying from about £50 ($65) a week to the best players, or former big names, getting more like £500 a week, which can add up to a nice sum of money on top of a regular job.
Queen’s Park couldn’t compete financially with other clubs, but had one big thing in their favour, which was that Queens Park’s home stadium is, for the moment, Hampden Park, the stadium used by the Scottish national team. Queen’s Park have played at Hampden Park since they had it built in 1903 (it’s the third stadium they’ve played in called Hampden Park!) and it has been the home of the Scotland national team for years.
While they may not have been able to pay wages, the chance to play league football at an iconic stadium every other week was a carrot Queen’s Park could dangle in front of prospective signings.
That’s all about to change. The SFA’s 20-year lease on using Hampden runs out in 2020, and they indicated they weren’t willing to renew it. The SFA dangled the idea of moving Scotland games out of Hampden to share between Ibrox or Celtic Park in Glasgow or to Murrayfield, the Scottish rugby union stadium in Edinburgh.
This left Queen’s Park with a problem. They rely on the money from the Scotland games, and were faced with the prospect of having a massive stadium that they couldn’t pay for and, had Scotland left, they would have had to pay back a huge amount of government funding they had received.
The SFA knew they had Queen’s Park over a barrel and following some fractious negotiations, with Queen’s Park accusing the SFA of lowballing them, including an offer for £1, Queens Park eventually agreed a sale of Hampden Park to the SFA for £5.1m, with the SFA taking on all the liabilities of the stadium.
From next season, Queen’s Park will play at Lesser Hampden, a small stadium next to Hampden Park that has been used to host youth team games and will spend the money from the sale in renovating that.
There was always something a bit daft about a club that struggles to get 600 fans for a game playing in a stadium that holds 52,000, but it still seems a shame that they have to leave the place they’ve called home for so long.
Queen’s Park do manage to entice players away from other clubs, but for the most part they rely heavily on their excellent academy to produce players for them.
Queen’s Park has produced Liverpool player and current Scotland captain Andy Robertson, as well as his fellow current Scottish internationals Lawrence Shankland and Barry Douglas. Sir Alex Ferguson started his playing career there too.
However, there was a growing sense that things couldn’t continue as they were. A few years ago, the Scottish League, the SPFL, introduced promotion and relegation to the league. This was designed in part to prevent teams who were consistently terrible from being allowed to fail season after season without any consequence, but also to give an incentive to the ambitious teams from the Highland and Lowland Leagues that sit below Scottish League Two on the football pyramid to keep going.
At the end of the season, the Highland and Lowland League champions play each other, with the winner taking on the team that finished bottom of League Two for their league spot for the next season.
That’s a prospect that is frightening to Queen’s Park. Their amateur status means they are always in danger of having their players picked off, and they know that one bad season could see them out of the league. There would be no guarantee of getting back in either; the Lowland League contains some wealthy, ambitious sides and relegated teams have found it tough. East Stirlingshire haven’t looked like coming back since being relegated, and Berwick Rangers, who were relegated from League Two last season have had a torrid time.
The straw that seems to have broken the camel’s back was the loss last summer of four players that had come through the Queen’s Park academy and were part of the team that reached the semi-final of the Scottish Youth Cup. Those players, who likely would’ve been in the first team this season, were offered professional contracts and left, and the amateur status of Queen’s Park meant that they received nothing to show for all of the time and expense they’d spent developing those players.
That, coupled with the fact that they missed out on some signings last summer to teams in the Lowland League because they couldn’t even offer them a modest contract, meant that the board called a meeting of the club’s members to discuss allowing them to pay their players. They needed 75% to agree; in the end over 90% did.
Club president Gerry Crawley said “The committee of the club plotted a course to try to defend ourselves against the threats of other ambitious clubs around about us wishing to become a senior league club
"We are keen to arm ourselves to fend that off and progress ourselves. It was head against heart. The heart of a lot of the membership would be we really don't want to do this, but we have to do it."
This was a brave move, but probably the right move to make. Without a change, Queen’s Park would have faced the prospect of losing one of the things that made them attractive to other players without solving any of their other problems. Now, they can attract other players. They can receive fees for the players they develop. They can look to a brighter future away from Hampden Park.
One of the members put it best saying, “A huge cheer went up when the results were delivered. In a perfect world we would have stayed amateur. However, our world has changed”