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Kicking the habit

Hamilton's Michael McGovern (left) saves at the feet of Celtic's Kris Commons (centre) during the Scottish Premiership match at Celtic Park, Glasgow.

Hamilton’s Michael McGovern (left) saves at the feet of Celtic’s Kris Commons (centre) during the Scottish Premiership match at Celtic Park, Glasgow on 5th October

John was on his way to collect his methadone when Hamilton Academical saved his life.

“I was going to the chemist to get my prescription,” he says, sitting in the club’s social room and nervously turning a half pint of coke in his hands. “I saw a sign directing me to Cocaine Anonymous. I was curious.”

The sign hangs on the exterior of the main stand at New Douglas Park, Hamilton’s compact stadium, alongside adverts for Alcoholics Anonymous and Gambling Anonymous. “It stuck in my head,” John says. “I returned to the club and [went to] a meeting there. There were all these people who’d been there for years. And I said: ‘I want a piece of that’.” His first meeting was two years ago. Since then he has been clean.

John had been taking drugs since he was 12 years old. “If my pals had one pill, I would have three. If they had one gram, I would have three. I stopped functioning. I was a breathing carcass,” he says. By the time he reached his thirties, he was living his life one hit to the next. He grew up as a Rangers fan but his life had become so dominated by drugs that he stopped following football.

He stopped following anything. “The state I was in, the drugs ruled everything,” he says. “They dictated my whole life. Coming down to the club opened up so much. Hamilton is in my heart now.”

When I meet John, his adopted club is riding high. Just a few weeks before, on 5th October, it had beaten Celtic 1-0 at Celtic Park, a world-class stadium that holds more people than the entire population of Hamilton. It was a first victory against the Glasgow giants since 1939, and it sent them to the top of the league. Shortly after our meeting, Hamilton would kick off against Partick Thistle. If results went its way, Hamilton could maintain its improbable position at the top.

It’s a team that has been raised on very unusual principles in a sport dominated by greed. The club has no debt and young Scottish players are promoted through their academy rather than bought in. Most importantly, the club has a mission to reconnect with the community. It aims to deal with what it sees as the biggest issue facing Scottish society: addiction, be it alcohol, gambling or, as in John’s case, cocaine.

John is just one of many who have started a new life after finding Hamilton Academical. Hundreds of addicts and former addicts, and their children, are given free tickets to matches each week. It’s a chance to enjoy some order and solidarity. “I came and they made me feel at home, and I kept coming back. It snowballed from there,” John says, as kick-off against Partick approaches. “I met people here. Good people like Colin.”

Hamilton Academical chief executive Colin McGowan walks across the pitch at New Douglas Park. The club’s fortunes have been transformed since Colin bought the club with three business partners a decade ago

Colin McGowan is strolling amongst the plastic dinosaurs. The chief executive of Hamilton Academical and the man in charge of the club’s purse-strings is pointing out the features that make his team unique.

These are features you wouldn’t usually associate with a professional football club. Around us sit a half built pirate ship; a sandy beach; a brick wall covered in maps and murals, and a ‘Serenity’ garden devoted to the wisdom of Alcoholics Anonymous, the pseudo-religious recovery programme invented by Dr Bob Smith and Bill Wilson in Akron, Ohio in 1935 and which inspires the kind of fanaticism more often associated with football supporters.

And then there is a collection of plastic dinosaurs, gathered together in a small garden as if borrowed from an abandoned fairground. The gardens, the beach, the plastic dinosaurs –  they have all been brought together by addicts and the children of addicts; adults who had fallen hard for alcohol, drugs or gambling, and their children who had to live with the consequences of addiction on a daily basis.

“Hundreds of addicts and former addicts, and their children, are given free tickets to matches each week. It’s a chance to enjoy some order and solidarity”

Since Colin – in his late-50s, short but powerfully built, with grey hair, glasses and a heavy Glaswegian accent – and three other local businessmen bought the club for £1 a decade ago, Hamilton Academical has enjoyed a run of incredible good fortune; or a series of “miracles” as Colin prefers to describe it.

“There were four of us as partners,” he explains. “We had the aim of building Hamilton up as a community club. There’s a lot of problems out there and we wanted to guide the people. My worst subject is football. But the others are football gurus, absolute geniuses.”

Colin’s zeal comes from his own struggles with addiction. “It is true, I’m an owner of the club, a chief executive of the club, I’m a husband, a father, a grandfather; but I’m also an alcoholic and a drug addict,” Colin says when asked why he wanted to make tackling addiction such a central part of the club’s ethos. “I’ve been in recovery for 31 years. I don’t forget the pain and suffering I caused others. I’m putting a wee bit back in.”

After taking charge of the club, Colin had decided that he would use the exposure that football offered to help people with addiction. He’d also made sure that the various addiction support groups could host their meetings at the club for free. “Alcoholics Anonymous showed me the way,” he said. “The rest of it was down to a power greater than me. I choose to call it God. I’m no holy roller. But it gave me my life back.”

According to a UN report, Scotland has the highest per capita population cocaine use in the world. Hundreds of addicts have come through the club but not everyone gets out alive. “Some relapse, Some die. Some take their own lives,” Colin says. “There are always going to be casualties. But it’s the ones that make it.”

The English Premier League has seen its revenue explode in recent years. In 2015 it struck a record £5.1 billion deal for its TV rights for three years. By comparison, the five-year deal that Scottish football struck in 2011 was for just £80 million.

Debt has haunted the game in Scotland. Clubs, with pound signs in their eyes, overextended themselves financially in an unsuccessful attempt to break the near-permanent Old Firm duopoly of Celtic and Rangers. Yet the past few seasons have been different. Rangers was relegated to the fourth division of Scottish football after a series of financial scandals. There is space for other teams to challenge for the league and for qualification for European competition.

Hamilton began life in 1874 and remains the only professional British football team to be founded by a school. It has experienced little success in the 140 years since its formation. It has bumped along the bottom of the Scottish league system, its mediocrity punctuated by the occasional relegation and promotion.

At the turn of the 21st century the club almost went out of business. During the 1999/2000 season, it was comfortably in mid-table in the Scottish second division. But off the pitch, the players’ wages had not been paid. When the team went on strike before a game against Stenhousemuir, the league meted out a harsh punishment. The club was docked 15 points, which sent them to the foot of the table. There was no right to appeal. “There was a company on the phone selling outdoor equipment,” the club’s then-chief executive Bill Sherry told the BBC after the decision. “I asked them if they had any gallows.” The Accies were relegated to the third division. The average attendance that season was 696.

Colin and his three schoolfriends bought the club and decided to take a different route. Rather than spending money they didn’t have, they would not borrow any more. “Oh aye, we don’t have any debt,” Colin tells me. “As soon as a bill comes in we pay it. That’s how I’ve always been.”

The club narrowly avoided bankruptcy and gradually started to thrive. It rose from the third division and reached the Scottish Premiership in 2008 before being relegated three years later and then promoted again the following season following a dramatic play-off against Hibernian. After losing the first leg 2-0, the Accies won the second match by the same scoreline. That second goal, which took the game to extra time, was scored ten seconds before the end of injury time by Tony Andreu, an inexperienced French midfielder. They then won the penalty shoot-out. It was another miracle, according to Colin.

There was no money of course; Hamilton only has – at most – just over 1,000 paying fans, by far the smallest number in the league. Indeed it has the smallest average home crowd of any major top division European league. The vast majority of players come through the youth academy. The rest are players – like Andreu – long ago rejected by others.

Over the decade that Colin and his three partners have been charge, Hamilton has become heavily entwined with the local community in a way that seemed impossible even ten years ago. When, in 1967, Celtic became the first British team to win the European Cup, the “Lions of Lisbon” did so with a team of players born within ten miles of Celtic Park. Few thought that any team built on similar principles could exist today, let alone compete. However, the new economic realities of Scottish football mean that clubs run locally, sustainably and ethically can succeed. Last season, Hamilton’s entire club’s budget for 30 players was the same as the wages of one Rangers player. Eight of the players that beat Celtic came through Hamilton’s academy.

“It has been 30 years since a team other than Rangers or Celtic won the title. The last team to achieve that feat was Aberdeen, coached by a young Sir Alex Ferguson”

The man who masterminded Hamilton’s ascent on the pitch is 33-year old player-manager Alex Neil. “It’s a really unusual club,” he tells me. “It’s geared towards helping people. It’s about generating help for the surrounding areas. Homeless people get food here too.”

Alex originally arrived at the club a decade ago when the team was bottom of the second division. He didn’t think he’d be staying long. “I thought, pfft, what am I doing here?” he says. “I thought: ‘I’ll come here, play one season, do well and move on to something bigger and better.’ But I fell in love with the place and stayed ten years.” The team has been doing so well that he hasn’t been playing himself much and he is in two minds about whether to play in the next match. “It has been a great year,” he says. “We were top of the league after 11 games. We beat Celtic at Celtic Park. We took 500 fans there. It couldn’t have gone any better. It was David versus Goliath.”

The sun is shining as the crowd arrives at New Douglas Park for Hamilton’s 3pm kick off against Partick Thistle. Upstairs in the bar, Hamilton Academical’s supporters’ group is drinking pints of lager and practicing songs for the match. The fans have a drum and have promised to out-sing the Thistle fans, who will outnumber home supporters today.

In the end Alex Neil chooses not to play himself. By 3.15pm that looks like a wise decision. Hamilton Academical is winning 2-0. The band of enthusiastic young Accies fans bang their drum and chant.

Then things start going wrong. Misplaced pass follows misplaced pass. The players’ nervousness infects the mood of the bench and the fans. Partick scores, and equalises, and then takes the lead in the 72nd minute. As the match moves into the final seconds of injury time, every Hamilton fan in the stadium has consigned themselves to defeat. But with the very last kick of the game, play-off hero Tony Andreu volleys a perfect left foot shot from just outside the penalty area.

The game finishes 3-3. It is, McGowan says shaking his head, “another miracle.” The draw means that Hamilton drops to second, but stays ahead of Celtic in third place. It has been 30 years since a team other than Rangers or Celtic won the league. The last team to achieve that feat was Aberdeen, coached by a young Sir Alex Ferguson.

The night falls at New Douglas Park as the spectators head home. One of the last people to leave is Colin, who has been checking over spreadsheets and piles of invoices. While he’s never been much of a football man he knows how to run a business, even if that is a secondary concern to the divine mission he believes he has been handed. “If someone said we’d guarantee you’d win the Premiership if you give up your addiction stuff I’d say I’d rather drop a division because we’d be traitors to the community,” he says, turning the light out in his office. “Sometimes you have to surrender to win.”

It isn’t clear whether he’s talking about drugs, booze, football or God.

On 9th January Alex Neil left Hamilton Academical after ten years at New Douglas Park to become the manager of Norwich City, a huge step up. Football fans are notoriously unforgiving when they sense betrayal, but the Accies’ supporters – as well as the board and the players – flooded him with messages of appreciation and support.

Three weeks later, Neil bought Tony Andreu for a reported £1 million, a windfall for Hamilton. The club’s form nose-dived immediately after Neil’s departure and, at the time of press, qualification for European competition looks increasingly unlikely. But Hamilton, as Colin likes to point out, is a club where miracles can happen.

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