FOOTBALL: FAN'S EYE VIEW: No 157 St Mirren

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The Independent Online
You can see them every Saturday in the streets of Paisley, especially around popular pubs: single-decker buses loaded with either blue, red and white clad Rangers die-hards or green and white bedecked Celtic fans.

The buses trundle off, weighed down with those who have made the easy decision to support one or other of the Glasgow giants, both of which are based within 10 miles of Paisley town centre.

Consequently, St Mirren, the local senior team for around 200,000 people, find themselves bereft of the support that would relieve the club's current financial difficulties.

Despite its geographical proximity, it is not only the Paisley Saints who are frustrated by this weekly exodus of cash-paying supporters. Every town in Scotland contributes to the attendances at lbrox and Parkhead, each of which now attract over 50,000.

St Mirren, however, seem to be suffering more than most and the enormity of the overdraft means that a swift return to the richer pickings at the big boys' table is becoming increasingly less likely.

The current cash crisis can be traced back to their Scottish Cup triumph in 1987. On the foundation of that success, the then board decided that the time was right to assemble a team capable of sustaining a long-term challenge in the top half of the Premier Division. The manager, Tony Fitzpatrick, was allocated a budget - frankly beyond their means - to recruit the required players. Of course, they flopped, performances deteriorated and relegation followed.

Ironically, Fitzpatrick's popularity with the fans remained intact throughout. Yes, the signings were hopeless but, as they were being made, with the possible exception of a mercenary Steve Archibald, the fans were rubbing their hands and saying: "Great, these are the boys for us!"

The Love Street manager's office has had various recent occupants, but now Tony Fitzpatrick, with his enthusiasm still on the boil, has landed back in the hot seat. The fans smiled and nodded when he publicly reminisced about a game in Aberdeen towards the end of his first spell in charge. The rampant Dons had just whipped us 5-0 and, as he made the longish walk from the Pittodrie dug-out along the track to the tunnel, he was not even all that surprised to find that a sizeable contingent of the Saints fans had stayed to cheer and chant his name. Like the playing kit, everything is black or white with the Paisley support: you're either a hero or a villain.

Our expectations are slightly different now in the austere 90s. The hoped- for swift bounce back to the top flight never materialised and the current shoe-string budget is restricting our short-term ambitions. It would be nice to enjoy the novelty of a season in which we do not have to worry about further demotion.

Long term? It comes and goes in cycles for teams like St Mirren. They had 13 consecutive seasons in the Premier and qualified for Europe four times in the 80s. They are in the realms of under-achievement at the moment, but the cycle dictates an inevitable rise again at some point.

Of course, it would be better if the Old Firm supporting hordes backed the local team instead. But that is a fantasy we can forget. Professional sport is, by definition, a business and, like any other business, a professional football club, ultimately, is selling a product to a customer.

The product sold by Rangers and Celtic is, at a fundamental level, different from that sold by Scottish provincial clubs. The Glasgow giants are selling an association with success, their customers are not going to tolerate a side incapable of challenging for - and winning - domestic silverware on an ongoing season to season basis.

The others are selling the cosy glow of satisfaction that goes with supporting the local mob. And although things might be rotten just now, if we stick with it long enough, there is a glory day somewhere in the future - and the longer we have to wait, the sweeter it is going to be when we see it.

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