OK, here goes, this is me about to start a regular blog about a very special journey. It’s one, you could say, I’ve been on all my life though some of it, like owning a football club, has only been in my head – but now, it’s real!
I’m Chris Ewing, owner of Caledonian Braves FC. I live in Paris with my wife and three daughters, and I’m originally from Pollok, a working-class area of Glasgow. Growing up, I was fortunate enough to be a good football player, so I signed for Motherwell on an apprenticeship contract when I left school. I played a couple of years for them but was released in 1997 and found myself kicking about the lower leagues of Scottish football for a wee while, playing juniors and whatnot. Then I had the opportunity to go to America on a scholarship, to study in New York and, later, Florida. That really appealed to me because, when I was 15, my dad had taken me to America to watch Ireland in the 1994 World Cup – my cousin, Tommy Coyne, had been selected for the Irish squad – and when I first discovered New York it literally changed my life. It opened my eyes to something that was beyond Glasgow for the first time and I thought, “wow, there’s something else out there”. That gave me the courage and the desire to travel and try different things so, when the opportunity came up to go to America after I’d left Motherwell, that was when I understood for the first time the power of any project that links sport, and its passion, with education and the experience of living abroad. On the back of that I got the idea of setting up my own football academy.
I studied in the States, but I didn’t finish my education – I’ve been to four different universities and didn’t get an undergraduate degree! I changed universities when my dad passed away – that was a difficult time. I dropped out then went back and so on until, eventually, I came back to Glasgow with nothing and ended up working for minimum wage in a pub in Glasgow, The Bunker. One Thursday night, I was up at the Art School and I met a French girl who came up and started chatting to me. She was a student at Strathclyde University on an Erasmus programme and, when she went back to France, we kept in touch by email. A few weeks later she said, “why don’t you come to Paris?” and I thought, “well, I’ve nothing to lose!” So off I went to Paris in 2004 with £40 in my pocket – I remember it well, two £20 notes! I booked a 10-day Ryanair return ticket and gave myself the 10 days to see if I could get a job. And, if I didn’t… I’d try and make my £40 last 10 days – of course, I didn’t realise how expensive Paris was, and £40 for 10 days was just a wee bit ambitious! I actually got a job the first night, in an Irish bar, the 10 days came and went, and I ended up staying. It was difficult in the beginning, I was sleeping on sofas, drinking quite a lot… I was young and didn’t really know what I was doing to be honest. Then I met my future wife in that wee pub and that set me on the right road.
I realised after a while that I didn’t want to work in a pub all my life so – I’m from Scotland, I know football… I got a job coaching at PSG, Paris Saint-Germain, like you do! I just phoned them and asked if they were looking for any English-speaking coaches and worked with them on their summer programme. After that I got a coaching job with the American school in Paris and that was when I came up with the idea to set up the Edusport Academy, in 2011. I’d noticed that, in France, the level of English generally is not fantastic, but I was seeing a lot of good footballers and, after my own experience in America, I just thought it would be great if I could somehow combine learning football and the English language. I was now living in Paris, but I’m a very proud Scotsman and I’m proud to come from Glasgow. So, the opportunity to bring young French footballers into Scotland, share Scotland with them, show what Glasgow’s all about, show them how to coach and all that, that was something that really motivated me. I did a lot of research for my potential partners, colleges, accommodation, where I could train the guys, and then took the leap of faith! I opened the academy, did some recruitment in Paris and in 2011 we got our first group of young footballers into Glasgow, 18 players initially. That number has grown year on year and we’ve also expanded into rugby and basketball and, recently, were able to offer the same opportunities to girls.
Anyway, in 2011, I moved back to Glasgow for a year with my wife, Eve, and our little girl, Josephine who was 3 at the time. Eve was pregnant and gave birth to Eloïse in Glasgow, which was nice, and we’ve now got three girls, Penelope was also born in Paris in 2016. That first year had gone well so we moved back to Paris, where Eve has a good job within a television production company, and the Edusport Academy has continued to grow and go from strength to strength since then. It’s not been easy but that first year was a game changer. The basic idea – combining football, education and living abroad – was solid, and my absolute passion for it helped me to sell it to young students in France. My philosophy was simple – let’s improve, let’s get better, and make sure that we improve every year, learning all the time. It’s still the mantra we have at the Edusport Academy 9 years later. Everybody loves football, all over the world and, given the chance to go to an academy, young guys will take it. Where I have a responsibility to myself, as the owner of the company and as a parent, is to be honest with people, to be transparent. There are so many people within football that’ll sell dreams and take advantage of people. One thing that scares me is if somebody comes to the Edusport Academy and leaves disappointed, because that’s not why I set up my academy. I want positive outcomes, for people to come to Glasgow, to fall in love with Glasgow, to fall in love with Scotland, to meet new people, to make new friends, to get better as a footballer, to get better as a young men and women, and learn English. If they come with that attitude, and if we’re honest with them from the start, then we can avoid disappointment.
Initially, Edusport was a football academy based on a really simple concept – young French guys come over, they pay a fee and we provide coaching and football and English language education. At first, the students didn’t really play in a team – we farmed them out to clubs, and we played some friendly games because we felt they needed the experience of playing in games and trying to win things. Then we thought, “let’s get into the pyramid system”. There are six levels, and we chose to apply to the South of Scotland League – mainly because there’s only one division and therefore only one promotion needed to get to the fifth tier. But, we had to apply twice to the SFA and were also refused twice by the Lowland League because we were coming from a non-traditional background, the application process wasn’t straightforward. In fact, we had to apply X times before we were finally admitted in 2014. We played in the South League for 3 years, as Edusport Academy, and won the League Cup twice – that was exhibited in the National Football Museum at Hampden for a couple of years because it was won by a French football club playing in our Scottish senior divisions, so we’re now part of documented football history! At that stage we didn’t have an ambition to go up the leagues, there was no masterplan in place, it was just simply to give the guys a game. But we won the league in 2017, achieving promotion into the Lowland League, which was excellent, and another bit of history-making for our wee club – the first club ever to be promoted into the Lowland League through the pyramid system! However, that gave us a bit of a headache as we recognised that the guys who came over from the academy weren’t quite ready to go and play at that level yet. Young guys playing a man’s game – they weren’t ready for that, so we had to bring in a few more experienced Scottish players to try and consolidate and solidify the team. That put a few noses out of joint amongst the French boys who had paid to come over and now saw Scottish players in the team, denying them an opportunity and so on. Limited potential So, we took the big decision that we would have to separate the first team from the academy and, because we then needed money to attract players and to pay them, we set up ourfootballclub.com. My idea was to use this funding platform, ourfootballclub.com, to try to sell memberships to the general public for £25 (one-off or annual fee?). As members, they could take an active influence in all decisions pertaining to the club – one early idea was that we’d change the name and that the members could vote on that, which is exactly how we became Caledonian Braves. But I quickly realised that there was a whole lot more to this than simply raising money for the club – it was the opportunity to create something unique and use the power of football to bring people together in a way that has never been tried before. initially we have more than 800 members signed up from 35 different countries, realising that ambition to create the first football club that’s managed by an online global football community. With the launch of the app we’re ready to revisit that… launch app, documentary
We are very fortunate to be part of the pyramid system with the opportunity to progress as a community club.
We’re in a fortunate position in Scotland in some ways because, with the greatest of respect, it doesn’t take that much to get out of the sixth, fifth, fourth and third tiers. It’s not like England or Germany where you need millions to do that. With a relatively modest budget you could be East Kilbride, Spartans, Kelty – their budgets will not be far off some in League 2 – it’s not like we need a million pounds to get there. It’s a very ambitious project, it’s innovative, but people have said “you’re crazy, you say you want to be in the Premiership by 2025?” OK, that’s probably overly ambitious, and might generate a bit of negative feedback, but I believe you’ve got to be ambitious. There’s no point in saying, “well, in 3 years we might get out the Lowland League, then we might be in League 2 in 10 years”, that doesn’t excite anyone. Take any club – if you do the same thing year in, year out, you’re going to get the same results year in, year out. People say you’re mad, but surely madness would be a club that keeps doing the same thing and expects a different outcome? For me, if you own a club and you’re ambitious to go up the leagues, that’s exactly why the pyramid was set up. There’s a pathway and, if you want to work hard, there’s a clear route. The traditional league clubs can’t sit still anymore – they’ve got to improve too, or they’ll be relegated. Owners who have good business acumen, who have good coaches in place, and who work hard to get a good footballing team on the park, they should be rewarded for that. That’s what we’re trying to do and the only way we can do that is by thinking outside the box to see how we’re going to do it. I genuinely believe in our football club. It’s a real people project, it’s about people loving football wherever they’re from, no matter what colour they are or who the first team they support is, but they can be seduced by this project to take a small football club in Scotland up the divisions as a group of people who love the game. To have those 800 people, from 30 countries, just boggles my mind – America, Singapore, Thailand, all over Europe, Paris, Castlemilk, Pollok, Barrhead – that’s football! I live in Paris and I’ve been on the streets when France won the World Cup, seeing people who wouldn’t look twice at each other during a normal day giving each other cuddles! That is what football is all about, and if we can harness any of that passion to this project then that has to be championed. If you can give anybody any kind of hope through football then that’s what football is – it’s a game, it’s a sport, it’s about passion it’s about uniting people, it’s about giving people hope. That’s what it should always be about and that’s what we’re trying to achieve in this project. Yes, we have to have a business model, but for me it really goes way, way beyond that. The idea is to create a community
As I said earlier, I’d been to four different universities without getting a degree and I used to be a wee bit ashamed by that, thinking that people would think I was just a dropout. It was always hanging over me in my head, which is nonsense because the correct message has to be to stick in at school and get your grades, but if it doesn’t happen it’s not the end of the world. I always tell my students that what’s really important is how you react. Eventually I returned to education myself, to the Johan Cruyff Institute, where I closed a wee chapter in my academic qualifications by graduating with a Masters degree in International Sports Management. The main reason I wanted to do it was to be better at my job – I wanted to improve as a director of my academy and I wanted to show my staff that, even at my age, I still want to learn! It sets a tone, sets a standard, and I really enjoyed the course. I’m always trying to think how I can better myself and, for all my staff, it’s about being ambitious and driving things forward, in a nice, human, good-guy way. Good guys working together, trying to do better – that’s the mantra we have and if we can stick to that we’ll not be far away.
I don’t think I’m a typical football club owner. I’m a boy from Pollok, living in Paris, in the early stages of this new chapter with the Caledonian Braves. I love Scotland and I love Glasgow, but I now also have a loyalty to France because it’s given me an opportunity. I’ve worked hard to get where I am but France gave me the opportunity to better myself and now, as of 2020, I’m officially a French citizen – my wife is French, my children are French, so I’ve always been conscious of that and I think obtaining French citizenship is a way to recognise that. Apart from anything else, if you go back there’s a good bit of history between Scotland and France, the Auld Alliance. I’m privileged to now have dual nationality. I’m a proud Scotsman but, as I sometimes say, it’s a sad day when you’ve got to move abroad to live out your football ambitions through another country when France are in the World Cup! I’m very grounded, I realise life is beautiful but it’s also very fragile, so enjoy it while you can. I love coming back to Scotland and I love seeing my academy guys from all over France and Belgium speaking better English, with Scottish accents, and getting girlfriends and Glasgow friends. That’s what it’s about, it’s about giving them the best Scotland has to offer which is being friendly, being open, being that way inclined, and I’m very proud of that. I’m also very proud of the progress we’re making with Caledonian Braves – on the playing side and also behind the scenes, with our social media developments and the new Alliance Park stadium at Bothwellhaugh as only two examples – and with myself for keeping pushing ahead with the dream. This is not to big myself up or anything, but I’m not aware of any other men’s senior football club anywhere in the world that has been formed from scratch by one guy and reached the level we’re already at, never mind one being overseen by an innovative, global fans’ collective.
So that’s me, and that’s the background to how we got here. Now, as Caledonian Braves prepare for our second season in the Lowland League, in 2020-21, I invite you to join us as our journey continues. The blog won’t always be as long as this introductory one – I’ve got a football club to run as well, after all! – and it won’t be about match reports or constantly telling you things like, “the boys done good!” I’ll try to give you some insight into the challenges, trials and tribulations of running a football club in Scotland, from Paris. But it won’t be all moans and groans, or doom and gloom, because that’s not why we all love this game and it’s just not who I am. I’m a football fan, I love football, and I’m very fortunate to own a football club. I’m a proud Glaswegian, living in Paris, and I never forget where I came from. But, above all, I’m just a normal guy, a husband and a father who loves his family. I’m excited to share this project with all of you, and I’m just doing my best.