Alistair Robertson breathed a sigh of relief last week, with the future of Sport Aberdeen secured.
Council chiefs had been toying with the idea of combining the city’s leisure charity with the likes of Bon Accord Care and others.
But Alistair left the Town House with standalone Sport Aberdeen intact, and knew he’d won his last fight.
After nearly 12 years leading the operator of city leisure facilities, through budget culls and a pandemic, the full-time whistle will blow in January.
His 60th birthday in May had always looked the likely finish line and now he’s confident that the people around him will continue the work.
Speaking exclusively to The P&J, he says it had been “extremely difficult” to come to the decision to retire.
The 59-year-old adds: “I have been reflecting for quite some time.
“We have continued beat the odds over the last few years, thanks to a tremendous effort from everyone at Sport Aberdeen.
“Some of that has been very much driven trying to improves things. Other parts have just been about surviving.
“Now, I’m not running from a fight, this is not because there’s something horrible coming down the line.
“I wanted to make sure the future of the company was secure before I stepped back.”
‘Horrendous cycle’ of budget talks requires ‘energy’ from the incoming Sport Aberdeen boss
Having built his family in the north-west of England, a drive to see more of his grandchildren is a driving factor.
Alistair admits he’s “too old for the bachelor life” he’s been living, with his wife also down on Merseyside.
But also, more than a decade of “horrendous” cuts to public sector finances has taken its toll.
“It’s an all-consuming job, it’s 24/7,” he tells us.
“I think the organisation definitely will benefit from a wee bit of a refresh and some different ideas.
“It is a lot of responsibility, pressure, commitment and expectation and there’s no good time to step away.
“I am not finished with work but I’m not looking for another job like this.”
Alistair Robertson helped Sport Aberdeen tap into city’s ‘latent potential’
More time on the golf course beckons for Alistair, who has led a remarkable resurgence of city-run courses while leading Sport Aberdeen.
Hazlehead Golf Club was at risk of folding in summer 2012, when authorities were forced to close the courses, including its famed MacKenzie course, due to drainage problems.
Now, after investment, there are more than 3,000 members of the Golf Aberdeen scheme.
Across the board, there were 250 Sport Aberdeen members in 2012.
Tapping into a “latent potential” untapped in the city, “proud” Alistair has recruited another 18,000.
That’s taken the charity’s income, reinvested in facilities, from £2 million to forecasts of £10.5m
Another budget cycle looms: Sport Aberdeen could face £5m cuts
But, as the new year approaches, dark clouds gather.
Aberdeen City Council must slash £35m from its budget in March, working towards a savings target of £83m over the next four years.
Alistair is confident award-winning Sport Aberdeen’s full £5.3m annual funding is not on the line – despite that devastating cut being an option in the city budget consultation.
Second only to education, the funding bracket for art, culture and sport polled well with citizens, asked what they cared most about, earlier this year.
But the budget process sounds exhausting.
Alistair adds: “Each year we go into a situation where the council has a horrendous challenge with reducing public sector finances.
“It is so difficult to sustain services and there’s more of that coming.
“And it’s kind of a cycle of waiting for what’s likely to happen, planning for all of the pressures that come with reducing financial support but trying to grow your income.
“Because people like the services we provide, we try and do our best for them.”
Bucksburn pool: Outgoing Sport Aberdeen chief says closure ‘could have been handled much better’
Sport Aberdeen bore the brunt of public fury in March, as a “regrettable” £400,000 cut to its budget forced Bucksburn swimming pool shut.
It is in this element of the budget process that the outgoing chief thinks Sport Aberdeen could benefit from the “energy” of someone new.
Succession plans have been drawn with the charity’s board since his last birthday.
Continuity seems important to Alistair, who promised the people of Bucksburn to do “all I can” to give them access to the facilities the community needs.
He insists his last year in the job has not been soured by the council and Sport Aberdeen being taken to court over the closure of the pool, and six city libraries.
Alistair adds: “It might look that way from the outside, but we certainly take no pleasure in seeing services and amenities being withdrawn.
“We understand why people would be frustrated and concerned.
“This is the day job: communities deserve to have people looking out for what they require, and do the best for them. That is what the public sector is here to do.
The whole experience of the Bucksburn closure was one of real frustration for the community because of – not so much what happened – but how.
“It could have been handled much better, engaging and working with the community through the process.
“But it came out of the blue which always makes it more difficult and now we are where are (with the judicial review).”
‘I suddenly realised Aberdeen was a different place’: Political change quickly ended planned leisure expansion
Alistair fronted up to the anger at the closure, attending a public meeting at the Beacon Centre in Bucksburn in the days after.
There, he was brutally honest in his assessment of the state of many Aberdeen leisure facilities. He had “failed” to convince city bosses to invest properly.
Arriving in Aberdeen in April 2012, Alistair brought “all sorts of ideas” north with him.
But a month later, there was sweeping change at the Town House after local elections.
So does he feel that he could have been allowed to achieve more?
“Four weeks after I started, Labour took over the council and Union Terrace Gardens was stopped… I suddenly realised this was a different place.
“Quite honestly, it just took some people a wee while to get on the same page.
“I could see that Aberdeen was completely behind other cities in the UK with its leisure offer.
“I knew the age of facilities was going to be a problem and had a new vision to ensure there was the right level of centres and services.
“But the council has had other priorities for investment which you obviously see around the city.
“I feel it’s unfortunate that with the competing priorities, the council maybe didn’t see leisure as one of them.”
Northfield pool is proof that Alistair Robertson’s Sport Aberdeen plan could have worked
He “tried his best” to press the council to set a “brave vision and aspiration” for Sport Aberdeen, and to seek partner-based funding to save the public purse.
The recently overhauled Northfield swimming pool shows what might have been achieved on a wider scale with further collaborative working.
“Some of that has been done and there has been a tremendous amount achieved from the strategy which was approved.
“But I just feel Aberdeen deserves better.
“At Northfield, organisations regenerated a failing building to make it a very smart community venue. We could have done more of that…
“But at the time there just needed to be more faith and trust in me. It’s come but unfortunately perhaps too late.”
Sport Aberdeen: ‘Helping people towards the Olympics and keeping people out of hospital’
While he yearns for the partnerships that might have been, Alistair is equally proud of those he forged.
Sport Aberdeen was a champion for the importance of sports facilities during the Covid pandemic, when they were left closed long after other businesses were allowed to open.
And work with the NHS has allowed older people to stay physically active in Aberdeen, decreasing demand on the cash-strapped health service.
He adds: “You know, we’re helping people towards the Olympics and Commonwealth Games and we’re keeping people out of hospital.
“That broad range of services should be a fundamental part of what a local authority offers within the city.
“And that’s the way I hope it will continue. The people using our services are clearly what it’s all about.”
‘I didn’t expect to come to Aberdeen… but it’s been the best experience of my life’
Alistair Robertson brims with pride at the achievement – and at the recognition he and the 600-odd Sport Aberdeen employees have earned over his 12 years.
While making money, the organisation’s practices, behaviours and culture were “completely wrong” when he arrived.
“It seemed slow at the time but looking back now, we have undergone a complete transformation.
“Sport Aberdeen is a resilient, innovative and very much entrepreneurial focused business and it’s because it’s in such a good place that I feel I can step away.
“I didn’t expect to come to Aberdeen. But it’s been the best experience of my life.”