Saturday 21 October 2017

Toiling to fight another day

The Glen Rovers club in Cork has escaped a major financial crisis, writes Damian Lawlor

LAST week, GAA president Christy Cooney issued a stark warning that clubs preoccupied with major redevelopment could suffer financial ruin and have their existence threatened. His words, coming just days after Dublin's Thomas Davis held an emergency meeting over a €2m debt, were well timed.

Nationwide, clubs are out on their feet.

Some are in a perilous state but haven't gone public on their woes, while Portlaoise may be in the worst condition of all, left with a whopping €6.5m deficit after a development deal collapsed. Many smaller clubs are battling arrears of over €200,000.

Glen Rovers, the celebrated hurling club on Cork's northside, have revealed the extent of their difficulties and how they found a way to turn the corner.

Most people are familiar with the club's heritage; a glorious institution that has supplied legends like Jack Lynch, Christy Ring, Denis Coughlan and Tomás Mulcahy. The club serves the resolute, working-class areas of Blackpool and Ballyvolane and in its 95-year existence has met with many triumphs including two All-Irelands, three Munster and 25 Cork senior hurling titles. But perhaps their most fabled deed was the domestic haul of eight county titles between 1934 and 1941.

Those rich harvests have since dried up and these days it's off the field that their biggest challenges have been faced. Six years ago, they commenced a major redevelopment: an indoor hurling alley, gym, new dressing rooms, a dedicated referees' room, hurling wall, new pitch and floodlights. The works.

They received a €300,000 Government grant but first had to raise 30 per cent of this themselves. Another €30,000 came from the Munster Council, likewise Cork City Council. Determined, they ploughed ahead despite an obvious shortfall with no guaranteed revenue elsewhere.

As the economy imploded, they knew they'd bitten off more than they could chew and were left with three sizeable loans totalling almost €1m. They sold three sites for €100,000 each, reducing the liability to €700,000, but it didn't prevent their financial health from deteriorating rapidly.

Bar profits that once soared at €95,000 per annum during the Celtic Tiger years slumped to €4,000 as the recession roared, ultimately resulting in the closure of the bar and staff redundancies.

One bank threatened to stop honouring their cheques and the club was warned that it was on the verge of shut-down. Their status worsened to such a degree that upon seeing a sales rep seeking payment one afternoon, an official fled the clubhouse and waited in the top field until the coast was clear.

Diarmuid McAuliffe, the Glen's vice-chairman and treasurer, recently retired from the chemical industry and now monitors their daily spending -- he assumed the role of treasurer after predecessor, Joe O'Shea, stepped down after six extremely taxing years in the position.

"We've gone through rotten times," says McAuliffe. "Right up to last year, the bank was ringing on a daily basis. We'd been with Ulster Bank since 1975, but we were under savage pressure. We had three or four loans and I remember wondering at an AGM one night whether the message was sinking in. There were about 150 people there.

"I just stood up and said, 'there is no more money here'. Silence. Fellas could only put their heads down."

Everywhere they turned there was an invoice, a bill or a tab to be settled. They'd reach one year's end still afloat only to be sucker-punched with a City Council rates bill of €16,800 come January. They were also saddled with annual loan interest of €62,000.

Eventually, on September 28, 2009, with their continued existence under severe threat, they took their first significant steps in regaining control of their affairs.

An arduous 14-month negotiation process followed until they successfully sealed a loan restructure with Ulster Bank, compiling the three existing loans into one, thereby streamlining affairs and reducing interest repayments. But that gruelling saga took its toll -- at one stage the club thought it had fulfilled all its administrative obligations only to be issued with a further 14 requirements.

At another juncture, progress was again delayed as the bank sought confirmation that Proinnsias ó Murchú was indeed the same person as Frank Murphy (Cork GAA secretary) who acts as Trustee for all Cork clubs.

Glen Rovers became increasingly frustrated at the red tape. "It took until November 2010 to sort, it was the worst time for everyone," McAuliffe continues.

"Eventually, our combined loans stood at €650,000 and Ulster Bank allowed us to pay back €4,300 a month. It's taken some pressure off but there were heated exchanges between us, the bank and solicitors along the way -- it was all very stressful."

The respite didn't last.

Last June, they were hit with a €10,000 fine after being involved in a melee with Bride Rovers in the local senior championship. Initially they were fined €7,000 but on appeal that was reduced to €2,000 and they were sensationally expelled from the competition.

Another appeal was lodged whereupon they were returned to the championship with the fine instead rising to a whopping €10,000. Reluctantly, they paid it.

Once back in action, they were hit with a further €1,000 fine for flouting the county board's pitch-side restrictions. Considering that both Cork and Clare were fined only €5,000 each for Semplegate, the whole episode mystified them. Raising that money became another daunting task.

"It was the straw that almost broke the camel's back," the treasurer adds.

"It was extremely upsetting. Spain and Holland were only hit with €9,000 each for indiscipline in the World Cup final. The county board knew our financial predicament, they had our accounts and that fine nearly killed us. It must have been the biggest punishment a GAA club was ever hit with. What's next if others slip up -- €20,000?"

It's said, though, that the night gets darkest just before the dawn. And if that was their lowest point, a chink of light soon appeared.

Their clubhouse had been neglected during the main redevelopment and was in total disrepair, but there were no funds for its refurbishment. Up stepped 60 members to donate €500 each and raise €30,000. Other members, carpenters, electricians and plumbers helped complete the job.

Their high-flying under 21 team had met Duhallow in successive county championships and shortly after their most recent clash news emerged that a Duhallow player had died tragically. Most of the Glen team travelled to his funeral to pay their respects. A year on, the heart of that team were preparing for the 2010 senior final with Sarsfields, when the father of the Duhallow player arrived at a training session to wish them luck. He said he'd never forget their attendance at the funeral and before leaving he handed a Glen official an envelope to help with their county board fine. They were stunned at his generosity.

That night they knew the spirit of the club was alive again.

They kicked on from there; three weeks ago they packed almost 1,000 people into Cork Opera House for an 'Up Close and Personal' evening with a galaxy of GAA and sports stars. It was a stunning financial and cultural success, culminating in a fiery exchange between Joe Brolly and Donal óg Cusack.

Along with others, club chairman Mick Hackett and former Lord Mayor of Cork Damien Wallace have pushed the club's fundraising effort into overdrive. It has to be that way to meet monthly repayments.

Bingo has been targeted as a cash cow and through a strong volunteer effort the club reaped extremely handsome profits from it last year. It will continue to generate badly needed cash in the future. So successful is this venture that each month a Super Bingo is held with a €4,000 grand prize. Crowds come from far and wide to pack in.

A local bar manager, Pat O'Connor, was headhunted to run the club's licensed premises and turned the place around. The bar made €35,000 profit last year with Aslan and the Cork Male Voice choir next up in concert. Talent shows and 21st birthday parties are also held and the club has recently sunk its own well to slash water rates.

They've also reduced waste, physio and phone costs, cutting their phone bill in half with the help of O2 to just over €3,000.

Significantly, interest repayments have also dropped from €62,000 pa to €51,000.

"We took on too much but we were left to ourselves, there was no-one there to give us advice or assistance," continues the treasurer. "In the end, we totally restructured and cost-cut everywhere. We felt we took on the banks, the county board with the fine, the lot.

"We'd no money, no leeway and the pressure consumes you. I'm lucky I'm retired but how people can run clubs with a day job is beyond me. We've all the facilities now, but we've been to hell and back and there's still a long road ahead."

With finances now under control and 200 registered underage players from under 4-under 18, they're in decent health.

They run a promising under 14 academy and have 80 camogie players. The toil of coaches like Don Cronin, Dave Cunningham and Peter Murphy is being replicated by Terry Buckley, Glendon Hackett and Cian O'Brien in the current recruitment drive.

They may have been defeated in last year's senior final but they still have a capable team that starred at underage level. "It's probably the history of the Glen that kept us going," McAuliffe reckons.

"Look at the legendary names that have come and gone here. With that rich history, we just couldn't fold. We over-stretched ourselves and took on too much but now we're able to meet repayments. Still, it's a battle that starts again every day."

Only this time they're ready for it.

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