Fans slam 'travesty' after digging deep to save Waterford
IN the turbulent world of the League of Ireland, real drama can often be found away from the football pitch. The High Court is a depressingly familiar venue for that activity.
Yesterday, it was Waterford United's turn, a culmination of their drawn-out dispute with their former manager Stephen Henderson.
At the back of Court 3, a group of young men in suits with club scarves around their neck waited for proceedings to develop.
To the untrained eye, they were fans anxiously awaiting news of the winding-up order hanging over their hometown club. It soon emerged they were the heroes of the hour, the catalyst behind the resolution of a saga that left the Blues on the brink. One had donated a month's wages to the cause.
The shortened version of the background is as follows: Henderson was sacked by Waterford United in 2011 with the club claiming he resigned. It set off a messy process which led to the Circuit Court awarding the Dubliner a figure in the region of €37,600 last December after he won a case citing breach of contract and defamation.
When Henderson failed to receive any of that money, he lodged a petition to the High Court to wind up the First Division outfit.
The combination of his settlement and legal bills brought the total figure owed to a figure in the region of €83,000. Waterford's board were refusing to budge from an offer of €50,000 and the impasse was ominous; it would leave Henderson with a fraction of the €37,600 once his legal fees were subtracted.
"It was a long process over two years," he said. "We didn't see a way out."
Independently of the club, a group of hardcore supporters decided to take action. Initially, they would have felt animosity towards Henderson; over time, their views had changed.
They realised that dealing directly with him could bring about compromise.
On Saturday, they started a fundraising drive so that the bottom-line offer on the table could be increased from €50,000 to €60,000.
They raised in excess of €5,000 before arranging a face-to-face chat with Henderson on Sunday night. In an emotional meeting, they pledged to provide another €5,000 by Christmas.
Once Henderson's side had secured a guarantee from the FAI for Waterford United's €50,000 – a figure that will be made up of the €20,000 sale of talented teenager Jack Doherty to Ipswich and future solidarity payments – there was finally light at the end of the tunnel.
The agreement was still being drawn up when the case was brought before Ms Justice Mary Laffoy – who is used to domestic football dramas after dealing extensively with Cork City's travails – first thing in the morning.
Come the afternoon, the details had been thrashed out. Stephen O'Connor BL, for Henderson, told Justice Laffoy the winding-up petition could be struck out.
Waterford board members left without comment, later releasing a statement thanking fans who "have put their hands into their pockets over the last few days".
Subsequent comments from a representative of those fans, Russell Dalton, made it clear that their ill-feeling towards the club hierarchy is now similar to Henderson's.
"We are embarrassed by the whole situation," he said. "We shouldn't be here. It has been procrastinated over the years and we are where we are.
"Stephen and his solicitors are taking haircuts all over the place to accommodate this; I want to put it on the record that it's an absolute travesty that the fans had to come in and do this. I'm getting emotional now."
Henderson admitted that the dedication of the fans had moved him to tears. "There's a lad there who has put in his month's wages and if I can give that back to him, then I will," he said.
"This could quite easily have been solved two years ago for €5,000 or €6,000 and yet it was allowed to escalate up to €83,000.
"When we step back and have a look at it, this is money going into legal pockets when we have a league that needs money. But it became an issue in terms of principle."
The former goalkeeper, who was building a good name for himself in management, fears that he might not work in that sphere again, hinting he's been given the impression he will find it difficult. "I love football but I don't know if there's a way back for me," he said.
He has a long list of grievances, believing that the FAI should have gotten involved earlier.
"This is why we went to court and we were 24 hours away from winding up one of the most prestigious clubs in the country," he said.
Dalton and his counterparts may seek to have a greater say in the running of their club down the line but, in the short term, they have to make good on their commitment to reach the magic €10,000 figure.
"It's not over," added another fan, John O'Neill. "We need help from people in Waterford because there's still a lot of work to be done."