Monday 24 July 2017

Comment - Vulnerable clubs make easy targets and in Irish football there is no shortage of them

Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

To understand the root of Athlone Town's current difficulties, it is necessary to turn the clock back to last year.

In June 2016, the once-proud Midlands club were unable to fulfil a First Division fixture against Waterford United because they didn't have enough players.

The situation had arisen because of a dispute over unpaid wages.

Frustrated players refused to travel to the away fixture, determined to take a stand and make their plight known. Manager Alan Mathews resigned in the aftermath.

FAI's competitions director Fran Gavin Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
FAI's competitions director Fran Gavin Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

That was the nadir of a slippery slope downwards for a cash-strapped club struggling to make ends meet in the League of Ireland First Division, a level colloquially referred to as a 'graveyard division' by fans of Irish soccer.

It's a struggle for clubs to make ends meet and the situation in Athlone was particularly grim with a section of fans openly boycotting matches due to their long standing dissatisfaction with the hierarchy. At the end of last season, there were concerns about Athlone's ability to survive into 2017.

They were in need of investment when a new player entered town.

Last November, another First Division side, Cobh Ramblers, were approached by a representative who said he was acting on behalf of a consortium of Chinese and Portuguese businessmen that wished to invest in an Irish club.

That advance was rejected by Ramblers.

It's understood that Premier Division side Bohemians were also approached by the same party, but it also came to nothing.

And that's when Athlone came into the picture.

The turbulence of 2016 indicated chairman John Hayden and the committee were finding it difficult to stay afloat. On February 1, the 'Westmeath Independent' reported the club was on the verge of "securing major financial investment from Portugal".

What followed was an influx of coaching staff and players from various parts of the globe but there was no official statement from the Midlanders about the change in circumstances.

For one pre-season friendly, manager Colin Fortune was listed on the team-sheet along with a Portuguese man named Ricardo Monsanto.

The latter appeared to be the one on the sideline barking instructions.

Locally, the indications were that the new backers were covering all the costs of first team commitments; travel, meals, training expenses and the other bills. Ultimately, Athlone were not in a position to refuse that kind of offer. But eyebrows were raised by the turnover. Marc Fourmeaux, a French agent, was brought in as director of first team operations. He had previously worked with a Lithuanian side, FK Dainava.

The overseas players also had mixed CVs; it is not that unusual for foreign players to crop up in the League of Ireland, viewing it as a potential platform to get into the lucrative English market. But some of the Athlone recruits were beyond the stage where that could be a realistic ambition.

Athlone did start the season well with two wins but their form quickly tailed off. Fortune left the club - although he later returned before leaving again - and some Irish members of the dressing room decided to quit. One player, Val Feeney, vented frustration on Twitter about the arrangements for an away game in Cobh where the pre-match meal for a 3pm kick-off consisted of scrambled eggs at 10.30am.

Results quickly tailed off with Monsanto departing and his compatriot, Ricardo Cravo, taking temporary control and they were second from bottom after last weekend's game with Longford Town that ultimately led to UEFA investigating irregular betting patterns.

Now the seven professional members of the Athlone squad - all of whom are from overseas - have sought the guidance of the Professional Footballers Association of Ireland (PFAI) ahead of next week's interviews with the FAI. Sources close to discussions say that the group all insist they are innocent of any allegations.

The schedule for the sitdown discussions has pencilled a small number of that contingent in for hour-long grillings, while others are slotted in for 30-minute sessions.

However, the Athlone story has also placed scrutiny on the role of the FAI.

In March, the FAI's competitions director Fran Gavin - who is also the association's integrity officer - said that he had met the mystery Athlone investors.

"They are quite ambitious," he said. "We've never experienced that type of investment in a club where they're bringing players in from all over Europe. You wonder about their motivation, so that's something we've to look at very carefully."

The FAI's statement on Wednesday said that Mr Gavin had delivered a workshop to the Athlone squad on 'the prevention of match-fixing and betting' on March 29 and it is clear it has been monitoring affairs in the Midlands across the campaign.

With just eight clubs in the First Division, it needs the club to stay alive.

But the question marks that have been raised over outside influences are troublesome for the FAI - because it has already had experience of dealing with the problems raised by gambling.

In 2013, then Longford player Colm James was banned for 18 months after he was reported by one of his own team-mates. At the time, Mr Gavin offered his opinion that an overseas betting ring was responsible.

"We strongly believe that there was a group involved in approaching the player from outside our jurisdiction," he said. "We think there was an attempt to set up a network to try and get games fixed."

There have been other instances below the radar where the hierarchy had reason to be concerned, like a top flight match a number of years back where an unusual volume of money was placed in one area of England and a 2012 fixture between Shelbourne and Monaghan, where Mr Gavin entered the dressing rooms beforehand to inform the participants of irregular betting patterns.

Gambling in football is huge business and it's no coincidence that leagues where players earn relatively small amounts of money have been at the centre of worldwide attempts to crack down on illegal activity.

Vulnerable clubs make for easier targets, and Irish football has no shortage of them. This week's turn of events is disappointing, but it would be a stretch to say that it came as a huge surprise.

Irish Independent

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