Sunday 22 October 2017

FAI should have seen the huge mess at Bray Wanderers coming

By overstretching themselves financially, Bray have created a huge mess for the League that the FAI should have seen coming

The Carlisle Grounds in Bray, Co Wicklow. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
The Carlisle Grounds in Bray, Co Wicklow. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The unravelling of Bray Wanderers is disappointing, but it is certainly not surprising.

League of Ireland observers are familiar with this script.

A relatively small club with modest support spend big on players, paying wages that make no sense when weighted against their attendances and profile.

The ambitions are tied in with a plan to move to a new stadium, with the business of leaving their old home supposed to balance up the financial equation.

There's shades of Shelbourne and Drogheda in the Bray story. A touch of Sporting Fingal and Dublin City too, although at least Bray do have some level of fanbase - and there has been discontent in the ranks.

Some supporters have expressed their unease with developments in the current regime because of scepticism about a planned switch away from the Carlisle Grounds.

Dylan Connolly. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Dylan Connolly. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

That idea met with opposition within Wicklow County Council who actually own the stadium.

When all that is taken into consideration, it is quite remarkable that Bray released a statement on Friday which effectively pinned the blame for their problems on attendances.

An operation that can't keep its own fans happy is going to struggle to attract new ones.

Increased

In 2016, Bray's gate receipts totalled €94,000 while the overall senior team costs were €560,000. And they have increased their spending for this year.

Chairman Denis O'Connor revealed on Friday that they sold just 110 season tickets despite Harry Kenny making additions that were clearly going to improve results.

They made it to third in the table but only have enough cash to pay the players for another week. That was the Sunday morning message to the squad and they are now free to talk to other clubs.

It is possible they will play the rest of this season with an U-19 team. That is one of the better-case scenarios unless they can generate funds.

Bray's actions were the talk of the Irish football community over the winter.

Managers were shocked when mid-ranking players earning in the region of €500 or €600 per week came back to them to say that Bray were offering €900.

It encouraged wage inflation and there has been some anger in the fallout to the weekend's events. Players who Bray missed out on ended up securing better deals at their current clubs by playing them off against the unlikely bidders.

A decade ago, at the peak of the madness, a number of players in the country were earning more than €3,000 per week.

Now, only an elite bunch would be on more than €1,000 and in some cases that's a 40-week contract. Clubs have ascended to the top end of the table by striking a reasonable balance in terms of wages.

There are exceptions to the rule, but the ship has been steadied to the point where players have essentially been signing contracts that reflected their value.

Bray's willingness to pay over the odds was in danger of bringing everyone else down a slippery slope. Therefore, it is hard to sympathise with their predicament.

The players cannot claim they didn't know what they were getting into. They were warned. But a combination of optimism and pragmatism kicked in.

The better players knew they would always get another club if disaster struck.

Others reasoned that six months of Bray wages could net them more than the nine-month contracts on offer from elsewhere so they took their chances. Irish football, eh? They will have to accept pay cuts to find new employment.

Players are never going to make conscientious decisions for the greater good; that responsibility lies with the authorities. Licensing was flagged by the FAI as a process that would weed out clubs that were overstretching themselves.

Before every campaign, clubs must must have their budgets approved. They offer projections for gate income and can also offer anticipated figures for sponsorship and investment. The FAI were clearly satisfied with Bray's sums.

The financial support of Gerry Mulvey has been central to Bray's rise, and the sudden onset of crisis would suggest that the picture has changed.

Another complication was an out-of-court settlement with former manager Mick Cooke arising from his departure.

But when a club reaches the halfway point of the season and says they only have enough wages for another week - and this after the sale of Dylan Connolly (left) for an initial €35,000 - then it's a damning indictment of the process that gave Bray the green light. Last year, the FAI were derided when league chief Fran Gavin said the association had 'created the atmosphere' that led to Dundalk's European run.

By that measure, they have also created the atmosphere for the turmoil at Athlone and Bray. It's an embarrassment for the FAI in a big year with the imminent cut of the Premier Division from 12 teams to 10.

The disintegration of Bray at this juncture could have implications for the battle with the drop.

Sides that have dropped points to Bray in recent weeks will feel hard done by if rivals encounter a diminished opponent on the run-in. Collateral damage beckons.

It's true that the dominance of Dundalk and Cork, funded by successive European qualifications in this new era of bloated UEFA prize-money, has left the chasing pack with a dilemma.

Clubs in the lower half of the table know they must invest in their squad if they are to get near the all important European places.

Bray's spending last winter allowed them to become competitive, but that alone is not enough to create a functioning football club.

At the launch of the new season in February, Abbotstown officials stressed the importance of clubs laying out a five-year strategic plan. Bray had enthusiastically embraced the concept.

Five months later, it's clear that it wasn't worth the paper it was written on.

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport