Monday 23 October 2017

Financial backing, media blackouts and foreign imports - FAI keeping close eye on new Athlone mystery owners

Fran Gavin insists the FAI will be watching developments at the First Division outfit closely in the coming months. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Fran Gavin insists the FAI will be watching developments at the First Division outfit closely in the coming months. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile

John Fallon

Despite approving the mystery new backers of Athlone Town, League of Ireland director Fran Gavin insists the FAI will be watching developments at the First Division outfit closely in the coming months.

The oldest club in the league, which propped up the table at the end of a season in which they couldn't fulfil a fixture due to players being owed expenses, became a surprise target of an approach from a Portuguese financier with stakes in a portfolio of other clubs around the world.

While the campaign started brightly with back-to-back victories, bizarre off-the-field incidents have deepened the intrigue around the club and raised questions about the long-term philosophy of the investors. Gavin admits the FAI are not aware whether their commitment extends beyond this year.

Colin Fortune, named in pre-season at as manager, was last week demoted to head coach to enable Portuguese native Ricardo Monsanto take charge. Further confusion abounded when another element of the new structure, Jose Ferreira, said he was one of the fives coaches responsible for the team.

For a second tier that struggles for media coverage, it was puzzling for a local reporter to be shadowed and instructed by a club official last Friday to restrict questions during his post-match interview with Monsanto to game-related topics.

They had just suffered a 3-0 defeat to midlands rivals Longford Town.

Monsanto is adamant Athlone will enjoy an upsurge in results once international clearance is received for another flock of their imports.

"I have met Athlone's new investors and they are quite ambitious," said Gavin.

"We've never experienced that type of investment in a club where they're bringing players in from all over Europe.

"You would wonder what is their motivation. That's something we've to look at very carefully.

History

"Athlone have a great history, nice stadium and good facilities but don't get enough support and went through some difficult times in recent years.

"We would like to see the project being a success but we need to wait and see. You need a long-term approach because if it doesn't work in the first year, what happens?

"Are they going to invest in the second year?"

It is unclear how the FAI's vetting procedures compare for stringency with the English FA's Owners and Directors Test, which demands higher standards than those decreed by law, but Gavin confirmed the new investors have been cleared through their club licensing process.

As the league finally enjoys some stability, the hierarchy could do without any fresh bout of turbulence.

Venture capitalists Arkaga entered the sphere a decade ago with grandiose plans for Cork City only to withdraw within nine months, leaving the club burdened by debt and with no option except to seek examinership for survival.

"These investors saw what Dundalk did last year in Europe and made an approach to Athlone," explained Gavin.

"As an investor, you would want to go with the lowest input for the maximum gain.

"Dundalk's success showcased the league and opened us up to a new market of investors. They can see that the pathway to Europe is very good because there's four qualification places available to 20 clubs. That gives a 20pc (chance).

"The problem we've had in the past is that people thought it was easier than it actually is."

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