Sunday 23 April 2017

Lessons to be learned from painful history

New book on demise of old Cork City is taking on a fresh relevance

Bray Wanderers manager Harry Kenny and chairman Denis O’Connor have raised eyebrows with their costly plans for the club. Photo: Seb Daly / Sportsfile
Bray Wanderers manager Harry Kenny and chairman Denis O’Connor have raised eyebrows with their costly plans for the club. Photo: Seb Daly / Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

It's 11 months since Norwich City ruled out a transfer window swoop for George Santayana. The deal was never on given that the Spanish philosopher died in 1952, but a spoof internet rumour grew legs and the club's official Twitter account got in on the fun. They still have Wes for creative thought.

Santayana could still do a job in the League of Ireland, though; with his words, if not his actions. He coined the phrase that 'those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it' and that seems fitting right now.

For a longer lesson, it's probably worth seeking out Neal Horgan's Second City for the Christmas reading list.

The former Cork City full-back has penned a diary of the tumultuous 2009 season down on Leeside, a sequel to Death of a Football Club. That book charted the gradual realisation during 2008 that the club was falling apart, as the takeover by the mysterious Arkaga group turned out to be the cause of problems as opposed to the solution.

Horgan's follow-up is tidier and sharper, blending gallows humour with prescient insights into a curious period for the domestic game, as City continued down the slippery slope towards the reboot button. There are some tremendous anecdotes in there which are worth the price alone.

A good number of them involve Tom Coughlan, a colourful character who consistently found himself in the firing line of players and staff that were putting up with persistent non-payment of wages.

By the end of the year, Cork's players were changing for training in darkness because the electricity in Bishopstown had been cut. The fitness coach, video analyst and the guy who owned the lawnmower were among those who withdrew their services because of unpaid bills.

After one set of tense negotiations with Coughlan, Horgan recalls that the chairman took out a piece of paper and asked the group if he could read them a story.

"There once was a man from Illinois who started his own business and wanted to be successful," he started.

"It didn't work out and he had to close down and everyone laughed at him and called him a failure. He went into politics and went for election and failed, and everyone laughed at him again.

"Then he tried a business again and it didn't work out and everyone said he was a failure once more. Do you know who that man was? Abraham Lincoln - the greatest leader of the USA."

The tale did not succeed in easing the tensions of young men struggling to pay mortgages.

Coughlan would produce the Lincoln tale again before the conclusion of a year that culminated with the FAI handing him a 12-month ban from football activities. A better ending than the fate that befell Lincoln, it must be said.

Horgan's tome is thought-provoking as he still feels that full-time football is sustainable here if there is a coherent plan from above, instead of a solo run from individual clubs.

Brian Lennox, a former Cork chairman, points out that well-paid part-time players can actually be more costly to employ because they have already used up their tax credits for a day job.

The chaos in the mid 2000s was borne from clubs dishing out serious contracts without having the income streams to really back it up.

After harsh lessons were learned, costs were cut. A recent survey from global players' union FIFPro revealed that half of the league's players earn less than €1,000 per month - a decade ago Drogheda, Cork City, Bohemians and St Patrick's Athletic were offering comfortably more than that amount per week.

Competition sent wages soaring and players could not believe their luck.

That's the warning from history. And yet it's hard to watch some of the ongoing transfer developments and not feel an ominous sense of deja vu.

Bray are the team that has everybody talking. Over the weekend, Harry Kenny added Aaron Greene and Gary McCabe to his squad. Their five-year plan confirmed the intention to recruit and retain a full-time professional playing staff and that has raised eyebrows.

That's because Bray have a bit to do to earn the benefit of the doubt. It's just 18 months since Trevor Croly left because of delayed player payments, while former bosses Alan Mathews and Mick Cooke have both engaged in disputes with the Seagulls over financial matters.

To be fair, the strategic plan touches on those affairs, referring to the turbulence of having five managers in 2015 and being plagued by cash flow issues.

The document states that a new backer has provided financial stability - ex-St Pat's majority shareholder Gerry Mulvey came on board - yet it highlights the need to clear legacy debts that are weighing the club down. It also admits negative publicity made the club a hard sell.

Chairman Denis O'Connor has said on record that Bray's gate receipts in 2016 totalled just €94,000, while the overall senior team costs were €560,000.

With that latter figure sure to increase, it's fairly obvious that the Seagulls need to perform in 2017 to avoid complete reliance on the patience of their investors.

The key to the current plan is securing a deal for the Carlisle Grounds to be redeveloped, with the local authority - who own the ground - helping to locate a site for a new stadium.

This suggestion has met with political opposition and annoyed hardcore supporters, who fear the club will be taken out of Bray.

The league needs this all to work out and it's understood that senior FAI officials are confident Bray will be alright.

Even if they have struck gold, Bray are in danger of encouraging other middle-tier sides to offer pay rises to lads that haven't earned it or else risk losing them. It sounds familiar.

Dundalk, Cork City and Shamrock Rovers are handing out good contracts, but regular European prize money is a form of security. Naturally, the clubs that want to break into that cycle may have to speculate to accumulate.

But it's one thing to splash cash and another to spend it wisely.

Horgan's book should be compulsory reading.

Irish Independent

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