In the summer of 2008 I was appointed CEO at St Patrick's Athletic. I was 29 years old and full of ideas./strong>
There were several specific areas which I had been appointed to address, but there was one that I thought might need attention too. In the hope of sending a message of intent to everyone, my plan was for the entire squad to be drug-tested by an external body without warning.
Though the goalkeeper Barry Ryan had failed a test and served a ban in 2003 for taking cocaine while at another club, I had no concerns that any player would test positive. But driven partly by ego, I wanted to make an impression straight away and improve club discipline in the process. I knew there were procedural factors to consider so I sought the advice of an expert in the field.
He was supportive of the plan but cautioned me against it. There were no rules anywhere that allowed me to take a urine sample from any of the staff in this way. If a player refused to take part there was nothing I could do. There was a chance too that any positive sample would be dismissed because of the test's illegality. While any player who refused would arouse suspicion immediately, you can't act on suspicion alone. And I figured anyone who willingly provided a sample would surely be clean, so it would all be a waste of time and money.
But I was particularly struck by the words of the expert at the time. He warned that taking on any issue like this could cause a backlash and that I shouldn't assume widespread support. Though in a different context, I would realise what he meant in a matter of months.
I received a call from a manager at another club. He informed me that a St Pat's player had recently placed a bet against his own team but he had no specific details. I heard the same thing from two other sources. One was a reporter I knew well and he had been doing a lot of investigative work on the issue. I was still full of eagerness to improve club discipline and immediately put my mind to identifying the culprit.
I called the players to a meeting and confronted them on the issue. One player, Gary Dempsey, admitted afterwards on his own that he had done it, and we suspended him. I didn't confirm this to the journalist, but thought nothing of speaking to him on the record about the situation. It takes a lot for League of Ireland clubs to feature on the main tv and radio news bulletins, but we managed it that day. Not surprisingly, it made the back pages too. A cloud immediately hung over the club and our attendances plummeted for the remaining few games. Supporters were rightly disgusted. That the bet was a measly €20 didn't matter, nor did the fact that Dempsey wasn't involved in the game. The PR damage had been done and the finer details of the story no longer mattered. There were a couple of awkward phone calls to deal with and the club's reputation obviously took a hammering.
I began to realise the naivety of my actions. With such little evidence on such a damaging issue, I should have blanked suggestions of wrongdoing by any of our players and asked for people to put up or shut up. Tackling it head-on was naive and impulsive. Though we were successful in confirming the story, it would have been wiser for me to have done nothing. It was a valuable lesson to learn and my outlook changed.
So when I learned there would be drug-testers at an upcoming home game the following season, my only thought was to protect the club and its image. There would be nothing to be gained from doing anything else. I had absolutely no suspicions about the dressing room but my response indicated how far I had travelled. The reputation of the club was my only concern. The lofty ideals I had at the outset were long gone. I now had a very different mindset.
I engineered a reason to call the captain to give him a heads-up about the test. It seems odd now that I would make that call without reason to suspect them of anything, but it had become my instinctive response. I believed our players were innocent and still I was gripped by paranoia. And, sure enough, when the tests happened, they came back clean.
Protecting the club's image was my primary concern and I wasn't prepared to leave anything to chance. I had learned the hard way that it was the right thing to do.