Cautionary tale of Fingal's demise an all too familiar one
The sheer lunacy of Sporting's business venture was so tragic it defied logic even by Irish standards, writes John O'Brien
As far as we know Mick Wallace wasn't one of those sounded out about the new party that was going to take the 31st Dail by storm. Perhaps his left-leaning, heart-on-sleeve brand of political expression counted against him.
Maybe it was the simple, unfussy way he has gone about his business as a builder and football manager for the past two decades. Wallace has never been a man for the casual soundbite. He carries no instant celebrity appeal.
Instead he will run as an independent candidate in his own Wexford constituency hoping his track record stands to him on two fronts: the rare achievement of being a developer with a conscience and the inspiration behind a football club founded on something deeper than personal vanity or a misguided ambition of making a quick splash into the big-time. Like the Italian wines that are his passion, Wallace's schemes take time to mature.
Perhaps singularly among his generation of developers, Wallace always recognised his good fortune. The country's insatiable rush to build and keep building made him rich, of course, but Wallace wasn't interested in buying up half of London or in vulgar projects that had no social context. His wealth was a lightning rod for his wildest and most basic dream. His vision of building a lasting monument to his first love, football, in his native town could be realised.
Wallace has pumped millions into the pristine facilities that Wexford Youths enjoy in Crossabeg a few miles outside the town. The figure widely reported is €5m. And while the good times are gone now and he is said to be in the red to the tune of €40m, the club isn't liable for any of that debt. Their future is as bright as it gets. Wallace has always said if he were gone today, Wexford Youths would be there tomorrow.
You could, of course, glance at the League table and wonder at those words. Wexford Youths have finished seventh, ninth and seventh in Division One in the past three seasons, dismally uninspiring statistics until you realise they are exactly the kind of figures a fledgling club seeking to find its feet should be posting. Late last year they reaped a reported €100,000 from the sale of talented winger Jimmy Keohane to Bristol City, the sort of business Irish clubs need to be doing to secure a vibrant future.
It is timely to remember that Wexford Youths joined the League in 2007 following the demise of Dublin City, a club so out of control that it was losing €20,000 a week. Yet the notion that Irish football was getting its house in order was undermined a year later when the modest but thoroughly admirable institution that was Kilkenny City bit the dust and, in their place, came the moneyed men of Sporting Fingal. The splurge was quickly back in fashion.
It wasn't that there was anything wrong with the inception of the club. The words used by Wallace to describe Wexford Youths -- "social project" -- were also bandied about by Fingal County Council who took such a keen interest in Sporting Fingal's creation. Speaking about the Health Service Executive last week, a senior surgeon explained that there was nothing wrong with the theory. The problem lay in the lousy execution. So it was with Sporting Fingal.
Fingal County Council taking a healthy interest in establishing a football club in its area wasn't a bad thing. They had seen how their south Dublin counterparts had helped Shamrock Rovers bed into Tallaght and wondered if they couldn't go a step further themselves. Sporting Fingal would be a beacon around which the people of north Dublin would rally and, in time, move to a purpose-built facility in Lusk. All very laudable and above board.
Yet over the past few weeks the sheer lunacy of the venture was laid bare. They had known that Gerry Gannon's money was on a temporary basis from the beginning, yet there's little evidence that any contingency plans were put in place. When Gannon hit the skids last year, the club proceeded on the basis that new investment would appear from somewhere. Anywhere. Last month Liam Buckley was still signing new players. Two weeks ago a commercial director was appointed. What strain of madness had gripped them? While they believed they were close to signing a sponsorship deal with a UK-based firm that would net them €170,000 a year, that would merely have put a small dent in an annual budget believed to be in excess of €750,000. How did they envisage meeting the shortfall? By filling Dalymount Park every home game? Perhaps they fancied a sustained, lucrative run in the Europa League? Over the previous three seasons Gannon had ploughed €2m into the club. Without that money, Sporting Fingal were goosed. The equation was as simple as that.
Why the farce was allowed to continue as long as it did is an indictment not just of those who ran the club, but of the Council that facilitated them. From the evidence of Fingal Council meetings it is clear that the close relationship between the Council and the club was a source of unease to several councillors and questions about it popped up on a regular basis.
When Buckley initially floated the idea of Sporting Fingal to the Council in 2007, it was on the basis that they would join the 'A' Championship, the third tier of Irish football, and lay a foundation for future growth. Then Gannon was brought on board as majority shareholder and Anglo Irish Bank appeared as main sponsors. You would laugh if the consequences weren't so grim.
Both the money men and the politicians failed them. That was Sporting Fingal's sad fate. The Council kept a 26 per cent shareholding and had two places on the club's board. Fat lot of good it did. In March 2008, a Council meeting was informed that their presence on the board would "ensure that the Club continues to act in a financially prudent and responsible manner". As if it ever started. From the wreckage what is there to gleam? A cautionary tale, perhaps, but Irish football is already littered with them. When the memory fades and the money circulates again, others will follow their path and get burned. Do they really deserve to be mourned?
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