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‘If we stay semi-pro we’ll end up in the First Division’ – Drogheda United chairman Conor Hoey

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Drogheda United chairman Conor Hoey. Photo: Sportsfile

Drogheda United chairman Conor Hoey. Photo: Sportsfile

Gavin Bazunu

Gavin Bazunu

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Drogheda United chairman Conor Hoey. Photo: Sportsfile

AS the chairman of Drogheda United, a semi-professional club operating in the League of Ireland Premier Division, Conor Hoey says he can see reality coming down the line like a high-speed train on the tracks.

That reality, in his eyes, is a world where every club in Ireland’s top flight is a full-time professional outfit. He is now looking for investment after coming around to the conclusion that if Drogheda do not join those ranks, they will disappear to the First Division.

Hoey has lived through the drama of the promotion/relegation play-offs, so he knows that predictions are dangerous but it’s possible the scenario he envisages could come to pass. Finn Harps and UCD are the bottom two in the Premier Division right now and they could be replaced by two of Cork City, Galway United or Waterford for the 2023 season.

With Bohemians transitioning towards the full-time model of training in the morning, that outcome would leave Drogheda standing alone in the top tier as the only club conforming to what many would view as the traditional personality of a LOI operation – a squad working day jobs and training in the evening.

Their manager Kevin Doherty is a postman and several members of his dressing room juggle other commitments. While there are players at other ‘full-time’ clubs who fit in second jobs or college courses in their evening time, Hoey feels the momentum is going one way.

“We’ve a choice as a club to make,” he says. “Are we happy to be a semi-professional club that will ultimately end up in the First Division? Whether we hold on as part-time for another year, we know something has to give. We have two options; stay as the nice little lovely club we are, or bring in external investors. If we want to go professional, we need to bring in external money. I think the time is right.”

This is the message Hoey wants to get out, and he’s worked out the sums for what’s required to make it possible.

His current wage bill is around €7,500 per week, and he reckons eighth-place Drogheda have clubs around them paying double that. The cost of running the club is circa €700k per annum. “We are batting way above our weight,” Hoey argues.

“To make it professional, you need commercial staff, a full-time head of academy, probably a head of women’s football too. We have a lot of people in voluntary roles. You add all of these things up and the costs rack up quickly.”

Feelers are being put out to see if they can attract an investor willing to pump more than €1m per year into the club, possibly north of that and close to the €1.5m mark. Hoey says he’s had discussions with individuals in the US, Turkey and the UK, the latter is close to a consortia who are considering their options. “At the moment, we’re building a business plan that we can present to people like him,” he explains.

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There are layers to it. Hoey feels they have a sales pitch which is credible.

“Look through all of the clubs in Ireland and I think we’re the obvious one,” he says, pointing out that Shamrock Rovers, St Patrick’s Athletic, Derry City, Shelbourne, and Dundalk have wealthy owners or significant private investment while Bohemians and Sligo Rovers are committed to a member owned model and have a larger fundraising base.

“Go through them all and you get to a shortlist and we’re 25 minutes from Dublin Airport, in the largest town in Ireland, which is fast-growing. We’ve very little debt, and we don’t want money for it, we just want people to invest.”

The elephant in the room is the club’s stadium. Hoey admits to occasionally being defensive about criticism of Head in the Game Park (United Park was renamed as part of a link-up with a mental health awareness initiative), but the gut feeling is embarrassment at the state of the dated venue which United have been trying to leave for over a decade.

Various stadium plans have derailed. The FAI own it, and there have been ongoing talks between the two parties and Louth County Council. Two different sites are on the radar, a Plan A and a Plan B, and Hoey knows that certainty in this department is needed promptly. He thinks a 5,000-seater stadium would cost €12m and a combination of government support and funds from the sale of their current base would get them close to that point.

“The only way I can overcome the stadium issue with people is to get in the car and drive them to the sites we are looking at and to our training ground,” Hoey says.

“There has been a shift in the FAI, they get it. They know the league can’t grow without facilities. I wouldn’t be saying to an investor to come in and throw money at it and start paying silly wages. I would say to come in and try and build something sustainable.

“It all comes back to facilities. If you have 10 great grounds, 10 marketable grounds with a good fan experience, the whole thing changes, and the TV money follows. That’s why I would hope Jonathan Hill’s legacy as FAI CEO would be that stadia started to get built in Ireland.”

The idea of money men turning to Ireland requires a shift in mindset and there have been regrettable dalliances in the recent past, yet Hoey looks at the pattern in club ownership worldwide and wonders if it might extend here; that structure being several outfits sitting under an umbrella organisation with a club at the top of it.

The Manchester City ‘City Football Group’ is the highest-profile version, yet there are others, with Hoey referencing an example like ‘United World’, a conglomerate led by Sheffield United’s owners which includes lower-key outfits in France, Belgium and India. There’s a newer example closer to home with Waterford in the process of being taken over by Fleetwood Town owner Andy Pilley who has created start-up clubs in the UAE and South Africa.

These networks are everywhere, the trend is going that way,” Hoey says.

Brexit is the other player in the discussion. The Irish market is now exporting more players who must stay at home for longer.

“We are developing good talent and we could be a good feeder club,” insists Hoey, with a nod to the exit of Killian Phillips to Crystal Palace earlier this year after a rapid rise through their ranks and coming from junior football.

“With this plan, I’d be showing a potential investor what we are intending to do, not what we are now. I wouldn’t let them see the ground and fool them into thinking that is Drogheda United. I’d show them the contract and sell-on clause I sold Killian Phillips to Crystal Palace for. We have another kid, Killian Cailloce, who is gone to France (Caen).

“We are developing talent and moving them on, and like every club, we’re hoping for a Matt Doherty or a Gavin Bazunu payday down the line. If we follow that route, the players you sell become the real assets. I think we’ve a strong story there for potential investors.”

The risk in changing model is that jumping too soon could unsettle key Drogheda performers. Skilful playmaker Darragh Markey (25) is trying to develop a career outside the game.

Ask individuals to give that up and they could go elsewhere. Options are becoming limited for the part-timers, though.

“Maybe there’s something in the middle, a hybrid as part of an evolution,” says Hoey. “I wouldn’t want to go full-time and lose Darragh Markey because of it. It’s a work in progress, but the game in this country is going that way, I’m 100pc certain of that.

“We’ve got the building blocks in place here, we’ve a training ground, and a good club, with a good debt position and generally a good reputation. We just need some more money because it can’t last forever the way we’re running it.”

Drogheda’s chairman reckons that Kevin Doherty is delivering superior value for money this year than any other top-flight boss, and yet the percentage call is that Boynesiders will finish in eighth spot.

It may not sound prudent to declare that the only way to beat the clubs above is to join them, but there is a pragmatism lying behind it. Hoey just knows they won’t be able to do it on their own.


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