Friday 17 November 2017

John O'Brien: Stability a matter of Trust for domestic game

John O'Brien

TO explain the path her football life has taken, Niamh O'Mahony shares a childhood memory. As kids, they would spend days in their grandparents' house in the shadow of Turner's Cross. One day her Nan went round the table, probing the children for their long-term dreams and ambitions and, without thinking, she blurted out her wildest fantasy. "I want to run a football club."

The other kids broke into a fit of giggles. The adults nodded and smiled their most tender smiles. If we knew one thing about football, it was that running clubs was for high-powered businessmen, not for dreamy girls from middle-class suburbs of Cork.

And yet, to even her own astonishment, that's where her journey led. After 10 years in Dublin, she returned to Cork in 2009 and got increasingly involved in Foras, the group of people who had come together to help save Cork City from ruin and, quicker than they imagined, ended up running the club themselves. A year later she was elected to the board. The crazy dream wasn't so madcap after all.

That journey continues to carry her down new and interesting avenues. On Tuesday, it takes her to Leinster House for the launch of the 'Heart of the Game Handbook', the product of a European Community project O'Mahony has been leading for the past 18 months. It probably isn't over-egging it to suggest that a more valuable document for the future of the domestic game hasn't been seen for many years.

Basically, the 'Heart of the Game' is a 65-page manual, a reference guide for groups of supporters wishing to play more active roles in the way their clubs are run, advice on legal and other frameworks around establishing Trusts and Co-ops and a timely reminder of the need for good governance in the maintenance of well-run clubs. It is a practical, hands-on document, built on more solid foundations than hopes and aspirations.

As O'Mahony says: "There's been a tendency to focus too much on the difficulties here. What we're trying to do is change the rhetoric around it. To say, you know what, we do have problems and we can't tackle them all. But if we start somewhere, it's better than doing nothing and hoping it gets better. Because hoping it gets better isn't working."

For fans, it has been a voyage of discovery too, finding new ways of thinking and relating to each other. Shamrock Rovers helping Cork. Cork passing on their knowledge to others coming after them, an unofficial network sprouting up. Clubs that had been bitter rivals and sworn enemies coming together to find common ground. "Stuff that won't change the League overnight," says O'Mahony, "but that can take us a small step forward."

Because the idea of Supporters' Trusts has gained such a foothold across Europe, and has become a growing phenomenon here, establishing precisely what they are and how they can benefit clubs was a vital enterprise. "The thing is not to say we're starting something because our club's in trouble," O'Mahony continues, "but because our club can benefit from having an organised Supporters' Trust.

"With Foras it was three years before we took over the club. It was a long-term ambition, a way-down-the-road sort of thing. But then events just overtook us. It's not scaremongering but having a Trust in place when trouble is brewing can be a benefit, as opposed to scrambling one together when it's too late. As it says in the handbook, if you need to set up a Trust, it's already too late."

One thing that struck her during the course of the project was not merely how it encouraged supporters to re-evaluate their relationship with their clubs, but the level of goodwill that existed among the wider community. Then there was the TD who pointed out that for every 20 requests for assistance he received from GAA clubs, only one would come from a football club. She wondered about that. What trick were they missing?

"Because we need to get out there and talk about what we're doing in a positive sense," she says. "And with better arguments. That we're more than just a football team, we're part of the community as well. We can give something back. We have a meaningful place in Irish society."

This was brought home too in her travels around Europe, visiting the seven other countries that were project partners. Whether addressing MEPs in Brussels or talking to club representatives in Spain or Belgium, it became clear that, in some respects, Irish football wasn't in such a bad position by comparison.

"Like, people keep talking about our poor attendances," she says, clutching one example. "But how many are aware that according to a UEFA benchmarking report, 48 per cent of top-tier clubs in Europe have an average attendance of less than 3,000? Forty-eight per cent! It's just that we suffer in comparison to the so-called best league in the world."

So it comes back to rhetoric, she thinks. Finding the good things, channelling the energy in the right direction. Like the growing number of players getting their chance in the League. Training facilities improving all the time. The success story that is the under 19 league.

And although the 'Heart of the Game' project officially concludes at the end of the month, O'Mahony doesn't see a full-stop. On Tuesday, a website of the same name will be launched as a hub for supporters to congregate online. She thinks of the lovely story that is Swansea City, 20 per cent Trust-owned, battling their way into Europe. And the inspiring '50+1' ownership model in Germany.

"One of the big things for me," she says, "is that it made me realise that we're part of something bigger here. No club needs to be alone when it's going through a bad time anymore. There's support on your doorstep and across Europe as well."

Irish Independent

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