Tuesday 16 January 2018

Bohs face hard calls on road to salvation

John O'Brien

A simple starter for no points. Two sets of supporters face thorny dilemmas. One, a members' group with a major say in how its club is run, must decide whether to accept a significant cash injection from a large foreign organisation in order to alleviate growing debts. The other, fans of a club owned by a billionaire oligarch, is being urged to sanction the sale of its stadium so the owner can become even wealthier than he already is.

It's a no-brainer, isn't it? The fans of FC Barcelona vote resoundingly to accept a sponsorship deal with the Qatar Foundation that will net the club €171m over five years, while Chelsea supporters give Roman Abramovich a bloody nose by rejecting the club's plans to leave Stamford Bridge which, to the Russian's chagrin no doubt, lies in the hands of those who purchased shares in the 1990s.

Welcome to the muddled world of supporters' trusts where nothing is as simple as it seems. While allowing fans a say in the administration of clubs is a good and wholesome thing, it is a dangerous step to regard them as elixirs for all of the game's ills or as granting some form of immunity against the greed and over-indulgence that has done for many a cherished institution.

Barcelona are often held up as the shining light. The original of the species, mes que un club and all that. Yet jerseys once held too sacred for logos now carry two while part of the beloved Camp Nou bears the name of a powerful sporting conglomerate. As the soul of FC Barca is hawked for 30 pieces of silver, few socios raise objections while the football is pretty and the trophies keep mounting.

And, naturally, this trickles down to the lowest levels. It's only two years since the Notts County supporters' trust, seduced by notions of grandeur, voted to hand their club over to a mysterious Middle Eastern consortium which turned out to be a total turkey. Nowadays a club casting amorous glances towards prospective investors is liable to be met by the refrain: "Are you doing a Munto?"

In truth, supporters groups' are as liable to outsized dreams and follies as autocrats and vanity owners. Even the much lauded Bundesliga model, where clubs cannot fall into the hands of wealthy benefactors, didn't prevent Borussia Dortmund almost going bankrupt in 2005 or big-spending Schalke having to be bailed out by a publicly-owned energy company in 2009.

No matter a club's make-up fans will always want success and, in some cases, demand it. The idea of supporters' trusts keeping clubs rooted firmly in the community is entirely laudable, perhaps even necessary, but running a successful club requires the kind of political nous and cunning that isn't always compatible with the innocence and purity that link suggests. Therein lies the rub.

Fans of Bohemians have been learning these lessons for some time now. At Thursday's EGM, club members rebuffed a motion to relinquish membership and allow the club to be sold. Everyone accepts that drastic measures are needed to cope with a potentially ruinous €4m debt, but the mistrust between members and board runs so deep that you wonder how they might reach agreement on any rescue measures.

The members' fears are easy to understand. They see faces they don't recognise at matches and club meetings and wonder if the sharks are circling, scenting a profit in the shell of Dalymount Park. There's no evidence of this happening, but if they cannot be clear about the board's intentions then, understandably, resistance seems the prudent option. A club in turmoil cannot operate on that premise, however.

So their options appear limited. Either they trust the board, elected by the members themselves, to see them out of the mire or they establish their own Trust and seek to gain control of the club, a route some members seem to favour. That's a long-term plan, though. Right now Bohemians is in mortal danger of going out of business and it is hard-nosed directors, not well-meaning novices, that will ultimately save them.

Perhaps there is a meaningful way forward. Dalymount Park is now valued at €9m and, if the path can be cleared, the board should be sanctioned to cut a deal. It must be specified, however, that once the debts are removed, the remaining money must not lapse into private hands or be used to splurge on players for a tilt at the league title. It should be left alone until such a time as a new regime is in place and a vision can be established for the club's future.

What kind of future is hard to tell. Bohs can't really afford the blue-chip services of Pat Fenlon (pictured) anymore and its days at Dalymount could soon be numbered. And even after the club's debts had been serviced and a supporters' trust had taken over, you still have to wonder how far it could push the club forward before the likely lack of funding and success began to take its toll.

Bohs fans will point to the success of other ventures, particularly Shamrock Rovers, saved from ruin by their supporters a few years ago. Yet Rovers were asking their fans to dig deep during a time of plenty and had a supportive local council behind them. Bohs don't have that, just the passion and energy of their most ardent supporters, and anybody with an interest in Irish football will hope it is enough.

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