Sunday 17 December 2017

David Kelly: Pat's true wealth is integrity and fans

Five years ago, Irish property tycoon Garrett Kelleher launched himself with typically virtuoso gusto into two vastly different projects on either side of the Atlantic.

In Chicago, he assumed financial responsibility, aided by the godfather of the Celtic Tiger Sean Fitzpatrick, for a residential spire of such monumental proportions that it boasted of being almost twice the size of the Empire State Building.

Meanwhile, 3,500 miles away in his native Dublin, Kelleher was persuaded to invest a tiny fraction of his then self-confessed $750m fortune upon a more mundane project, the preservation of a football club in the heart of suburban Dublin.

In 2006, few would have predicted that of these twin indulgences, just St Patrick's Athletic would survive the extraordinary tumult that has engulfed the global economy. Tonight Richmond Park, always cosy but never comfortable, will once more welcome European football to its threshold.

And across the Atlantic all that remains of the Chicago Spire project is a gaping 80-foot hole in the ground, surrounded by abandoned trailers and assorted rubbish. Instead of a gleaming edifice, a gloomy orifice.

After a string of law suits and after pumping some €140m of his own cash into the project, Kelleher, offered 70pc finance by Anglo Irish Bank despite not pre-selling even a parking space in the 150-storey Spire, has admitted defeat as the vultures hover.


"If I'd known then what I know now," he has said, offering a familiar refrain borrowed by all from Bertie Ahern to the unemployed Dell worker with a 100pc mortgage.

It was a far cry from the brash confidence of 2006. "If this project tanks, it's not going to knock me out of the game by any stretch of the imagination," Kelleher said then.

Mercifully, the 49-year-old's exposure to St Pat's was contrastingly limited. And he remains in the game which represents a level of quite incredulous commitment. Until you discover what led him to St Pat's in the first place.

Former chairman Andy O'Callaghan had been sounding out potential investors for some time in the mid-2000s as the Celtic Tiger flourished and, glacially, Irish professional football laid the platform for a putative breakthrough in Europe.

"We were looking an Irish businessman to become involved and not just pump money into the club, although that was a consideration of course, but to propagate a community ethos," says O'Callaghan.

At the time, FAI and Government figures were making less than discreet noises about nudging Pat's into a ground-share with Shamrock Rovers in the recently opened Tallaght Stadium, a prospect anathema to locals, regardless of its economic merits.

Kelleher met board members and, indeed, some local supporters in McDowell's, the landmark pub which adjoins the stadium; rather than pleading with this elusive Irish Abramovich, senior board members were more interested in ensuring the businessman's motives were honourable.

Despite his riches, Kelleher still had to convince his audience. Kelleher portrayed himself as a devout Catholic with an interest in church music; a senior board member was detailed to check out the bona fides.

Former favourite Brian Kerr was also close to the negotiations -- without him, Kelleher's philanthropic vision was a non-runner -- and after several snags, Kelleher completed the €25m deal, which included the erasure of a €750,000 debt, as well as buying McDowell's and several neighbouring houses.

"We have long-term ambitions for this football club which would establish it as a force in the European game," the notoriously media-shy Kelleher said when he officially took charge of the club four years ago.

Richmond Park would be rebuilt into a 15,000 all-seater arena with corporate boxes, retail outlets and a community centre. A state-of-the-art youth academy was to be set up and heavily funded.

On the field, Pat's sustained a mammoth budget -- by Irish standards -- of some €52,000 per week and just a year later, they stood one game away from the group stages of the UEFA Cup, subsequently selling their star performer, Keith Fahey, for a cumulative €600,000.

Kelleher, bedecked in red scarf, was in the RDS when Pat's bravely bowed out to Hertha Berlin in September 2008 at the zenith of their ambitions.

Owner and club would have to face up to a new financial reality. The dream hadn't necessarily become a nightmare. It was just that everyone suddenly woke up.

Pat's had won the Lotto but they would never get to celebrate it.

Kelleher, who had begun his career by helping to transform run-down Chicago with a painting business, did the same to thrilling effect in Dublin when he returned in 1996. Now he wanted to give something back.

He still does. But Pat's are now a part-time club; a far cry from two years ago when Joe Gamble was offered €4,000 a week.

Most Pat's fans would violently disagree but the club and filthy largesse never seemed likely bedfellows. The club's strength is its community, its hard-core support, its integrity.

Unlike others -- Shelbourne, Drogheda, Cork, Derry, soon, perhaps, Bohs -- Pat's have survived the choppy waters of the past decade, maintaining their Premier Division status throughout.

Sure, they missed the jackpot. And it would have been nice to see how they would have looked all dolled up with fur coats and jewellery.

"But now we're back to scrapping and surviving," smiles Kerr ahead of tonight's game.

We shouldn't be too surprised. In an era when so many institutions have fallen by the wayside, St Pat's have survived because they represent something more substantial than mere bricks and mortar, a wealth beyond mere signs, something priceless: the people.

Even Kelleher realises that after all he's been through. This is a man who has literally had millions of reasons to walk away from the club -- but he hasn't. Ni neart go cur le cheile, says the club's motto. There is no strength without unity.

Irish Independent

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