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Death Of A Football Club: a story that had to be told

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Neal Horgan in action for Cork City during the momentous 2008 season which he remembers in his book 'Death Of A Football Club?'. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Neal Horgan in action for Cork City during the momentous 2008 season which he remembers in his book 'Death Of A Football Club?'. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

Neal Horgan in action for Cork City during the momentous 2008 season which he remembers in his book 'Death Of A Football Club?'. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Wednesday, August 27: "More bad news today. Before we arrived at training, Jerry Kelly, our quirky groundsman, had phoned the club office. During the call he's told that the players are to receive only 30pc of their wages."

"Jerry informs goalkeeper Mark McNulty, who wastes no time in announcing it to the rest of the lads in the dressing-room. Everyone is trying to work out 30pc of their own fortnightly wage; most do these calculations quietly but Denis (Behan), upsettingly for everyone else, is doing his out loud. The results cause panic for the lads."

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In a big year for sports books, there is an unfortunate inevitability that a few gems are left in the shadow of the large-budget productions. 'Death Of A Football Club?', the work of former Cork City defender Neal Horgan, should not be allowed to slip under the radar.

For anyone with either an interest in the circus that is Irish football or a curiosity about gaining a broader understanding, this is essential reading.

Horgan decided that an extraordinary period in the history of the football on Leeside needed to be chronicled and preserved, but it will resonate with players, officials and fans of other clubs too who have gone through comparable problems to varying extremes.

The premise is simple. Horgan kept a diary of 2008, the year when crisis became commonplace for players who had tasted the high of league success, big European dates and a glimpse into the good life before it all came crashing down.

When it became apparent that the owners, Arkaga, were not around for the long haul, wages dried up, staff were cut and the club was put through a bruising examinership process that concluded temporarily when the colourful figure of Tom Coughlan came into control.

Dramatic

The basics are well known. So, too, is the fact that 2009 was equally dramatic - Coughlan claimed to have golfed with Tiger Woods and danced with Princess Diana but lacked a magic touch.

Horgan had to draw the line somewhere, however, and builds the book around the fraught '08 campaign even if he drops back and forth into his memory for context.

There is a superb section detailing the idiosyncrasies of Pat Dolan's spell as manager that gave Horgan a first real taste of a full-time mindset. Dolan's 24/7 mentality was the dawn of a new era.

Dolan would call into players' houses unannounced to check on their eating habits and drive around the city in search of squad members breaking rules on socialising.

"He famously arrived into one drinking session and ordered a round of water to be brought to their table," Horgan writes. "On inquiring who'd ordered the water, the players were pointed to the shadowy figure of Dolan in the corner."

The beauty is in the detail. Horgan published the book himself at his own cost and, naturally, there are imperfections as a consequence. But the anecdotes are priceless.

As the club descended after the Dolan and Damien Richardson eras, the value of Horgan's recollections is the manner in which it brings readers into the heart of a perplexed dressing-room.

What shines through is that nobody really knew what would happen the next day. It varies from anger to false hope and back again. Gallows humour carried the group through the darkest moments; it's a case study for how footballers react to stress and adversity.

"I'm not sure there's enough fans here to pay our wages lads," says Colin Healy, in a team huddle before a match with Bray, a point where Arkaga's exit had made gate receipts vital.

Plan B

Horgan was a rarity in his dressing-room because of his college education and training in law which meant that he had a Plan B beyond football. Before it all went downhill, he could see the flaws in practices that defined the rash spending in the mid-2000s.

For example, he picks apart the bonus structure introduced by Arkaga that reduced basic pay in favour of incentivised deals.

At one point, Denis Behan, a key character, tells the group that his contract guaranteed him a clean-sheet bonus even if he was on the bench. And he was a striker.

Horgan, a right-back, was on an old contract without such a clause and was understandably miffed. The goal bonuses, meanwhile, led to players 'taking shots from all angles and almost fighting over who was to take penalties or free-kicks'.

There are a few poignant juxtapositions. In the midst of a really turbulent spell, Horgan offers a two-line diary entry built around turning on the TV to watch his former colleague Kevin Doyle score in an Irish jersey - a world away from the madness.

In another, he drives past the Munster squad when they are training in the vicinity of Bishopstown.

"They always have big vans full of flashy gear and refreshments for their players and their ten or so coaches," he says. "I look across to our own area of the ground and see the Gaffer [Alan Mathews] putting cones out by himself."

That is during a period where the squad are frustrated by the quality of pre-match meals, have a few lads staying in a 'house of horrors' in Cobh without running water, and travel to a game in Galway on a smelly 'old-style 1970s bus.'

Tragi-comedy

Amid the tragi-comedy, there is a genuine sense of frustration at the opportunity that was lost.

Horgan runs through the experience he gained from successive years in Europe and how the group was just getting the hang of it when the ship hit rocks.

An improvement in standards and preparation was not matched by organisation or support levels to finance further development.

Players did briefly profit from an irrational increase in wages before suffering from erratic consequences to ride a traumatic rollercoaster.

Their story had to be told and Horgan does it well.

Death of a Football Club? will be released this week. An e-book version can also be purchased via www.sportsproview.com

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