Saturday 17 November 2018

Home Athlone - Turmoil at the League of Ireland's oldest club and the 16-month wait for a league win

A supporter stands alone as he watches the teams warming up before the Athlone v Cobh Ramblers match in the League of Ireland First Division tie last month. Photo: Ray Ryan
A supporter stands alone as he watches the teams warming up before the Athlone v Cobh Ramblers match in the League of Ireland First Division tie last month. Photo: Ray Ryan
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

As they emerged for the warm-up ahead of their last home game of the season, two Athlone Town players shared a joke by applauding towards a deserted section of the main stand at Lissywollen.

There were no supporters there to appreciate the gallows humour prior to the August 24 meeting with Cobh Ramblers, a scoreless draw which means that the regulars have gone through an entire campaign without witnessing an Athlone victory.

Daniel McDonnell at the Athlone Town stadium. Photo: Ray Ryan
Daniel McDonnell at the Athlone Town stadium. Photo: Ray Ryan

The definition of 'regular' is strained at this stage.

Fewer than 100 people were present in the ground when the teams emerged from the tunnel for this First Division game.

Strip away officials, youth team players and family members and it's possible that all of the supporters present could be accommodated in a mini-bus.

These are testing times for followers of the League of Ireland's oldest club, a town with a strong football history.

Cobh Ramblers and Athlone Town players compete in front of a sparse crowd. Photo: Ray Ryan
Cobh Ramblers and Athlone Town players compete in front of a sparse crowd. Photo: Ray Ryan

In the Midlands town, there are people who can still recall the joy of league wins in 1981 and 1983 and the buzz of welcoming AC Milan in 1975.

Last year the club made headlines around the world for all the wrong reasons, with an investigation into allegations of match fixing and curiosity surrounding the intentions of foreign backers attracting global curiosity.

The club was cleared of any wrongdoing, but two players - Igor Labuts and Dragos Sfrijan - were hit with a year-long ban that expired last week. Their representatives are still fighting to clear their names.

Investors

Athlone's overseas investors - a Portugese company which was linked with China - no longer have any association with the club.

Giovanni Trapattoni holds a photograph of himself when he was assistant manager of AC Milan, with manager Nereo Rocco, on their visit to St Mel’s Park, Athlone, for their 1975 UEFA Cup clash. Picture credit: David Maher / Sportsfile
Giovanni Trapattoni holds a photograph of himself when he was assistant manager of AC Milan, with manager Nereo Rocco, on their visit to St Mel’s Park, Athlone, for their 1975 UEFA Cup clash. Picture credit: David Maher / Sportsfile

In the midst of all that controversy, last year's team did at least win some matches; the last proper Athlone league win came against Cobh 16 months ago.

With one game remaining, the current First Division table credits them with one victory, but that came from Wexford fielding an ineligible player in a game which Athlone lost. The three points they were awarded have added to the four they have taken from their other 25 outings.

The results have run in tandem with a fraught year off the park, with the club's current hierarchy engaged in a legal dispute with the company that owned their stadium - which consists of former Town backers and officials.

That's an intricate issue which has polarised opinion and Athlone chairman John Hayden and his committee have come in for strong criticism from fans and ex-board members after troubled period.

The Irish Independent has spoken with long-standing supporters who will not go to games in Lissywollen when the current regime is in place.

Former Athlone general manager Tony Connaughton - who was once a member of the board of control that ran the entire league - wants change at the top.

Athlone officials, for their part, argue that they are being undermined by critics who are failing to look at the bigger picture.

Factions exist, but it's factual to say that Athlone have been the worst team in the League of Ireland for three successive seasons, with this year's performance especially poor.

Original manager Aaron Callaghan walked away citing the absence of warm-up gear and a physio for a Leinster Senior Cup game, although he was subsequently hit with a lengthy FAI ban for his conduct towards match officials.

Midfielder Luke Kelly had to go in goal for one fixture because they had no keepers available, and the team have travelled to certain away matches in cars rather than on a bus.

Adamant

The Athlone public have tuned out, but the board are adamant the club is in the right hands.

Hayden, a barrister, is the main man. When approached by the Irish Independent at the Cobh fixture, he suggested that he was open to answering questions, but challenged the statement that it "hadn't been a great year".

He argued that the focus on the first team is flawed and suggested all further queries should go through their PRO.

However, within a few short minutes Hayden returned to explain that former Town player Michael O'Connor - a board member with special responsibility for the underage section - was downstairs in an office and willing to speak.

O'Connor is the younger brother of Turlough, the legendary player and manager who was at the helm for Athlone's league wins.

Michael was a prolific goalscorer and one of the best players the club has produced. He also won a league with Shamrock Rovers and came back to Athlone to win promotion as a manager - achievements he references on a number of occasions during an animated 30-minute defence of this regime.

"It's not gone wrong here," he asserted. "You're looking for a story: 'Let's go to Athlone, there's nobody coming to games, there's trouble going on.'

"If you want to meet a disgruntled fan that has a problem, you'll meet them. If you want to meet people that have given up going to League of Ireland here, you'll get them. Whatever story you want, you will get it from whoever you want to listen to. You're not listening to what's happening."

So what is happening? O'Connor is right, in the sense that there are a variety of opinions circulating and he did touch on a lot of the themes that have been raised in discussions about the board's stewardship.

There are recurring topics: the power structure, the ownership of the ground, the 2017 foreign investment, the dreadful first-team results and the atmosphere created by all of the above.

Ongoing legal matters present some complications, but late in July, the current board received a boost when they received a favourable court ruling in a dispute with landlords Athlone Town Stadium Limited, which has effectively given them control of the ground's future.

When Athlone Town moved from their old St Mel's Park base to Lissywoollen, the deal was a land swap that involved Westmeath County Council. The stadium company was kept separate from the club.

A key aspect of the case was a deed of trust related to the legal title of the property. The upshot is that a company set up by the current board are now trustees of the stadium.

Declan Molloy, the majority shareholder in Athlone Town Stadium Limited, who said he had invested a figure of €665,000 into the stadium, has no say on what happens with the facility.

The club was able to draw down a grant that was waiting and begin work on replacing their main grass pitch with an artificial one.

"Now we don't have to rent places that are costing a fortune for all of our teams," says O'Connor, who says there are 200 kids involved with the club with national league sides at U-19, U-17 and U-15 level with U-13 to come, U-15 and U-16 sides in the DDSL, and girls' sides at U-15 and U-17 level.

"You can't have all the teams training and playing on grass pitches. We made a decision after fighting heavily for the club to retain ownership of the stadium."

The decision-making process is one of the thorny areas that arose in the squabble. It's understood the conditions of membership - which brings the right to attend the AGM and elect officers - have changed in recent years. An Athlone spokesman said they could only provide details in this area when the legal process is fully concluded.

These are issues that energise ex-officials who feel they are on the outside looking in when key roles generally used to rotate. The current powerbrokers - Hayden came in as chairman in 2012 - argue they have brought stability in terms of planning with O'Connor vocalising that sentiment.

"We've been very frugal with this through doing our business properly," said O'Connor. "Have we suffered with regards losing games? Absolutely. Have we lost the 50-50 supporter that wants to come down? Yes. Can we get them back? Absolutely."

His take on the season just gone is that they needed to prioritise other areas, although there were some confident pre-season statements through official club channels that haven't aged well.

"Is it better to have a team in debt that don't own their ground?" muses O'Connor. "Or is it good business to make sure this is a sustainable club?

"The easiest thing to say is, 'look at the first team, look at what they've done to that club, it's a disgrace'.

"But then you must look at the situation. Is Athlone in debt? No. Have they any VAT bills? No. Do they owe players money? No. Are they putting in an astro pitch? Yes. Is the FAI funding it? No. So what's the problem in Athlone?

"We've taken two steps backwards. I hate to see our club struggle on the pitch. I hate to see that we are losing games. But the easiest thing to fix is the first team and that's what we are going to address now."

However, Connaughton is far from certain that the Athlone public will come back if results improve. In 2016, he was to the forefront of a group calling themselves Concerned Members of Athlone Town FC who held meetings to discuss their dissatisfaction with the running of the club. Another group of supporters tried to kick off a trust without joy.

There are neutral observers in local media who may not be convinced by the existing board, but question the strength of the alternatives.

Still, Connaughton has his backers. He does not attend games at the moment, but arranges to meet near the ground and says he is keen to get back involved.

"We have a group of people down there who have lost the support of the community at large and the business people of Athlone," he says.

"They are doing a bad job. I'm not trying to say that committees that went before did better jobs, it can be a thankless task.

"But the difference with those committees is that when things went bad and they realised they couldn't bring the club forward they put the club first and went back to the people at AGMs and said 'we can't do anymore, we need fresh blood and new ideas.' These people do not see this or look for it."

"Look at what happened over the past two years, with the foreign investors. Those investors went to other clubs who sat down and found that the right thing to do was not go ahead with it.

"I'm not trying to suggest the present committee were guilty of any wrongdoing, but the bottom line is that they brought them in and they have to be held responsible."

Athlone strongly reject that viewpoint.

"We got investment into the first team that all of a sudden match-fixing was attached to," says O'Connor.

"We cleared that with the FAI. There was no charges against the club for anything, for nothing, but we were thrown over every paper. There was damage done to the club with people jumping on the back of that.

"I wouldn't be involved in anything like that. Our club was battered by people without any evidence. I've had pundits give opinions and some of them I don't really remember being that successful. And then people say, we've let supporters down. Never in my life have I let supporters down as a manager or player."

O'Connor tackles the notion they are detached from the community by pointing to the volume of kids from Athlone and the wider region playing for the respective underage sides. He says that's a better indication of local involvement than first-team crowds.

He is a firm of supporter of the new national underage leagues - Athlone won the maiden U-15 crown last year - and says it will eventually boost the local presence in the first-team dressing room. Terry Butler's current senior group is mostly made up of Dubliners drafted in from the amateur game.

The caveat attached to the busy underage set-up is that the kids are paying a contribution towards playing. Athlone say it covers the cost of food, transport and insurance.

While Connaughton has gone public with grievances, some of the other disenchanted voices are unwilling to do so. There are social media accounts detailing the travails of recent years. Their words are monitored.

"One of the major problems now is that people can say what they want online," said O'Connor, who takes a withering view of the stay-away supporters. "Use pseudonyms. Go on Facebook. Put out innuendos. They are faceless people. Sometimes fans can take the name of a fan.

"I'm a fan, a huge fan. Turlough is a huge fan. There's people outside of the country that are huge fans.

"I was lucky enough to win leagues here. If anyone can remember what this club was like or what it could be... I could give people a lesson on it.

"Listen, I'm not saying there's people that don't like me. I don't care if they don't like me. A lot of them didn't like me when I was playing.

Struggling

"Why would there be a concerted effort to use the struggling first team to oust myself or John Hayden out of here? When somebody is trying to do something properly and put in structures that will sustain a club.

"Supporters come in and support in bad times, not just in the good times. If people want to say 'I'm a supporter but I won't go down', then sorry you're not a supporter.

"We're not taking the easy option out," he continues. "People need to understand the resolve to fight through all of this. Why wouldn't we just walk away? Why?

"Because this place I'm sitting here with you in is for the people of Athlone, for the kids of Athlone, and Athlone Town Football Club.

"And I will put my view across very forcefully to people. This club is stronger than most of the clubs in the country

"You can't have a top-heavy club and now we have the facilities in place (the pitch) we can look to get back into the Premier Division. Now let's roll up our sleeves."

Moves are being made in the background to improve the first team for next year, and the response if that comes to pass will be interesting. There are wounds that will take time to heal. Legal battles do that.

There is a sadness about their winless run, the tragicomic entries into the club's history books.

The rebirth of other clubs with strong traditions, such as Dundalk and Waterford, all have a reference point - a match with an especially low turnout that functioned as the nadir. Athlone followers are spoiled for choice, and it requires a leap of faith to believe a turnaround is imminent.

O'Connor is upbeat. As the conversation ends, he points a finger to show that the only way the club can go from here is up.

That is probably the only thing that everybody who cares will agree on.

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