Sunday 22 April 2018

Old rivals rise from the ashes to restore faded glories

Sen Ryan

LAST Tuesday night, two of the League of Ireland's most famous clubs achieved their season's targets -- Shamrock Rovers retained their Premier Division title, and Shelbourne won promotion to the Premier Division. In each case, these successes by the one-time Ringsend rivals were achieved after years of profligacy had been replaced by a strict adherence to the golden rule: you can only spend what you earn.

In the early noughties, Rovers lost €2.36m trying to emulate Shelbourne's success, and were only saved from extinction by a deal hammered out between examiner Neil Hughes and the Revenue Commissioners, and the subsequent purchase of the club by the members.

Later it transpired that Shelbourne's success came at such a high price that it was unsustainable. "Our CEO, the late Ollie Byrne, drew down on the strength of a contract for the sale of Tolka Park," chairman Joe Casey explained, "and we're talking millions unfortunately. The year we played Deportivo in the Champions League we made €600,000, but that only made our loss €1.6m instead of €2.2m, and Ollie defined that as success, which was typical of the man."

In the immediate aftermath of their successes last week, Casey and Rovers' CEO Jonathan Roche took time out to recall the tough decisions they had to make to keep their clubs from going under, and the turning point, which has led to their present happy state.

The Hoops' boss admitted that "before we got it right, we made some wrong decisions. After we bought the club, we had no budget, so we let all the players go on free transfers, players like Pat McCourt and Dave Mooney, and we got relegated that year, the first time in the club's history. In hindsight, it was probably the best thing that could happen to us. We kept things going, but thank God we got out of the First Division after the first year under Pat Scully.

"Meanwhile, we had to fight a court case with the Dublin County Board [GAA] over Tallaght Stadium and eventually won it in the Supreme Court. That took two years and cost nearly €500,000. Fortunately, the FAI backed us, and we got our costs back on the day of our first match in Tallaght and I was able to hand over the cheque for over €400,000 to John Delaney."

For Casey, the toughest decision he had to make "was letting a lot of people go. We had four to five administration staff under Ollie. Now we are all volunteers. I had no choice, we couldn't afford it. When Ollie passed away we sat down and listed three objectives. The first was to save the club, to keep it alive. The second was to deal with the legacy Ollie had left behind. And the third was to get the club back to the Premier Division."

Dealing with Ollie's legacy was the hardest task, so Casey and his fellow directors decided to draw a line under it, set up a new company, Shelbourne FC Ltd, leaving the old company, Accolade Ltd, with its leasehold interest in Tolka Park and all the old debts. "It was the only way to go," he explained. "The creditors understood that we could have liquidated the company and they wouldn't have got a penny. This way we have run the club for five years and kept it on the straight and narrow."

"On the pitch [the turning point] was our first match back against Limerick. Dermot Keely had to put a team together in three days and that first game was a very emotional night. That was when I felt we had achieved something -- we had saved the club. We had a crowd of 2,000 there.

"Off the park, the turning point was making a profit that first year of €19,000. We felt that was an achievement."

The future for Rovers is exceedingly bright. Apart from retaining their league title and gaining entry to the Champions League, their 10 years in schoolboy football in Tallaght is bearing fruit. "We will push our budget to the limit to challenge and hopefully win something," said Roche. "And we want to do well in Europe and get the chance to qualify for the Europa League again."

Of equal importance, are the club's plans for development. "We own 14 acres in Tallaght and we want to develop that as a training facility, and show that we can have a different avenue for our players. They can win trophies and, if they are good enough, progress their careers like Enda [Stevens]."

For both sets of fans, an exciting end of season is promised, with the Hoops' three final group games in the Europa League, starting with Thursday's home tie against PAOK, while Shels' faithful will make the short trek to the Aviva next Sunday for their FAI Cup final date with holders Sligo Rovers.

These great rivals have truly risen, phoenix-like, from the ashes.

Sunday Indo Sport

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