The domestic league has been revitalised by supporters taking control of their clubs, writes John O'Brien
IN the beginning there was no great masterplan. Someone lit a spark and others, moth-like, were drawn to the flame. They banded together as concerned supporters, loyal to their core, wondering how they could shepherd their cherished club through dark and desolate times. A helpful hand here and there maybe, a gentle nudge in the right direction: that was about the extent of it.
Back in 2002 when he was part of the group that helped establish the 400 Club, Jonathan Roche never imagined that, nearly 10 years later, that same knot of hardcore fans would be steering Shamrock Rovers into Europe or that he'd be facing into his sixth year as the club's chairman. The dream was to raise enough cash to get the builders back into Tallaght Stadium. The notion of a takeover? Not even a figment of their wildest imagination.
"When we set up the Trust six years ago, our aim was still just to help the club get established in Tallaght," says Roche. "We were supporting the football club and working with the examiner at the time. We were paying the bills. But we never thought we'd end up owning it. That's just the way it turned out. It was a combination of luck and the right timing I guess."
Nobody in Cork City really saw it coming either. Even in the darkest days of 2008 when the club was on the brink of extinction, the laughing stock of Irish football, the supporters didn't fully comprehend the power they had to change things. They could raise funds, stage rallies, offer prayers to various deities. But the idea that they could offer something more profound than that required a leap of imagination beyond them at that point.
Instead they put their faith in a local businessman and watched in horror as their beloved institution perished under Tom Coughlan. That was their last mistake. They had been labouring under the old mindset: trusting in people and systems that, far too often, had reaped nothing but pain. The road to salvation had been in their hands all along. They had to be pushed to the brink before they realised it.
"When we were putting Foras [the Cork City supporters' trust] together, journalists would approach us for information," says Niamh O'Mahony, a founding member and current board member of Cork City. "We were working with the examiner. We were fundraising. So that helped put us on a public platform. People began to see us as an efficient, capable group of people."
The first major challenge was establishing credibility. Supporters taking control of football clubs is a long-standing practice across Europe, but a relatively recent phenomenon in the United Kingdom where Chesterfield set the ball rolling in 2001. In the dysfunctional world of Irish football, with its crazy turnover rate of clubs, the notion of a fan-owned institution seemed radical and far-fetched.
Yet the 400 Club had successfully fought that battle, brushing aside the nagging suspicion that a group of supporters, however well-meaning, could cope with the day-to-day running of a large football club. "A lot of people thought we couldn't do it," says Roche. "Even a few of our fans would have been worried it wouldn't work out. It took time and a lot of patience, building relationships with key people: the local council, the Gardaí, the FAI."
For Cork, O'Mahony thinks the key moment came late in 2009 when, furious at Coughlan's mishandling of the club, they announced their intention to stage a protest before a live screening of a match against Bohemians in Turner's Cross and, impressed by their resolve and organisation, the FAI agreed to a meeting. From the ashes left by Coughlan, Cork City Foras Co-Op rose in its place.
"The FAI meeting a group of fans was a bit unusual," says O'Mahony, "but it enabled us to express our concerns and establish a relationship. They could go away and say, hang on, these are more than just a bunch of supporters who stand around wearing jerseys, talking about players. They're accountants, journalists, lawyers, people who have skills and knowledge they can bring and who have the best interests of the club at heart."
And so, almost by default, a profound and uplifting revolution has swept through the game here. In all, this season's Airtricity League, which began on Friday, will have five -- Rovers, Cork, Derry, Finn Harps and Sligo -- fan-owned clubs while Galway United, assuming they secure a licence, and others could swell that number next season. Few supporters now, whether part of a fan-owned entity or not, can feel they don't have a voice when it comes to how their club is run.
The nuances between them might vary slightly from club to club. Rovers, for instance, is a private company limited by the guarantee of the 470 members who pay €650 annually for the privilege. Cork City is a co-operative society which is more in line with the model promoted by Supporters Direct in the UK. The value systems underpinning them aren't substantially different, however. That is the crucial point.
"If you wanted the ideal partner to run a football club, then what's more ideal than the people who resurrected and rebuilt Rovers," says Supporters Direct spokesman Kevin Rye, "or the people who rebuilt Cork City or who are trying to do it in Galway and in Bohemians. They all share the same values. They can all say 'we're football people. We unquestionably have the interest of our club at heart'."
Rye, a passionate football supporter who saw his beloved Wimbledon wrenched away from its south London home in 2003, sees much fertile ground for the Supporters Direct cause in Ireland. He applauds the FAI for introducing a licensing system several years ago, a battle they are still fighting furiously in the UK. Since 2010, he has visited fans in Galway, Cork and Bohemians and left heartened by each visit.
For all his years working with clubs, the mess at Bohemians shocked him. "Probably as bad as it can get without a club expiring completely," he says. "But I think they've emerged from the worst." Bohemians has been a members-owned clubs since its formation and, although Rye would like to see them move closer to the Trust model, he understands it is ultimately not his decision to make. He advises, but never dictates.
He's not downhearted that the FAI rejected Galway United's application for a first division licence. With a year's planning and experience behind them, they'll return wiser and stronger next season. He hopes too to see something stirring in Dundalk in the near future and, beyond that, a body being established that would represent the interests of Irish-based supporters' groups as a coherent whole.
For now, though, it is enough that the seed has been planted. The sense of fellowship that exists among fan-owned clubs is palpable, the knowledge and expertise shared around on demand. The perception of the grim old days is dissipating when league titles were liable to be decided in a dusty boardroom, where clubs treated each other with envy and distrust and supporters took perverse and ungracious pleasure in the struggles of rival clubs.
So when Foras faced the mammoth task of building a team to play in the 2010 season, they were able to lean on Rovers for support and advice. It was the same with Finn Harps. And when Bohs fans launched the Gypsies' Trust last year, they contacted O'Mahony who offered all the advice she could and directed them to Rye. "You do whatever you can to help," she says. "Like we'd lost our football club. It was liquidated. So you understand what others are going through."
For Rye that spirit of co-operation is the heart of it. It doesn't matter that Exeter City, currently fighting relegation from League One, are the highest-placed fans-owned entity in England or that the prospect of a fans-owned club winning the Premier League is possibly decades away. The point is that when it comes to empowering supporters there is a more humble dynamic at play where nobody feels superior to anyone else.
"In the UK we have MUST [Manchester United supporters' trust], Arsenal supporters' trust, Newport Isle of Wight, Merthyr Town and all points in between," he says. "We all share an interest. The chairman of Merthyr Town can have a conversation with the chairman of MUST. There's a massive difference in scale but the values are shared. That's the important thing."
Rye doesn't hold fan-owned clubs as a magic potion for all of football's ills, but the philosophy is so thoroughly ingrained now that, through subventions from Supporters Direct, its merits have been endorsed in the highest chambers of the European Parliament and a €200,000 fund secured for a Europe-wide project which, in Ireland, will be overseen by Foras and up and running by the end of the month.
There is an impressive momentum about it. The fact that both Rovers and Cork won their respective divisions last season gave the lie to the notion that supporters-run clubs and success weren't natural bedfellows. For O'Mahony, though, the most important development has been reshaping Cork City as a genuine community-based club in a fashion that has been second nature to the GAA for more than a century.
So they engage more with sponsors now, promising a greater return for money invested. They work harder to attract families. They devise community projects, arrange school days and summer camps. If members can't afford money, they encourage them to donate time instead. They have a five-year plan to keep them pushing forward, a CEO that looks after the day-to-day business -- "the boring stuff" -- and reports to a board where nobody can serve more than three consecutive years to ensure new faces and ideas pop up regularly. They have a chief accountant with no connection to the club, who can be a voice of restraint when it comes to making key financial decisions.
Restraint is the word. The disadvantage of a Trust structure is that the club can't be used as collateral to secure a loan or overdraft but it's a shield too against the threat of excessive borrowing. Any offers to buy them out would require a democratic vote among the 700 or so members and O'Mahony doesn't envisage any appetite for change in the foreseeable future.
The last incarnation of Cork City, she reminds you, lasted 27 years until it floundered. It was the longest a league club had survived in the city and, as proud as they were of it, that told a sorry tale in itself. Now, they agreed, it was time to build something lasting. "People understand now. It's about putting structures in place, not to make a profit. To be here decade after decade. This is our opportunity."
Logically, the next step would be for the FAI to draft some form of regulation, as exists in countries like Germany, Sweden and Turkey, but that isn't likely in the near future. As it is, Cork operate a form of self-regulation through a motion passed at their last AGM which prevents transfer fees being used to acquire new players. "The rule is it has to be for a sustainable idea," says O'Mahony, "a long-term sustainable project."
The voice of reason prevailing. In a short space of time, that's how far they've come.
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