Reborn Galway must win back trusted support
Galway FC begins life against a backdrop of local unhappiness
Tomorrow they'll gather in a conference room in a nice Galway hotel. There'll be clicking cameras, busy-looking officials, happy back-page stories being written and filed.
Relief expressed that a yawning three-year gap without top-class football in the town will be coming to an end. Talk of a bright future, of a vision being shared and realised, a football community moving forward in unison. One city, one county, one club. Smiles and back-slaps all round.
And yet there are those, passionate about Galway football, who will be notable by their absence, among them some who did most to keep the ship afloat when it ran into the stormiest seas in the dark days of 2011. Who insist determinedly that they won't be there when league football makes its joyous return to Eamonn Deacy Park in the spring. They'll be elsewhere tomorrow when the new pride of the town, Galway FC, is officially ushered into existence.
The new club is being billed as a solution to a long-running, sometimes divisive saga. Not everyone is convinced, though. In effect, Galway FC is an amalgamation of Mervue United, Salthill-Devon and the remaining shards of Galway United, and for all the sweet words of harmony, nobody knows how three separate identities, shaped and honed over decades, will actually fuse together. Hopeful words and a longing to make it work won't make it any less of a risk than it already is.
It wasn't as if a merger was the only available option. Back in 2011, when the true extent of Galway United's financial woes became apparent, it was the members of the Galway United Supporters Trust who stepped into the breach, assuming day-to-day running of the club. Players left high and dry were taken care of. Bridges mended with put-out local businesses. The spiral of mounting debts halted. A seed planted that there may be a future for the club after all.
This was far from wishful thinking. On the opening day of the 2011 season a crowd of 1,800 had shown up at Terryland Park to cheer on the team, the second highest attendance that weekend. Even more remarkably, 1,500 streamed through the turnstiles on the final day despite a nightmare 32-defeat campaign. The potential was there to be harnessed, a measure of the faith that existed in the club and in those working flat-out to keep its nose above water.
When the notion of supporters taking a controlling interest in the club had first been mooted some time previously, few deemed it a serious proposition. The idea seemed far-fetched, impractical. True, it had worked in other places, like Shamrock Rovers and Cork City, but they were bigger clubs in bigger cities with wider catchment areas. For all their passion and commitment, GUST didn't seem big enough to succeed.
Gradually, those doubts began to recede. People like Seán Dunleavy, Ronan Coleman and Pat Burke stepped forward and showed themselves capable of running a diligent, well-organised club. By the end of 2011, GUST was ready to sever its links with the existing board and to go it alone. And its reward for keeping the flame flickering and dreaming of a better future: a failed licence application for the 2012 league season. While nobody is questioning the integrity of the FAI's licensing system, it's hard not to look back on the decision to exclude GUST in 2012 as a trick sorely missed.
The clear sense is that those overseeing the game here still refuse to see the full picture. There isn't a shred of doubt that the best thing to happen the domestic game in recent years has been the advent of supporter-run clubs. It is a similar story across much of Europe. While fan-owned clubs won't likely lead to spectacular growth, they will stand as a bulwark against the mad splurges and unreasonable aspirations that sent so many clubs to the wall.
A story from the dying embers of the Nick Leeson era should serve as an eternal reminder of the way things were. The club, reportedly, was going to be bought by a Manchester-based consortium whose
intention was to turn Galway United into a sort of feeder club for foreign players who would then be sold onto English clubs for decent profits. Incredibly, supporters seemed willing to embrace the proposal if it meant the salvation of their beloved institution.
And now it is GUST itself that is under threat. It has two seats on the new board, but its original aims are so watered down that its own identity seems fatally compromised. Its insistence that the new venture be established along co-operative lines is unlikely to be realised and, lacking faith in the process and their own representative, Dunleavy and others have left the fold. Backed into a corner, it's hard to know what GUST's next move might be.
When they cast their minds back over the years they spent firefighting, GUST members will see how they were subtly manoeuvred to a point where their choices were to go along with the new proposal or go their own separate path wherever that might lead them. At the height of the crisis, they showed they could lead from the front and hatch plans that suggested a bright and sustainable future. But in the corridors of power where the real game was being played, they had no clout and thus they were destined to lose.
Whether there are winners, though, is debatable. The new club has political clout behind it, a decent manager in Tommy Dunne and a wealthy sponsor to pump in a reported €300,000 over three years. That gives it a decent head start. But it was Jock Stein who said a club was nothing without its supporters and unless Galway FC can somehow reach out to those who soldiered hardest during the long winter only to be so shabbily treated, it is almost certain to end in failure.