With a league often shrouded in mismanagement and financial difficulties, football in Ireland are seeing growing signs of supporters getting involved in the ownership of their clubs, with a big focus on charity work in the local community. The Cynical’s Irish football correspondent Ryan Clarke explores how this new model has reignite new hope for the future of the game.
With the recent purchase of Dundalk FC in January 2018 by a US consortium, backed by Chicago-based Peak6 (who own a 25% stake in AFC Bournemouth), it’s an appropriate time to reopen the discussion of the merits of private ownership in the League of Ireland, the state of fan ownership and possibly the existential crisis of whether the beautiful game in Ireland still has a soul at all.
2017 was not a good year for private ownership of football clubs in Ireland with the Athlone Town saga and the Bray Wanderers debacle. 2018 didn’t start much better, with Limerick FC owner Pat O’Sullivan confirming he is selling a majority stake in the club because;
“There is a financial cost and I can’t carry that on my own … What I want is sustainability for this club.”
It was also revealed in January 2018 that Derry City are surviving off of substantial donations from Philip O’Doherty, the boss of an engineering company. For a league that desperately craves to be taken seriously, these continuous financial disasters do nothing to help its profile.
From a cynical viewpoint the Dundalk takeover was mainly motivated by the opportunity for an easy route into Europe – and therefore the astronomical UEFA prize money – that comes with the club.
Dundalk earned €110,000 for winning the League of Ireland in 2016, but their Europa League performances earned them around €8m; this along with €580,000 earned after being knocked out in their only European tie of 2017, in Champions League qualifying, by Rosenborg. It raises the question of whether the soul of even such a relatively inconsequential competition like the League of Ireland has been irreparably corrupted to the point where venture capitalists can see dollar signs in such a money sink of a league.
In the last 12 months, Galway United and the rebranded Wexford FC have joined Cork City and Bohemians as fully fan-owned football clubs, spreading hope that the example set by the latter two community clubs being owned by its own supporters like is the way forward.
The charity work that Bohemians and Cork City do is a clear sign that, despite what is going on in Dundalk, Irish football still has a soul and a desire to do the right things for the right reasons. They are both showcasing their own individual levels of stability and prosperity with fans wholeheartedly supporting the model. Not just building football teams, but clubs of and for the community.
For any club to successfully make the transition to a fan-owned model, they must work vigorously to embed their club into the local community, the two seamlessly interwoven. In January 2018, Bohemians and Cork City were both rewarded for their great work with funding from the European Regional Development Fund’s Ireland-Wales Programme – the ‘More Than A Club’ initiative. This funding is in the form of one part-time and two full-time employees, who are focused solely on community work.
Speaking to The Cynical, Bohemians President Chris Brien noted that the club has been member-owned for 128 years, and derives all their support from the community that they are a part of;
“For me, when we were spending money I think we lost a bit of our focus on the community and our focus on being a club because our player and management bill was massive. I just thought, ‘Okay, we’re now broke.’ I felt it forced us to go to our community and we needed them to support us, but it was only right because we should never have left them – we should have always been in our community. We’re 128 years in the place (North Dublin), we’re part of the fabric of the North-side and I’m aware of our responsibilities. So if we were asking them (North-side community) to support us in the bad times, surely we have a duty to give something back and that’s my fervent belief.”
This reinvigorated social conscience and new direction from Bohemians and Brien resulted in the formation of the Bohemian Foundation. A charity section that is affiliated to the club, but accepts no funding from the club itself in order to remain independent from its marketing department. This is a distinction unique to Bohemians with charity sections of other clubs being a subsection of the wider marketing arm.
The foundation’s work include walking football with older participants and those with mental illnesses, working with the prisoners in Mountjoy Prison, and visiting schools to promote fitness and healthy eating. More recently, along with Shamrock Rovers, both Bohemians and Cork City launched Amputee Teams in the inaugural Amputee League. Chris Brien explains;
“When we set up the Foundation, we said we wouldn’t take any money from the club and we wouldn’t be led by the club. Because we’re a members’ club and the board could change and they might have a different agenda. We decided we’d do what we felt was the right thing to do. We’re not going to get many people coming from the prison (Mountjoy Prison) to our matches and yet we spend a lot of time there. The autistic children or adults with mental illnesses I work with aren’t going to be paying in here. But that doesn’t matter; we just felt it was the right thing to do. I genuinely believe that our fans want us to be doing this work.”
Chris Brien’s belief is justified. There was a feel-good factor around Bohemians and Dalymount Park during 2017, with a real sense of the club and fans having a shared vision of what their club was and the direction it was headed in. Despite being tipped for relegation and enduring horrendous home form for much of the season, their gates increased with 25% from 1,600 to 2,000, a massive leap in the context of the League of Ireland. It shows the viability of the fan-owned model when done right and builds a community spirit that can guide the next generation of club custodians.
There is an emerging appetite for this sort of community engagement from Irish clubs. Cork City follows a similar model through their supporters’ trust the Friends Of (the) Rebel Army Society (FORAS). Cork City went through their own difficulties, with FORAS eventually taking control of the club in 2010 and just like at Bohemians the focus shifted to creating a community club, rather than just a football team, as Mike Derham of FORAS explains to The Cyncial:
“FORAS took over just before the start of the 2010 season, and we were very reliant on the community goodwill towards FORAS to bring in sponsors, get publicity, and regain the trust of the public after the very public problems that were aired under the previous owner. Our promise to the community, then, was that we would embed the FORAS ethos into the club, run it in a sustainable manner, and make the club into something to be proud of supporting. We believe we have kept that promise.”
As stated earlier, Cork City and Bohemians were both selected as part of the ‘More Than A Club’ initiative for their community work. For Cork City and FORAS this includes Youth Work Ireland, Special Olympics, Foróige, Cork Samaritans, Cork Autism, fundraising for local charities, Direct Provisions, Enable Ireland, Irish Wheelchair Association, and many more. They also provide scholarships and education pathways to third level for some of their players. Similarly to the effect of the work Bohemians are doing, this work ensures the stable growth of the club and its support base, with Mike Derham outlining:
“We have to keep growing our community relationships in order for City to progress. We are a work in progress, as is every other League of Ireland club, and if we fail to nurture our ties throughout the community we will fall back and suffer a decline in support. We have a very active board of management that consistently put the needs of the community first. We have just taken the Cork City Women’s FC fully under our umbrella for the season ahead, and we are one of three clubs in Ireland to participate in the new national amputee football league launched in January. Both of these initiatives are logical steps for the trust to expand both the club and how we impact the community with avenues for sports participation.”
The soul of the Irish game is alive and well and looks like it will only prosper in the future with the work that these two clubs are engaging in.
An ever-present issue in the League of Ireland is the chronic situation of facilities and stadia. This presents a challenge for fan-owned clubs, none more obvious than the issues Bohemians are faced with. The vast majority of fan-owned clubs can’t afford to redevelop and upgrade their facilities unless their local council builds or purchases the stadium; like in the case of Tallaght Stadium and Dalymount Park. This might be one area where private ownership is a necessary evil, as private owners would have the capital to fund such upgrades.
For the future of domestic football in Ireland, the fan-owned model is emerging as a sustainable and positive option. As custodians of clubs, supporters and the fan-owned model will ensure that there is a level of stability for a club to find its feet and eventually, if managed correctly, thrive.
For clubs in small towns such as Dundalk, private ownership might remain vital for the welfare of the clubs, as they simply don’t have the resources of large local communities to draw upon. As long as clubs like Cork City and Bohemians continue to remain stable operations and build their communities the more attractive the fan-owned model will become for Irish clubs.
As Chris Brien said, clubs will always have a responsibility to serve their community and more of them should embrace that fact – it might just save the soul of the beautiful game in Ireland.