On the 23rd of November 2009 Gary O’Neil’s late strike gifted Sporting Fingal the much coveted FAI Cup. In a gruelling campaign the east Dublin side overcame Derry City, Shamrock Rovers and Bray Wanderers to reach the final; in a victory which solidified Sporting’s rise to prominence. What was here was an emerging squad; Irish underage internationals such as Kenny Browne, Ronan Finn, Ross Gaynor and accompanied with former senior international Glen Crowe. European qualification and a financial windfall beckoned for Liam Buckley and his squad. While clubs such as Cork City FC and Derry City faced examinership and liquidation, the sky was the limit for Sporting Fingal.
Two years later Sporting withdrew from the League of Ireland and as of 2017 have ceased to exist from the Irish footballing pyramid. The Anglo Irish Bank hidden loans controversy straddled Sporting investor Gerry Gannon with a heave of restrictions, which ultimately caused the chairman to resign from the club and in losing his investment; Sporting where faced with the improbable task of trying to find investment and ultimately had to terminate player’s contracts and the club was dissolved.
Look ahead yet again at 2017. In the off-season Wexford Youths became Wexford FC and Waterford United became Waterford FC. Wexford Youths were stunned in the off season that the club owed bankrupt chairperson Mick Wallace a sum of €206,884. In Waterford debts similarly arose, amounting to €80,000 with the club appealing to both home and away fans to help the club survive the season.
In that period of time from Sporting Fingal’s demise to the renaming and rebranding of Waterford and Wexford FC; other clubs such as Cork City FC, Dundalk, Derry City and Athlone Town have all battled the odds to keep their club alive. In 2014 UCC Freshers coach and former Cork City FC full back Neil Horgan detailed the struggles in Cork in his book, “Death of a football club?” and his 2016 sequel, “Second City”
A common trend that has been alliterated is the struggling for investment for clubs and the quest to balance the books and make Irish clubs profitable and competitive. From Cork to Fingal, to Wexford to Dundalk, each story; taking away the unique details, is burdened with the need to investment and outside pressures to keep a club afloat. Buoyed success has bullied and brought a new question and way forward for Irish football: fan ownership.
In the structure clubs are owned by the fans. Each fan has the option of buying shares in the club which allows them to access the clubs books and votes at the AGM and EGM accompanied with the opportunity to join the board of management of a football club. Bohemians where the first team to adopt this model in 1890 while a fans run group FORAS- Friends Of the Rebel Amy Society- was founded in 2008 to save Cork City FC from examinership. Initiatives have also been made in Cobh and Athlone to have supporters run clubs functioning there.
Quintessentially a socialist emerging from the failures of the current system; the project has shown success both home and away. In England; following the move of AFC Wimbledon to MK Dons by their chairperson Pete Winkelman, fans of Wimbledon formed AFC Wimbledon under the guise of fan ownership. In Germany FC Shalke; a Champions League regular, is supporter-run. An overall organisation, Supporters Direct Europe was set up in 2007 to work with clubs across Europe. An overarching plan hopes to oversee the project across Europe for a more sustainable model in football. A vision that will see profits reinvested into a club, everyone is included in the club with no barriers to entry and the clubs foundations will be to running a sustainable club. As a whole; every club must be 50+1% owned by the supporters who will have the majority of the shares in the club.
Speaking politically; sport lies at a crossroads between the capitalist profit driving club of Manchester and Madrid against the localised united of Cork to Shalke. In recent weeks Manchester United boasted profits of £37.6 million; a figure which is steadily built through shirt sales and corporate sponsorship deals, a throw away to the world of Waterford United who needed €80,000 to survive last season in the First Division.
Whatever comes of the wave of fan ownership remains to be said in the long run for both on the Irish and European footballing landscape. If anything this proves that there is an appetite for change. No longer will a game come packaged for profit with clubs lingering for lucrative deals and chairperson to save them. Fans have empowered the game creating new opportunities.