On the 23rd of November 2009, Gary O’Neill’s late strike gifted Sporting Fingal the much coveted FAI Cup.
In a grueling campaign the east Dublin side overcame Derry City, Shamrock Rovers, Bray Wanderers and finally Sligo Rovers to lift Irish football’s most romantic prize – everything was rosy for the Dublin club.
With a squad of Irish underage internationals, such as Kenny Browne, Ronan Finn and Ross Gaynor, who were accompanied by former senior international Glen Crowe and a tried and tested manager in Liam Buckley, the seeds for dominance were laid for them to become a true powerhouse in the Irish game.
European qualification and a financial windfall beckoned for Liam Buckley and his squad following the cup win. While clubs such as Cork City FC and Derry City faced examinership and liquidation, Sporting Fingal were just getting started.
Two years later Sporting withdrew from the League of Ireland, and as of 2017 they have ceased to exist as a club.
The Anglo Irish Bank ‘hidden loans’ controversy saddled Sporting investor Gerry Gannon with a heave of restrictions, which ultimately caused the chairman to resign from the club and lose his investment; Sporting were faced with the unenviable task of trying to find investment on the eve of the 2011 season and ultimately had to terminate player contracts, and the club was dissolved.
Economically it was a testing time for the League of Ireland. At the height of the recession unemployment was rampant, crashing against rising education costs and an ongoing battle of austerity, all of which left a stifled appetite for the Irish game.
Despite claims of economic recovery, similar problems persist and plague the domestic Irish scene once more.
In the 2016/17 off-season Wexford Youths became Wexford FC, and Waterford United became Waterford FC. Wexford Youths were stunned by the news that the club owed bankrupt chairperson Mick Wallace a sum of €206,884. In Waterford, debts rose 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 both 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 respective 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 documented again and again is the struggle for investment for clubs and, ultimately, the quest to balance the books and make Irish clubs profitable and competitive.
From Cork to Fingal, to Wexford to Dundalk, each story is linked by a desperate struggle by respective owners to keep a club afloat. Against this near constant backdrop of financial struggle, perhaps a different form of club structure would change the fortunes of Irish domestic football – fan ownership.
In this model, as the name would suggest, clubs are owned by their fans. Each fan has the option of buying shares in the club, which in turn allows them to access the clubs books and votes at the AGM and EGM, as well as the opportunity to join the board of management.
Bohemians were the first team to adopt this model in 1890, while a fan-run group called 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 the clubs functioning there.
The project has shown success both home and away. In England, following the move of Wimbledon FC to Milton Keynes by their chairperson Pete Winkelman to become MK Dons, fans of the old Wimbledon formed AFC Wimbledon under the model of fan ownership. In Germany FC Schalke, a Champions League regular, are supporter-ran.
An overall organisation Supports Direct Europe was set up in 2007 to work with clubs across Europe. This 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 where everyone is included in the club with no barriers to entry, and the club’s very ethos would be to running a sustainable club.
Here in Ireland the domestic game will forever be tested against the flashier global giant that is the Premier League. The dramatics of everything from Manchester City’s 2012 title win to Steven Gerrard’s slip have captured a global audience who are hungry for their week-in week-out fix. In Ireland the Premier League (and sometimes its Scottish cousin) have taken precedence over the Irish game.
In 2010 a study found that up to 174,000 Irish people visited English clubs in 2010, with an average spend of around €400 per customer, amounting to approximately €69.6 million.
On the other side of the financial divide at home in Ireland, gate receipts fluctuate with the times and successes of various clubs. Cork City FC sold-out a capacity crowd UEFA Europa League clash with KRC Genk in August 2016, yet only managed an attendance of 2,575 the following Monday against Sligo Rovers.
The allure of bolstering the wage budget in order to chase the financial windfall of Europe is tempting, as shown with Drogheda United and Cork City FC, but ultimately it is a gamble that can throw a club into peril.
Moreover, the promise of a European windfall is equally tantalising for potential investment from actors that do not have the best interests of the club at heart – which was the case with equity fund Arkaga’s dealings with Cork City FC in 2008, a gamble which almost completely ruined the club.
Similar incidents, such as the case of Wexford Youths turned Wexford FC have further highlighted the need for fan ownership in the League of Ireland. Following the bankruptcy claim from Chairman Wallace the club was met with a massive financial windfall to make up heading into the 2017 season. The first division club rebuilt itself, rebranded and emerged with the safety net of fan ownership.
Fan ownership promises stability, constant reinvestment in the clubs; fans feel included and a part of a bigger picture and safety nets are ensured for rainy days. In a league where no income is a guarantee, clubs will always have a strong root in the local community and in the public eye.
Will we reach this stage? Can we reach a day where clubs in Ireland are stable, healthy and able to remain competitive? It is uncertain, nothing is ever guaranteed. But for now, supporting the fan-owned foundations that already exist and encouraging new ones is what really matters.