Tried and trusted practices still in evidence down at the Farm
Sports clubs in the recession:Long a model football club, Home Farm are coping with the recession in their own unique style
The lights burn a little brighter now on a weekday night up at Whitehall in north Dublin as the youngsters of Home Farm are put through their paces. It’s just after 8pm on a chilly autumn evening but the place is its usual hive of activity and somehow, between all of the energy and noise that bounces around “the cages” where the teenagers train at one end of the ground, the night time seems to stop at the club’s famous front gate.
The floodlights certainly play their part too, of course. They’re new; part of a €600,000 recession-defying investment that has also paid for a 300-seat stand and a completely revamped clubhouse. The seats are in and the dressing rooms done but the paint still looks very fresh on the walls of what will be the new bar and gym and the fit-out is still in progress as various club committee members proudly provide the guided tour.
Denis O’Sullivan has just taken over as chairman but, like all of the others, he’s been around a while. As a kid, he could hop over a wall from his neighbouring home to cut short the trip to training.
There were no lights then . . . unless you count the ones from the airport road which seemed to do well enough when practice took place on a pitch belonging to the adjacent VEC. Needless to say, people expect a good bit more these days.
The club’s historical success, O’Sullivan acknowledges, was in part down to the fact that it attracted players from far and wide because it offered much better facilities, and coaching, than many of its rivals.
Now, he observes, things have changed. “Schoolboy football is very different. With State support an awful lot of clubs have developed their own facilities and so kids are more likely to play with their local clubs.”
With all of their recent investment, however, Home Farm hopes to stay, if not ahead of the pack, then at least well up there with its leading members.
None of this comes cheap. The prospect of a €400,000 grant being lost played a key part in nudging the committee into pressing ahead with the development work but even the balance requires quite a bit of paying off.
Fund-raising has gone reasonably well, though clearly not as well as it might have a few years ago, and the club has borrowed a portion of its own share of the costs to get the work completed. The difficulty is that the normal day-to-day costs have to be met too and there is only so many times you can hit the same people in the current climate.
Just running the club, O’Sullivan reckons, costs about €250,000 per year; that’s €5,000 per week give or take, every week of the year.
It’s quite a sum to come up with from a membership made up of roughly 350 kids organised into 22 teams and supported by about 100 volunteer adults. Adult members, many of whom donate a lot of their own time, pay €100, the kids €250 which, it is estimated, translates into €2.50 per session, be that a game or a night’s training.
“We would contend that it’s excellent value for the kids,” says O’Sullivan.
There would, he adds, be more teams and kids if only they had the facilities required to cater for them but they are planning to expand into the girls game with those who play in the younger boys’ sides having to move on when they reach their teens.
In relation to funding the capital spend, plaques on seats are being sold at €100 each, sponsors are being sought and the club is open to offers for the naming rights on both the new stand and the ground itself.
Still, it’s clearly not a place to hang about if you don’t want to be asked to lend a hand. John Lyons had friends involved when he used to swing by for the odd pint 30 years ago when, he says with a laugh, he made the mistake of offering to give someone a bit of a dig out with something. Over the three decades since he seems to have become completely immersed in the place – he’s the club treasurer now – and like O’Sullivan, club secretary Eamon Mahon, vice chairman Eugene McDarby or committee member Michael Dowling, he spends a good deal of his own time working out how to keep things running smoothly at the club.
The main pitch (there are others located off site at Mobhi Road and a couple of other locations), costs almost €30,000, he points out, to maintain to what is admittedly a remarkably high standard but it is the more run-of-the-mill stuff – utility bills, transport, gear – that represents the bulk of the annual outgoings.
The campaign to meet costs is relentless. The bar brings in its share, though not as much as it used to in “the good times”, regular events are run – there is a race night on the horizon – and a weekly lotto brings in a small but regular income too.
Lyons fondly recalls some exceptional times for the bar: “During the World Cup back in 2002,” when the time difference between Ireland and Japan was the toast of publicans the length and breadth of the country, “we had fellas coming in for their breakfast and just staying,” he says.
Last year turnover was down from €170,000 to €155,000 and the night The Irish Times drops by there is not a single drinker despite two big screens showing an attractive Champions League match.
The sands are constantly shifting, suggests O’Sullivan, who points out that while the recent boom certainly made money easier to come by, it had its downside too.
“What I would have seen was that an awful lot of lads that we were working with [former players], they were either working through the boom-time or they were playing golf.
“Golf clubs opened their doors, memberships became very accessible and every time you went out you’d see guys that you recognised. At that stage, it was like an extension of playing football, it was the next sport you could play, and that presented a challenge for clubs like ourselves in terms of keeping the next crop of volunteers coming in.”
Coaching has actually boomed. Clubs and associations now require significant qualifications from those interested in working with a team but there is no shortage of candidates eager to educate themselves. The problem, it seems, has been a shortage of managers.
“We do find that we have less and less managers now,” says Mahon , who experience extends to the Dublin and District Schoolboys League with which he also works. “That would be across the board. Everybody has loads of coaches but less of the fellas who can sit back, keep a general eye on things, handle parents, handle himself on the line and runs things from the club’s point of view.”
Beyond the boundaries
That, they are all agreed is critically important as the club, they feel, like any other worth its salt, sees its role as extending well beyond the boundaries of the football pitch and the influence of its volunteers must sometimes extend well beyond too.
“Without a doubt,” says McDarby whose father was on the committee before him and whose son now plays for the club. “Without a shadow of a doubt, we would be mentors to a lot of these kids.
“There are families here who are very solid and where that’s the case then it’s easy but there are families who would be dysfunctional too; who might have problems of whatever kind and for those kids coming here, walking through the gate is their release. I can end up having to advise a kid on his diet, even if it’s just telling him to eat his Mammy’s dinners, sometimes she’ll have asked us to do it. But there’s all sorts of stuff.”
The kids listen because they want to get on. Clubs like Home Farm are often criticised in the wider football community for the emphasis they are believed to place on producing future stars but O’Sullivan insists the club does not define itself or its success by the numbers it gets to England.
“Every lad who comes into Home Farm,” he says, “every single player, has their own dreams and ambitions and it is up to us to help them to realise them.”
McDarby agrees. “It’s not all about going to England – .01 per cent will make it to the UK. In some cases we get them through school, through college, we get them into scholarships potentially. But on a more basic level it’s about teaching about winning and losing, victory and defeat, camaraderie. Life,” he says.
That, says O’Sullivan, has been a constant at Home Farm since he was a kid even if the cash required to deliver the lessons has to be rustled up a little more imaginatively or has to be transmitted a little more cautiously.
“The good times were good in that you could always get an extra few bob when you needed it, a grand here, a few grand there,” says Lyons. “The quality of the players that we’ve had [those who do go to Britain earn the club compensation under Uefa rules] has always helped us too.
“But we’ve always looked after the kids and even in the good times there were poor kids. We never turned one of them away for the want of money; we found the money. Coaches put their hands in their pockets if they had to and they still do; the only difference now is that the pockets aren’t so deep.”
The wider social climate has changed too, acknowledges Michael Dowling, a schoolmate of O’Sullivan whose family has also been closely associated with the club. “In my day, he says, “you didn’t have two parents working and so it was easier for one of them to get their kids to or from somewhere. The days of having seven kids in a car are gone . . . And running onto the pitch with the old magic sponge, you can’t do that anymore. You can’t touch them so you have to bring the parents on . . . most of it is just common sense but it still changes the way we have to do things.”
Things change with the times, he and his friends agree, and mostly, when it comes down to it, for the better. Only the sense of being part of something special, it seems, remains the same.
Boys in green: 50 Farm boys have played for Ireland
Some 50 players have progressed from Home Farm to play for the Republic of Ireland at senior level, with the likes of Jackie Carey, Paddy Mulligan and Kenny Cunningham passing through Whitehall and Richard Dunne, Stephen Kelly and Darren O’Dea currently flying the flag.
Ronnie Whelan’s father, Ronnie senior, also played for Ireland after playing as a schoolboy at Home Farm, where he was first brought by his neighbour from Attracta Road, Liam Whelan.
Ronnie junior has fond memories of his time at Home Farm too. “For me it was natural that once I was ready I’d go along and I started in the mini-leagues at six years old. They tried to teach the kids properly. There were lads coming from all over, Finglas, Ballymun, Fatima Mansions , learning to behave as well as play football.”
Whelan’s brother Paul, who played with Bohemians, Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk, played for the club too, as did Paul’s son Gavin, who recently won a League title with Drogheda United.