Struggle continues for Irish soccer clubs both on and off the pitch
Many in the game feel that the FAI should be doing a lot more to help indebted teams
Home turf: Shelbourne are looking to offload their Tolka Park grounds as one way of paying off their huge debts. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
The walls of the office under the old stand at Tolka Park in Drumcondra are thick with pennants and framed photographs, while on shelves behind clear glass are collections of trophies and mementoes. A small printer, attached to a laptop, is spitting out tickets to the upcoming home game, against Cobh Ramblers (today at 7.45pm).
“When passion and emotion are involved, then business goes out the window,” Niall Fitzmaurice, commercial director of Shelbourne Football Club, says with a sigh in the middle of a conversation about why Irish soccer clubs are such commercial disasters.
Like everyone involved in running the club, he is a volunteer. The players get expenses, but, Fitzmaurice says, “amateur”, may be the wrong word to use for young men who train three times a week and take Friday afternoons off work when the club is playing an away game.
How long has he been involved in the club? “Since I was nine years old. I watched Shelbourne play Thurles Town on a Sunday afternoon and we lost two-nil. It was raining and there were about 70 people at the game.”
My soccer-playing, 13-year-old son has come along for the interview. Fitzmaurice shows him a photograph in the hallway of an electronic scoreboard over a stand packed with fans. “Rangers 0, Shelbourne 3.” That was about an hour into a 1998 Uefa Cup clash in Prenton Park, Merseyside. By the end of the game, Glasgow Rangers had scored five goals, to win by two.
In the early to mid-2000s, Shels were on the European soccer trail. In 2004 a home game against Deportivo had to be played in Lansdowne Road to accommodate the 24,000 people who turned up to watch the nil-all draw. In the next leg, however, the Spanish won and Shels’ dream of not just football glory, but a financial windfall, came tumbling down. The club had been spending beyond its means, and its financial situation, in an almost poetic reflection of those of the nation, quickly became critical. As punishment, Shelbourne were demoted in 2007 by the Football Association of Ireland from the premier to the first division, where they have been for seven out of the past nine years.
Shelbourne, which was founded in Ringsend, Dublin, in 1895, gets its name from Shelbourne Road. It had its first pitch in Havelock Square, close to the north stand of the Aviva Stadium.
It first became tenants at its Drumcondra ground for the 1956-57 season. This week it failed to get an agreement to transfer the ground to Dublin Corporation as part of a deal that would have seen Shelbourne move base to a redeveloped Dalymount Park, home to Shels’ huge rivals, Bohemians. As a result the future of the hugely indebted club, looks precarious.
The lease on Tolka Park is owned by property developer Jerry O’Reilly, and the size of the debt associated with the grounds, which Shels had hoped to clear using a sale to O’Reilly, is believed to be greater than the €4.5 million Bohemians owes Zurich Bank.
What’s the plan? “We are looking at a few options,” says Fitzmaurice. They include a move, help from the council, and/or the arrival of a financial backer. “At the moment, it’s a massive struggle just to keep the lights on.”
Lee Daly, of the 1895 Supporters Trust, is against any move to Dalymount without the fans’ consent, and wants the club to be owned by the trust. “It is the best business model and has proved to be a stable one elsewhere.” Benefactors putting money into a club can be a problem as well as a godsend, he says. “When it dries up, then you’re up sh** creek.”
Since the economic collapse a number of clubs have been taken over by supporters’ trusts, as their former owners’ business plans ran into insurmountable difficulties, often associated with taking on costs and debts that were not sustainable.
Simon Elliott, a former director of Scunthorpe United, in Lincolnshire, England, got heavily involved in Irish soccer when he moved here to become chief executive of Volkswagen Group Ireland in 2011. He heard the SSE Airtricity sponsorship of the Premier League was up for grabs and approached the FAI’s John Delaney about Volkswagen becoming the main sponsor.
“We got well and truly rejected, so I decided to do it a different way,” Elliott says.
Volkswagen sponsored Shamrock Rovers, Sligo Rovers, Bray Wanderers, Bohemians and Shelbourne. In terms of return on investment, Elliott says the value for money was “incredible”.
Overall, however, he says football clubs in Ireland are not viable businesses and need well-to-do directors and shareholders willing to support them. “I say it’s like having a very expensive train set.”
With Scunthorpe, where he was on the board for five years, getting by meant “drilling down to issues such as how many Mars bars were being sold”. Another way of getting by, he says, is selling your grounds. Scunthorpe was the first club in England to sell up and move to a greenfield site, which it did in 1989. Now the town has grown out to meet them, and the club is looking at another, cash-generating move.
Players can be another source of income. During his period on the board, Scunthorpe bought two players, Billy Sharp and Gary Hooper, for about £100,000 each and sold them on for about £2 million each.
Elliott believes the FAI should shift focus away from the Irish international team and towards the league, and towards growing young talent. English clubs keep a close eye on Ireland, seeking to pick up players for cheap prices.
“The Irish clubs are under so much pressure that if they can get something, rather than nothing, they take it. And the kids are glad to move to England and get thousands a week, instead of hundreds.” Elliott moved back to the UK last year. Since then Volkswagen has cut back its involvement to just two clubs.
A number of people involved with Irish clubs who were contacted in relation to this article did not want to speak on the record but were very critical of the FAI. Efforts to make contact with the FAI met with no response.
The non-disclosure in its accounts of the €5 million the FAI got from Fifa is indicative of the organisation’s attitude towards transparency, one says. Clubs get to learn very little about the financial affairs of the organisation to which they pay money and which is tasked with growing the sport among young people.
“The FAI is a busted flush,” another says. The financial pressure the FAI is under, because of its involvement in the Aviva Stadium development, has badly hit its ability to help league clubs. Clubs pay a registration fee to the FAI to play in the Premier and First divisions, and the prize money paid to successful teams has been cut back in recent years, he says. The only way to get real money is by getting into Europe. But even then, if your team is drawn to play a club on the far side of Europe, it can end up costing almost as much as it pays.
“The only reason the game survives,” says another figure involved in a Premier Division club, “is that you have a lot of passionate people involved, because from a business point of view, it makes no sense.”
The biggest problem for Irish soccer clubs is getting people to come and watch the games, says Fitzmaurice. He, and others involved with Dublin clubs, say rivals such as Cork, Dundalk, Sligo and Galway, have an advantage in this regard, as it is easier for such clubs to encourage local support.
Investment and sponsorship are hugely difficult since the economic collapse, he says. This is Shelbourne’s first year in decades not to have a shirt sponsor.
There are a large number of very committed people out there willing to put their time, and sometimes their money, into Irish soccer, but when its performance is measured against that of the GAA and Irish rugby over the past two decades or so, then it comes out very poorly indeed. Who or what explains the difference in performance is not clear, though many people involved say that at least some of the blame must rest with the FAI.
Secure future: Bohemians FC
The purchase of Dalymount Park for €3.8 million by Dublin City Council looks set to secure the future of Bohemians, a membership-owned football club that has been in existence since 1890. The idea of public money being used to resolve the club’s chronic financial difficulties led to the Phibsboro-based club, and neighbouring rivals Shelbourne, based in Drumcondra, approaching the council with a plan to ensure their mutual survival, three years ago.
The sale to the council was agreed in a context where Bohemians has done a deal on debts of approximately €5.5 million. Shelbourne has not been able to secure the surrender of the lease on its grounds, Tolka Park, to the council, but the council has said the door is still open to it to become part of the original plan, which would have seen the two clubs share a redeveloped Dalymount.
The latest accounts for Bohemians show revenue of €744,202 in 2013, and a loss of €72,738. The club had an average of 22 players during the year, five first team management and coaching staff, and four administration and ground staff. The players cost €138,773. In 2004, the club had an average of 28 players, and paid them a total of €1.18 million. Despite the players’ change from professional to near amateur status, the club is still doing well, and is currently fifth in the Premier Division.
Financial struggles: At the top and bottom of the league
Galway United: Up to 2011 Galway had as its chief executive ex-derivatives trader, Nick Leeson, whose speculative trading caused the collapse of Barings Bank. The club got into such severe financial difficulties in the late 2000s that it put its entire squad up for sale during the 2011 mid-season transfer window. The club is now run by a supporters’ trust, representatives of the former owners and two other Galway soccer clubs. The last filed accounts for the former owner, GU Football Club Ltd, were for the 2009 year when it had accumulated losses of €660,336 and had experienced a fall in gate receipts and sponsorship and fundraising income. Directors’ loans were €271,096 and included €61,544 that was owed to Leeson.
Cork City FC: It has been owned since 2010 by a supporters’ trust called the Friends of the Rebel Army Society; previous owner Cork City Investment FC had been placed in liquidation on the application of the Revenue.
The club was formerly owned by businessman Tom Coughlan, who was restricted from acting as a director of a company following the liquidation of the Cork City Investment FC. The debt to the Revenue was more than €100,000.
Dundalk FC: The club switched hands in 2012 with local businessmen Andrew Connolly and Paul Brown taking over from former owner Gerry Matthews. The club is currently top of the SSE Airtricity Premier Division.
Matthews issued a statement in 2011 saying it was his intention to transfer ownership of the club “into the hands of the people of the town” and for it to become “a supporter-owned and -operated football club”. In 2012 the board said it was in “severe financial difficulties” and sought expressions of interest in taking over the club.
A request for an interview with the new owners was not acceded to. The club has benefited over the years from the support of Fyffes, the company founded by the Co Louth businessman, the late Neil McCann.
The latest filed accounts for Dundalk Town FC Ltd show accumulated profits of €26,323 at the end of November 2014, and shareholders’ funds of a similar amount.
Bray Wanderers: Second from the bottom of the Premier Division, it has been in the news recently in relation to its financial difficulties but is hopeful that help is on the way in the form of the McGettigan Group, owners of the Royal Hotel in Bray, and other hotels in Ireland, the UK and Dubai. Accountant Denis O’Connor of the group is acting chairman of the football club and the finalisation of the investment is expected – or at least hoped for – shortly. The club has seven shareholders and the most recently filed accounts for Bray Wanderers Ltd show that it had accumulated losses of more than €1 million at the end of November 2013. A note to the accounts said that one shareholder, Eddie Slevin, had “kindly consented in writing” to waive a debt of €164,189 while another, Frank Slevin, had waived his entitlement to €1,500.