Criticism of Omagh Town is unjustified

 

On the afternoon of August 15th, 1998, the footballers of Omagh Town FC were in Belfast for an Irish League game against Glentoran. Unknown to them, a bomb had exploded in their town just minutes after the kick-off. By full time, less than two hours later, snippets of news were starting to filter through and the scale of what had happened was slowly becoming clear. As they began the 70-mile journey home there was a numbness and sense of foreboding as they waited for news of family and friends.

Theirs was only one of countless anxious journeys and only one of the many excruciating waits that the people of Omagh had to endure during that late summer afternoon and evening. In the days and weeks that followed the players, management and administrators of the club were consumed by a desire to do something and counter the all-pervasive sense of helplessness.

Unlike the many individuals driven by the same impulse they were in a position to act in a constructive way and that is precisely what they did. With manager, Roy McCreadie, providing the driving force, the club announced its intention to play a series of friendlies in the town against sides from the English Premiership. What followed was an emotional roller-coaster as club officials had to contend with scepticism, the administrative obstacles that were placed in their way and, at times, undisguised opposition.

The latest tawdry episode is the ongoing negative coverage of the financial donation that will be made to the Omagh Appeal by the club on foot of the money raised at the games against Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool. The first and most salient point about the organisation and staging of these matches is that an independent auditor has been in place right from the outset. It is expected that his report will be available within the next few weeks and anything that is said in the interim must be predicated by the fact that nobody knows what is in it.

That, however, has not prevented an unseemly public debate about the money raised by the games. The focus for much of the media-orchestrated outrage has been this figure of £15,000 which, it has been reported, will be the contribution the club makes to the Appeal Fund. Almost from nowhere a cobbled together consensus has been arrived at to the effect that this is too small a sum and that something must have gone wrong along the way. Representatives of the families involved have been dragged into the public arena and the entire episode has left a sour, cheapening taste.

In the headlong rush to condemn and point the finger some essential truths have been lost. The most important of these is that whether the games raised £15, £15,000 or £15 million no amount of money can go any way to replacing a single one of the lives that has been lost. To say that the three games at Omagh Town's modest St Julian's Road ground against three of the best known football teams in the world were about much more than raising money may sound a little trite but it is no less valid for that. Those who would attempt to put a more sinister, groundless spin on things insult the memories of those who died on that Saturday afternoon.

Comparisons with the fundraising efforts of other sporting bodies are equally odious. The GAA has received copious deserved praise for its efforts and when the Appeal Fund was closed earlier this year it remained the single biggest contributor. In the final analysis its donation from gate receipts and a national collection amounted to something close to £1 million. By any standards that is a fantastically humanitarian response by the biggest sporting organisation on this island and all those involved can hold their heads high.

But it is offensive in the extreme for some commentators to use this figure as a stick with which to beat the efforts of Omagh Town.

Amidst all the media coverage of the past two weeks it was obvious that few people were prepared to stand up and defend the football club. Those most closely connected with Omagh Town and with the mammoth task of organising the three games last autumn have kept a dignified silence and are waiting for vindication in the form of the audited report.

But they are entitled to feel just a little frustrated at the way events have been portrayed in recent weeks. Unlike, for example, the GAA, Omagh Town were forced to move into uncharted territory with their three high profile friendlies.

Omagh Town could hardly be described as one of the superpowers of the Irish League and their home ground on the outskirts of the town is not even up to the standards of the most modest inter-county GAA facility. There is only one seated stand with a capacity of a few hundred and the rest of the ground is standing only.

When the level of public interest became apparent the first avenue explored was that of staging the games at the town's GAA ground, Healy Park. This plan floundered on the rocks of the GAA rule book and Omagh Town were forced to make the best of what they had. Temporary seating costing in the region of £70,000 to increase capacity to 7,000 was hired and installed and the club had to make numerous other ground improvements to satisfy the rigorous, post-Hillsborough standards of the Health and Safety inspectors. Add to that the small matter of looking after all the travel and accommodation arrangements of three squads of international footballers and the extent of the financial commitment before a single spectator walks through a turnstile becomes clear.

An obvious temptation would have been to fix ticket prices at a prohibitive level in order to boost the coffers but again Omagh Town stuck to its initial principles. What was the point in having three fantastic occasions if the ordinary men, women and children of the town were to be priced out of it altogether. From the outset this was an undertaking driven by impulses beyond mere money and that is why the current level of criticism is so thoroughly unjustified.

If the games had never raised a single penny they still performed an important function for those of us who were there. The hardest thing to cope with when confronted with a tragedy of such unimaginable proportions is that nagging feeling of powerlessness. The simple, communal act of sitting together at St Julian's Road in the evening sunshine watching a team from our town play against some of the best the world has to offer was an antidote to that impotence. And you could never put a value on that.