Dublin's premier ambitions

 

There are two ways of looking at the Wimbledon saga and the proposals for the English Premiership club to relocate to Dublin. Either there is enough pie in the sky to fill the hole in the ozone layer, or else, with the help of some clever subterfuge and supreme strategic planning, seemingly countless obstacles can be overcome as if they hardly existed.

If that is the case, then conceivably Wimbledon or the Dublin Dons, or whoever, could be playing in the Premiership with their own 40,000 all-seater stadium in Clondalkin come August 1999. In the interim, they would have to remain in south London or find a temporary home in Dublin, with the RDS now emerging as a likelier venue for an August 1997 kick-off than Lansdowne Road or anywhere else.

It is a complex story which is liable to become even more complicated. Its complexity is compounded by the wild conflict between the word on the grapevine and the public utterances issued by the main players in the saga.

And the cast in this saga is large.

Player number one is Wimbledon, or more particularly, their unpredictable owner and chairman, Lebanese businessman Sam Hammam. He knows better than anyone what the off-field objectives of the club are. The deal starts and ends with him.

Player number two is the Irish consortium headed by U2 manager Paul McGuinness, property developer Owen O'Callaghan (who has planning permission for a 40,000 all-seater stadium in Clondalkin), his associate and the stadium's architect, Ambrose Kelly, other unnamed businessmen and their broker/conduit/spokesperson, the journalist Eamonn Dunphy.

Presuming the deal between the consortium and the Hammam family goes ahead, whereby the Irish consortium buys 74 per cent of the club's shares for an undisclosed fee, then the next and third crucial players in the story are the English Premiership club chairmen. Of these, two-thirds, or 13, have to sanction the proposed relocation.

Interested parties at this stage of the process include Rick Parry, the Premiership's chief executive, Sky Television, who have more than a passing interest, and thee English FA, which is likely to give its imprimatur to the decision of the club chairmen.

Presuming the Irish consortium have hurdled these considerable fences, the story can then go one of three ways.

A: They seek and are granted approval by the FAl/National League.

B: They are rejected by the Fall national League and the plan is aborted.

C: The Irish consortium take to the European courts and impose themselves in Dublin against the wishes of the FAI National League.

It is clear, therefore, that the "FAI National League are the fourth key" player in this story.

Potentially, there are innumerable sub-plots with many supporting players should the story go thee distance - the legal eagles, UEFA, the IRFU, or more likely the RDS (in providing an interim Irish home for the new team) and, far less significantly the Government and the Garda Siochana who by their own admission, are essentially bit players.

Let's return to the most important player of all, Sam Hammam. Whereas six months ago he was singing like a canary about the wonderful benefits of this proposed takeover and relocation, this week he has been as reticent as a church mouse.

Whereas six months ago he spoke uninterrupted for 30 minutes to this journalist about the issue ("it will contribute to harmony and peace between people... it will get people off the streets. . create a sense of belonging. . there are so many facets: economic, emotional, moral, and good for Irish football"), he was singularly evasive this week. He repeatedly referred me to an article penned by him in the Wimbledon Tottenham programme on Wednesday night.

Talking from his car phone on Thursday, Hammam said: "It's crazy, the whole thing. It's too much. The best thing to do is, I had an article in the programme yesterday and it really clarifies the whole thing."

Well, it did and it didn't.

In the programme, he claimed he had not signed or shaken hands on "a deal to move to Dublin" and that the relocation to Dublin was his and the club's fourth option, a long way behind his first option of remaining within the borough". This seemingly re-affirmed assurances given to FAI chief executive Bernard O'Byrne earlier in the week by an unnamed Wimbledon director, but then again, as Christine Keeler said in the Profumo Affair, well, he would say, that wouldn't he?

There are many ways of interpreting Hammam's apparent volteface. Whereas six months ago he was eager to sell the deal, now the deal is done it is in his interests to keep it under wraps in order to prevent demonstrations from the club's own fans.

There is another viewpoint held within the English game, which one Premiership club official outlined this week. "There is no way, shape or form that he (Hammam) can move Wimbledon to Dublin. This is only a sprat to catch a mackerel. Sam wants to move back to Wimbledon and he wants the council to give him the ground for nothing. That's what he's after. This is all bluster.

For the relocation to Dublin to get past second base, it requires approval from two-thirds of the Premiership club chairman, or 13 of the other 19 clubs. Newcastle's Sir John Hall has been publicly supportive of the proposal, while the Sunday Tribune elicited supportive comments from Aston Villa's Doug Ellis and Southampton's Guy Askham last week.

It is notoriously difficult to talk to Premiership club chairmen, most of whom are either uncontactable or uncommunicative. Thus, despite contacting all the other clubs, The Irish Times could add only elicit comment from one other chairman, Fred Reacher of Nottingham Forest.

"I understand that they're talking about it, he said, "and I would feel very unhappy about it. For a start, it's not fair on our fans, having to go to Dublin, what with the cost and everything else. I think it could ruin Irish football. I'm just against the move.

"I think the advantages are obviously the fact that they're purporting to have several people interested in the move with capital, which would be good for Wimbledon, but as I say they've got to get Premiership approval and I'm of the opinion that they wouldn't get that.

However, it's difficult to gauge how a vote would break down.

Rick Parry, the Premiership's chief executive, is reputedly enthusiastic about the project, and may exert some influence. Parry declined to be interviewed and, intriguingly, a spokesperson for Parry merely relayed the following message.

"He's not confirming or not whether he's had any contacts with this consortium or not, so really I can't comment on that. So the position is as I described it yesterday: no official approach has been made."

Another possible contributor to the debate amongst the Premiership clubs is Sky television, though judging by the comments of Vic Wakeling, Head of Sky Sports (see accompanying story), this may well be overstated.

If the deal goes through, the Irish consortium would have to fund Wimbledon's continuing Premiership status by investing relegation. According to Dunphy, this would mean an immediate injection of several million to not only buy new players, but to upgrade the existing wage structure at the club.

McGuinness says: "Once the die is cast, it will be hard for Wimbledon to remain in London." The IRFU general secretary, Philip Browne, says no approaches have been made for the use of Lansdowne Road. They have their own schedule of 35 to 40 games a year, including three or four internationals, as well as commitments to the Lansdowne and Wanderers clubs, the Leinster Branch and indeed the FAI and the Irish soccer team.

Shelbourne's Tolka Park is too small, and Bohemians wouldn't countenance Dalymount Park, but, mysteriously, questions put to both the commercial manager and deputy commercial manager of the RDS were either referred to Drury Communications or met with a "no comment".

Dunphy says they may negotiate a temporary home and points out that 20,000 temporary seats could be installed in six weeks. The RDS has just such a facility, and possesses "corporate entertainment and car parking facilities. Shamrock Rovers have vacated the showjumping arena, while the RDS's reticence could be explained by likely hostility from local residents.

Presuming that the problem of finding a suitable venue is solved, the focus of attention switches across to Ireland. Dunphy has spent the last 10 1/2 months brokering between the Irish consortium and the Hammams, and acting as a conduit on the consortium's behalf in discussions with people involved in Irish football and beyond.

He jovially admits he has "seriously compromised" himself by acting as "the link-man". He is motivated purely by a desire to see this "dream" fulfilled. "I don't want any money out of this. It's been extremely tiresome because I'm not a natural diplomat or broker. I've always said to those guys on both sides, despite offers, that I'd rather just do this. Now if they offer me £150,000 or £200,000 to be a consultant at the club, or a director of football, a la Kenny Dalglish, then I might accept that, but I'd be strongly advising them not to have that kind of character in the first place."

According to Dunphy, the deal will go ahead next week, and be completed four to six weeks down the road after the lawyers have finalised the negotiations. According to one Irish insider, heads of agreement are in place. According to a Wimbledon source, "the deal is done".

"I think it would be premature to say there are heads of agreement in place," says McGuinness. "There aren't any that I'm aware of. Everything has to be in line before it can be done and not everything is in place yet."

Dunphy claims their project has the backing of Parry, Sky TV and the Premiership. If the FAI/National League seek to block the relocation, then his consortium have European law on their side. They will impose themselves regardless.

Contrary to reports, Peter Sutherland, the former EU commissioner, is not advising them. He did refer them elsewhere, however. For some time, the consortium have engaged solicitor Philip Lee, a renowned expert in the European law. An expert in the field whom The Irish Times contacted described the potential scenario as "far too complex to make a definitive judgement".

The threat of legal action is an option, though it is not an option that McGuinness speaking from New York on Thursday night is in favour of himself.

"I've always felt that consent was the key to this whole thing. I know there are legal opinions that it could not be prevented, but I think to try and accomplish this by force of legal arms would be a very bad thing. I truly believe that there is something in it for everyone.

McGuinness envisages a switch to summer soccer as beneficial to the National League, especially if it comes with new financing and a new television deal with Sky. However, he was not dangling any financial carrots in the direction of the National League and, as the comments of Sky's Vic Wakeling underline, a Sky deal is no more than more pie in the sky.

McGuinness maintains that the relocation is "highly likely" and "all interested parties have to be persuaded that it's in their interests, as I really believe it is". Another unanimous show of hands by the FAI council last week did not dissuade him. "Well, in, deed, there's quite a lot of persuading to do.

Previously inactive on the issue, last week the FAI became reactive, and the next few months will reveal whether they have the capacity to be pro-active. They engaged legal advisers on the implications of the proposal, wrote to the FA and the Premiership ascertaining their position, sought assurances from Wimbledon (and took them on face value), and declared that "we have not been approached either formally or informally by Mr McGuinness or any of his associates".

THE latter statement patently isn't correct, as National League chairman Michael Hyland, FAI vice-president Des Casey, and former general secretary Dr Tony O'Neill (all of whom serve on UEFA as well) have admitted meeting Dunphy informally to hear his proposals out.

All three have assured this reporter in the last three days that they are opposed to Wimbledon's proposed move.

"We're not going to allow them, the English FA aren't going to allow them, UEFA aren't going to allow them," says O'Neill. "It's all very well threatening European law on us, but if you want to win friends and influence people you're not going to come in with a blunderbuss.

"I don't believe they could possibly afford the type of financial assistance the National League clubs would want to surrender their birthright.

"If they ever got in, we'd boycott the place. Why the hell should we break our necks scratching and scraping for a whole year to raise money to run our own clubs to try and keep the sport as alive as possible and then have them come in and eat us all up? Why should we?"

O'Neill is in favour of the National League switching to summer football, but not as part of Wimbledon's relocation package.

The St Patrick's Athletic club is not even in favour of summer football. Damien Richardson, the Shelbourne manager, is in favour of both, arguing that "we would need Wimbledon to fill the winter months so as to maintain interest in Irish football all year round".

Like O'Neill, Casey laments the fact that Dunphy's associates have not come and made a formal presentation to the association. "We're now in a conflict situation rather than a dialogue situation," he says.

Hyland, who pledges his and the FAI council's support for the 22 National League club chairmen, also shares O'Neill's view that the National League would "essentially become a third junior league" if the relocation ever went ahead.

He believes that the FAI National League position will be supported by UEFA and, indeed, the English FA and the Premiership.

"Remember one thing. What we're talking about here is the football family. The football family is all the associations, it's UEFA, and it's FIFA. Within reason, they have to support their associations and their members. Every time a player moves from one jurisdiction to another, or every time a club does so for a friendly, it has to be sanctioned by both associations involved. Football depends on this network."

The football family sticking together? A naive belief? This takes us back almost full circle to second base. Will those secretive English club chairmen and the English FA respect the FAl/National League's wishes in the spirit of footballing brotherhood? Maybe it's all just a sprat to catch a mackerel?

There are enough strands to this story to make it into an epic of sorts. Either way it looks set to run and run. Over to you Sam.