Regrets still linger over Sporting Fingal's sad demise
It all looked so rosy for the north Dublin club until the property crash hit
The Sporting Fingal story ended, recalls Conan Byrne, in February 2010 with the players quarantined in the dressing rooms at Alsaa while club officials frantically tried but failed to salvage a rescue plan.
“We weren’t supposed to talk to anyone, to use our phones, we were just supposed to stay there and we did from around nine in the morning until half four. Ger O’Brien’s wife went into labour and in the end he only just arrived in time for the birth of his child.”
Few others had anything much to shout about that day . . . well, not in a good way anyway. Most of the squad had turned down good offers from other clubs and most were getting edgy, knowing a scramble was about to break out to get fixed up elsewhere. One, it was subsequently reported, would end up taking a pay cut of 85 per cent.
The officials, meanwhile, were at their wits end and Liam Buckley admits that he got pretty worked up with John O’Brien, the Fingal County Council senior executive officer, whose original idea five years earlier had led to the club being established in the first place. Now, he was being told by his employers to shut it down with immediate effect.
O’Brien, who declined to be interviewed for this article, had been pointed in Buckley’s direction by Niall Quinn who had been involved for a while in a plan to take over Shamrock Rovers. Fingal County Council officials, county manager David O’Connor amongst them, were immediately enthusiastic and weighed in behind the effort to generate support from the local business community. In boom-time north Dublin, they didn’t seem to find it all that difficult.
The property developer Gerry Gannon committed to providing €500,000 a year for at least five years and took a controlling interest in the club with the council retaining a quarter of the shares.
Anglo Irish Bank agreed to give €125,000 per annum in return for a place on the team’s sleeves and the Dublin Airport Authority, Buckley recalls being informed, initially agreed to be the main shirt sponsors for a sum of up €250,000 per year for four seasons (Shelbourne and Bohemians, to put these numbers in context, recently did shirt sponsorship deals recently that are reckoned to be one tenth of that amount). The precise terms are disputed now but, in any case, they were revised down to a much smaller education-related sponsorship after the DAA considered, amongst other things, what Michael O’Leary might make of it. Food distributors Keelings came on board to sponsor the shirts for the same sort of money as Anglo in the end.
The list of backers after that makes for remarkable reading, with property and related firms as well as blue chip businesses like Tesco all writing substantial cheques. Some seemed to get little more than a mention in the programme in return.
Byrne, who was the club’s marketing manager for a couple of years as well as a member of its playing staff, was never involved in securing any of the bigger deals but, he says, wrapping up smaller ones tended to be fairly straightforward. “Once people heard that Gerry Gannon was involved they wanted to be as well.”
Buckley baulks at the suggestion that companies were paying way over the odds to be associated with a lowly League of Ireland club – many of the deals were concluded when Sporting were on course to be in the A Championship — simply because they wanted to get in with Gannon and the council.
“I wouldn’t say that,” he says, “I think they were coming on board to support a development plan and I think that they were getting caught up in the emotion of the whole thing too.”
The development plan was certainly an eye-catching document and a range of social initiatives were quickly established. Sporting had Special Olympics and Power Wheelchair teams as well, amongst other things, as working with local youths and the unemployed so as to either cut street crime or encourage them to become coaches or, so they could earn a little money, referees.
On the pitch the team’s progress had far outstripped initial projections with promotion and a cup win being followed by Europa League participation and a fourth-place finish. By the middle of 2010, though, there was a growing sense that Nama would force Gannon to end his support and, with the economic climate worsening on what seemed like a daily basis, other sponsors were pulling back too.
The hope was that the council (which failed to respond to requests from The Irish Times for a response to a number of queries) might bridge the gap but instead its officials, not least the previously highly-supportive O’Connor, who Buckley remembers hugging him warmly after Sporting had beaten Shamrock Rovers in a cup replay, seemed to be distancing themselves from the entire venture.
Officially, the council had always said it would not meet the day-to-day costs of the club but would provide infrastructure and a €10 million stadium.
Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, however, show that the council spent more than €50,000 on bills relating to the club. It is clear that that figure could have grown very substantially if it had started meeting the wage bill for one of the league’s best paid squads once the season started.
Still, the speed with which the council moved to cut its losses took everyone by surprise and two years on it is clear that many are still deeply upset by it.
Along with the first team went the club’s trust and just about everything else. Like many of the people who backed it, the game’s dream club had fallen victim to the country’s great financial nightmare.
Its liquidation is still being overseen by Kieran Wallace who is performing the same role with the former sponsor that most recently went under the name of Irish Bank Resolution Corporation.