Crossan and Casey put the Irish back in London Irish
Owner has hired former captain to help return club to its old standing and values
London Irish owner Mick Crossan fronted the consortium that bought the club in 2013. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Bob Casey in his playing days with London Irish. The former captain is back with club as director of rugby operations and is guiding the rebuild of the team. Photograph: Pete Norton/Getty Images
Mick Crossan specialises in the recycling business, literally and figuratively. By vocation he runs Powerday, the leading industrial waste-management company in southern England that includes among its clients, Chelsea and Arsenal football clubs; by inclination he is overseeing the regeneration of London Irish rugby club.
His passionate advocacy of the latter is not blind philanthropy. The 56-year-old multimillionaire has been involved financially in the academy at London Irish for nearly 14 years and has been a member of the club since the 1980s. He is steeped in the history and the sense of community that the Exiles brought to London life, not just for ex-pats but waifs and strays of all nationalities.
The frustration of watching the club freefall from the halcyon days in the professional era of a Heineken Cup semi-final (2008) and English Premiership final (2009) to basement dwellers in the league, and in the process divesting much of its Irish identity, prompted him to act. He observed: “The reason I got involved is that I was worried that London Irish would cease to be London Irish. That could have easily happened.”
In December 2013, Crossan fronted a consortium – he laughs when the term is used suggesting it was just a couple of like-minded people, name-checking Phil Cusack – that bought out the owners, for a fee reported to be of about €4 million. He is the president of the club and majority shareholder.
To understand his decision, it’s germane to delve into his London upbringing. His late father Jack (JJ), from Cavan and mother Kathleen, a Galway woman, instilled a strong Irish heritage and were surrounded by families of a similar ilk, literally in the case of the house they shared with the Grealish family on Latimer Road in Kensington.
Crossan was born in June 1956 and that September the Grealish’s welcomed future Republic of Ireland international captain, Tony, into the world. “When he [Tony] sadly passed away [in 2013], Nora, his mother, asked myself and few other boys who played with Tony at St Agnes GAA club to carry his coffin into the church. I not alone played Gaelic with him but also soccer,” Crossan explained.
“When people asked me how long I knew Tony, I said ‘from birth’ and it was no exaggeration. I played semi-pro soccer and Gaelic for St Agnes, Tara, Parnell’s and Naomh Mhuire. I played minor for London, running out in Croke Park seven or eight times and when they had the Irish Festivals [in the1970s] in the old Wembley Stadium we, [Tony and I] would have played there seven or eight times there too.
“I have a passion for most things that are Irish. Growing up I hung around people with a similar background and that extended right into my 20s.”
Crossan built a very successful business from modest origins in 1977; his sporting outlet was an unequivocal love for Chelsea football club, something that is reflected in the name of one of his daughters.
Hazelwood bears the outward appearance of an elongated Scandinavian-style, single-storey, flat-pack build, framed by a generous forecourt that can accommodate hundreds of cars.
There is no inkling of what lies behind the bricks and mortar facade, both within the premises and beyond, where the beautifully appointed 70-acre site that once housed a nine-hole golf course and driving range is now divided into 15 rugby pitches that include five senior pitches, one of which boasts a synthetic 4G surface.
Given Crossan’s soccer allegiance there was something curiously apt about how Chelsea were on the cusp of buying the land but couldn’t get planning permission for the nine-foot high perimeter fencing, a buffer for prying eyes. London Irish stepped into the breach and Hazelwood is now home to the club’s professional and amateur siblings.
The facilities are outstanding, a state-of-the-art wish list from gym, medical, restaurant, administrative and analysis suite perspectives. It’s a hub of activity, professional and amateur and multidenominational from a sporting slant. Crossan elaborated: “We had the biggest mini-rugby festival in Europe there last Sunday week, nearly 6,000 with teams from seven countries over two days.
“All these young kids were blown away by the opportunity to play on the quality of pitches including the 4G. The London GAA Sevens were here recently, which was a fantastic day. We have the London GAA men’s team training here too. The Down footballers came over in early April.
“I want London Irish and Hazelwood to be a place where Irish people can come and meet new friends, get the opportunity to seek our employment through contacts and networking.”
It’s not bricks and mortar that make a club but people and the person to whom Crossan turned to preside over the rejuvenation of core Irish values was Bob Casey. In more than a decade playing for the club, half of that time as captain, he was a hugely popular and respected figure on and off the pitch. When he retired in 2012, he went to work for Crossan at Powerday.
Initially double jobbing, so to speak, Casey agreed to take up the specific role as Director of Rugby Operations at London Irish – he gets a new title in July. He led the club to within touching distance of silverware half a dozen years ago and had a front-row seat for part of the ensuing decline in fortunes.
“Since then [2008, 2009] there has been a real lack of investment in London Irish. The year I left  18 players left, retired or moved on; the following year another 10 or 11. We felt that with one or two additions we could have gone on and won things.
“Without the boys taking over the club I am not sure where it was going. Part of me getting back involved is me believing in the vision of the new owners, the passion. They are at the club longer than I am; Mick Crossan, Phil Cusack, and Glen Kilty.
“They only took over a failing business, 11th in the league table with big losses, a year and a half ago. The deal was done in December . They appointed me to the board initially as rugby development director and asked me to review, restructure and oversee the rugby department. What I did, like all good Irish people is form a committee because even when I played I believed that no one man has all the answers.
“I picked past players, really bright and passionate, two that don’t work here, Barry Everitt [deputy headmaster at a school, 37] and Joe Ansbro [retired with broken neck, a Cambridge graduate]. An independent company came in and did the review, anonymous questionnaires with players and staff.
“I think it is important when you come back into a club or when new owners take over, you have to figure out where you are at. It was pretty alarming to be fair. What we did then was look at the top six sides in the Pro12, the [English] Premiership and the Super 15 to ascertain what they were doing in terms of strength and conditioning, medically, management and coaching structure.
“It has to be long term and it has to be sustainable because we want to get up there and stay up there. We came up with a five-year plan. You have to be realistic. We have won 27 per cent of Premiership games for three seasons. It’s pretty damning.”
Significant coupTom CoventryBen FranksAndy GoodeDominic WaldouckSean MaitlandDavid SisiTom CruseEoin SheriffMatt Symons
The medical report in the review was the most damning. Casey spoke to two Six Nations doctors and a former England physio, asking them to give him a name. Kanturk’s Brian O’Leary was recruited from the Ospreys as a result. A team was built around him and players are getting back quicker, stronger and fitter.
The club boasts four full-time physiotherapists, a doctor, a full and a part-time massage therapist. In strength and conditioning terms there is one trainer for every four players and Irish has a partnership with St Mary’s University (Twickenham) from where they get the top interns.
AcademyNick KennedyPaul HodgsonJonathan JosephAnthony WatsonMatt Garvey
The club possess a five-year plan, they have depth charts across all positions and they are coming to an end with most of the contracts they inherited.
Fences have been mended in personal relations terms. Crossan expanded: “London Irish have had no association with the IRFU for nigh on 12 years, which is incredible. [Former IRFU president] Pat Fitzgerald has been fantastic in helping to build those bridges, so too [current president] Louis Magee, who’s great-grandfather Louis snr played for London Irish; our first ever international.”
Casey added: “The dialogue is open with Joe [Schmidt], Bryn [Cunningham, Ulster], Leo [Cullen, Leinster] and Axel [Anthony Foley, Munster] so hopefully things will start to develop as well. It’s going to take time I think.
“That was Joe’s concern about guys coming over here, that they were not going to develop as players, whereas now, he knows Tom Coventry and rates him. We want top, young Irish players to feel that London Irish is a viable career choice. We have to rebuild the confidence in the club.”
It’ll be interesting to see if the new regime can restore the capital I in London Irish.