Bohemians have refound their soul but face a battle to stay up
The club has survived an existential financial crisis but faces a real struggle this season
Dalymount Park: the ground will be redeveloped by Dublin City Council and subsequently shared by Bohemians and Shelbourne. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
It may have been the bankers and builders who flew highest and fell furthest in boomtime Ireland but the country’s football clubs got in on the “good times” – at least enough to get airborne then come crashing back down to the ground. A decade on, Bohemians are still recovering.
It was 2006 when the league’s oldest club agreed to sell their ground to property developer Liam Carroll in a deal reckoned to be worth €67 million and 2008 when they won the first of two titles (and three assorted cups) secured with the cash that subsequently started to roll in. But with the deal subsequently collapsing and the ground going instead to the council for a fraction of the price, the club is still paying for that success.
Most of the debts incurred have been cleared but with three teams set to be relegated this year there are new concerns on the horizon.
There was, it is agreed, an impatience to end the dominance of Ollie Byrne’s Shelbourne
Keith Long’s budget is believed to be one of the very lowest in the top flight – an estimated €200,000, perhaps, down from around €1.7 million at the height of the good times –- with most players receiving a tenth or so of the €2,500 or so that the side’s bigger stars were then earning per week.
As things began to falter, those contracts caused immense difficulties for the new board coming in eight years ago. Outgoing president Matt Devaney recalls rooting for opponents to score when Bohemians led comfortably in games so there would be no clean-sheet bonuses to be paid. Such bonuses, he suggests with a rueful shake of the head, were on a par with the wages at some other clubs – or Bohemians now.
In the end, Carroll only ever paid a tiny proportion of the purchase price, around €3.5 million, but Bohemians effectively borrowed another €4 million. Devaney believes the club burned through €2.5 million on top of that in an eight-year period. There was an impatience to end the dominance of Ollie Byrne’s Shelbourne and a desire to “transition” to a new ground out by the airport with a successful team.
Ironically, former club secretary Gerry Conway recalls it was a phone call from Byrne to then club president Gerry Cuffe, suggesting a ground-share that prompted the initial move to sell. The club was told – he says by government and the FAI – that €12 million in public funds would be made available and that each of the rivals might be able to bag €3-5 million.
The money appealed to the members, but not having Shelbourne – who had, like Drogheda United, also tied their fortunes to the property market – about the place prompted a decision to see what other interest there might be.
Carroll, a somewhat colourful character, got in touch via his solicitor who knocked on the door of Dalymount one evening while a meeting was in progress and handed in a letter containing an offer of €55 million. It is not hard to imagine how club officials might have been dazzled by the developer’s apparently limitless resources.
When a dispute arose over a portion of the site, Conway recalls him producing a chequebook from his pocket and making one out for €1 million there and then. If the third party declined, he said, the club could keep it as a deposit on the deal.
The money involved was huge by the league’s standards and there was a sense at other clubs and among a minority of members that the board had lost the run of itself. Devaney suggests some “mad shit” was done and cites the fact that DCU, where the first team trained, got significant bonuses when trophies were won.
He agrees with Conway, though, that it was the members who ultimately made the decisions. “Nobody did anything with malice,” he says. “Nobody set out to lose Bohs seven million quid. And the membership have to take ownership as well. When the big decisions were taken . . . I mean our constitution didn’t allow us to borrow €4 million – that had to get passed at an AGM. Everyone, bar no one, voted that through so you have to take collective responsibility.”
The road back has been a tough one, though. Most of the players either saw out their contracts or reluctantly accepted that they could not be honoured while seven out of eight Dalymount staff were made redundant and various creditors, including DCU, accepted big write-downs and the rescheduling of payments.
Two squad members, however, threatened to have the club wound up.
Then, as the property market recovered, Zurich, who had lent the €4 million, saw an opportunity to get its money back. Devaney got a call at one point telling him that the company was having the ground valued the next day and that if their guy came back with a figure upwards of €7 million they would wind up the club.
We lost our soul basically, there was the promise of big money and we lost what we were about but we made a conscious effort to get back and we have
That added urgency to the deal that ultimately saved the club, one involving Shelbourne and Dublin City Council that was put together with the help of local Labour representative Joe Costello and active support of both the FAI and another local TD, now Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Paschal Donohoe.
Having bought the ground for €3.8 million, the council now hope to have a new stadium, to be shared by both clubs, in place by 2021. Donohoe probably has a big part to play in that timeline, although Devaney acknowledges that there are almost certainly some tough times to be endured between now and then.
“We’re going to lose bar revenue, and, let’s face it, we’re going to lose fans; so there are going to be huge challenges over the next couple of years but I think when we get back to Dalymount the opportunities are boundless. When I look back, during this period of finishing mid-table or lower, our crowds grew and our members stuck with us. Now we were doing tremendous work in the community. We lost our soul basically, there was the promise of big money and we lost what we were about but we made a conscious effort to get back and we have.”
Some of what they are “about” these days causes a bit of mirth among rivals, he says. “We get a bit of stick for being a bit lefty; the craft beer, being a bit contrived, but the traditional methods of marketing don’t work for us. We get a bit of stick but we do have a different element supporting us now. You can see it.”
Whether they hang around in the event that the team goes down this year would be interesting. Devaney acknowledges it would be “a disaster” and says the club opposed the new league structure and the resulting realignment but, he suggests, it is in part the upshot of a decision by the Premier Clubs Alliance, an organisation he wholeheartedly supports, and so he will take the rough with the smooth.
Defeat to Derry City in their opening game of the season on Friday showed just how difficult this year could be for Bohs.
Long, whose job it will be to defy economics and keep the team up, sounds a little less philosophical but despite some serious early-season injury problems he is hopeful that the side he has assembled can again punch above its weight. Either way he accepts, he says, that:“the guardians of the club are not prepared to put its long-term future at risk again for short-term gain.”
Or, as Devaney, who will depart his role at Tuesday’s AGM, puts it: “When you come so close to losing the club that you go to week-in, week-out, you realise what’s important. You realise that paying a player €2,500 a week to bring you a trophy that’s going to earn you 100k is a folly of the highest order. So we’ve come through that and for the moment people are okay but we accept that people will get back to the stage where they want to be challenging and in time we believe we will do that.
“ Right now, though, we’re in no hurry. If we lost our soul, we’ve found it again.”