Bray Wanderers thriving on the pitch but confusion reigns off it
Chairman O’Connor baffled improved efforts haven’t seen fans flood to Carlisle Grounds
There have been conflicting messages over the future of the Carlisle Grounds, the home of Bray Wanderers. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
One thing that Bray Wanderers chairman Denis O’Connor cannot be accused of is lacking ambition.
The club’s five-year strategic plan sets out its stall pretty clearly with the club, it says, aspiring to build a 4,500 capacity stadium on a complex that would also include full-size 4G and grass pitches, fiveaside facilities, parking, club building, a sports hall and conference facilities. Optional extras, it is suggested, might include a bar and, perhaps, a pool. Not bad for a League of Ireland club.
It is spelled out pretty clearly too how this might be paid for: “The Carlisle grounds are in a very central location, it doesn’t necessarily follow that a football club is the council’s ideal tenant for such a central spot. The council may be amenable to a more commercial development in the centre of town....with the funds from the sale of the Carlisle Grounds going towards the cost of the new leisure complex. It appears quite likely that a deal agreeable to both parties can be found.”
The above was written in 2016 and yet in January of this year the minutes of the council meeting, at which O’Connor appeared in order to make a presentation to members, he is recorded as having said that the club had “no plans to leave the Carlisle Grounds or to develop it,” adding that: “we have no notion of relocating.” He is also reported as saying that the club’s five-year plan is available to view on its website. That’s the one, quoted above, where there is quite a lot of talk about relocating.
So, ambition is not a problem but consistency has been something of an issue. All told, there is an endless sense of a game being played here and it is not always football.
To journalists like myself who report on the club from a little bit of a distance, it does seem that good people with a history of involvement in Wanderers were alienated when O’Connor and Gerry Mulvey became involved, but that happens at a lot of clubs and certain things have improved; money has been put into the ground, some day-to-day operations have appeared to become more professional and, of course, there has been very significant investment in the team.
This last bit seems to have been done on the basis of an “if you buy them, they will come,” belief. Mulvey’s funding has now become an issue and O’Connor is apparently astonished that six months of relative on-field success (Harry Kenny, Liam O’Brien and the players have, to be fair, delivered their end of the deal) did not flush the club’s dormant fanbase out of the shadows but it is bewildering that he could ever thought that the plan might work.
Certainly the wider consensus from the moment it emerged that club was paying much more to players who would be employed full-time and, in many cases, on longer-term contracts was that it would only end one way. And most who said it care too much about the league generally to have taken any pleasure from being proven right.
Perhaps O’Connor can be given some leeway for his naivety, he tells anyone that will listen that his background is in hurling not soccer but Mulvey has been around the block a bit having owned then sold two clubs previously, most recently St Patrick’s Athletic, and turned a profit on both occasions.
And O’Connor has seemed very clued in in other ways - quickly gaining a better than average working knowledge of the League and FAI machine, good enough to become a prominent player in the Premier Clubs Alliance, so as to argue for a better deal.
As it is, O’Connor has simply come out with all guns blazing at this stage over the lack of support from Abbotstown and while there might be little enough sympathy for him generally, there will be plenty of people at rival clubs who will have been pleased to see that issue raised in public.
The lack of wider support, though is a problem for the club and O’Connor. He talks at times as if the Irish football community saw himself and Mulvey coming and somehow shanghaied them so as to have them take over a club but there were other prospective owners. And nothing of real note at Bray Wanderers has changed substantially since the day they arrived - not the Carlisle Grounds lease, the support base, the revenue potential - save what they themselves have changed, the costs of the squad.
The club, O’Connor told councillors in January, “loses €250,000 every year” but the deficit this year will surely exceed that due to the amount spent on players. He seems to blame everybody but the board for that.
If people are surprised that the league’s licensing system didn’t catch that early on then they are delusional; how many examples do they need of what a joke that is. It would be interesting, though, to hear whether Bray are considered profitable by the association which usually claims that clubs running big operating losses are actually producing a surplus once there is somebody filling in the financial hole with their own money.
O’Connor, in any case, told a public meeting just before the start of the season that the current owners would simply have to get a return on their money but sometimes it doesn’t work out like that.
As for the Carlisle Grounds, it has long and lovely history and it is wonderful that it has survived in such an accessible location for almost 160 years. If the club really do want a little more flexibility to use for other sports and public events then surely that is worth talking about - it is certainly in keeping with the facility’s history - provided there continue to be safeguards.
Beyond that, there may actually be a case to be made for building on it and developing new, publicly owned sports facilities on the edge of town and perhaps that debate should happen in the community and on council, but there is surely none for allowing one club’s owners to profit substantially from the deal or even to control the new complex.
Certainly nothing that has happened this past week makes their proposals seem more persuasive.