League of Ireland soccer and the ceaseless struggle to stay afloat

Success on pitch but stress off it – Dermot Kelly recalls his time as Sligo Rovers chairman

 

“What was the gate receipt and what was the score?” – were my two questions after home matches when I was chairman of Sligo Rovers and they were asked in that order. So when I’m asked what was the most important goal scored during my time in the job, people are surprised when I recall our first match in the cup down in Cork in 2009.

The club’s finances were very fragile, they always were, but especially so then. Every month we had to pay €7,800 to the Revenue in relation to an inherited liability from the previous season and some weeks we had to write the players cheques for their wages late enough on a Friday so that they wouldn’t be able to present them until the Monday – by which time we’d have the gate receipts from Saturday night’s game. It was hand-to-mouth stuff complicated by the constant battle with creditors and historic debt.

Sligo Rovers manager Paul Cook shows off the FAI Cup after the 2010 final with a group of young Sligo fans including two of my sons, Robert (far left) and James (far right).

Anyway, I met the then manager, Paul Cook, in Turner’s Cross and, as he always was just before a big game, he was completely wound up; a coiled spring. Cork had a strong side and we were struggling for form. We doubted we would ‘survive’ the tie. I said to him, “Cookie, just remember . . . one last thing . . . you don’t have to win it on the night,” and we both burst out laughing. Well, in the 83rd minute Raff Cretaro popped up with an unexpected equaliser for a 2-2 draw. We won the league, three FAI Cups, a League Cup and a Setanta Cup during my time at the club but for me that was the goal that saved us.

We brought Cork back and beat them in the reply; knocked out Derry at home in the next round, then drew with Bohs away and beat them in a replay at the Sligo Showgrounds; and then we beat Waterford at home. That semi-final alone was worth maybe €50,000 to the club. And when you are the chairman, it was all about the money; a few quid in income.

Romance

Vincent Nally – a club stalwart – said to me on my first day that I’d never look at League of Ireland the same way again, that I was trading in all of the romance. He was right. I’m out of the job heading for three years and I still don’t. I have supported the club since I went hand-in-hand with my father and had been a regular for many years, but I’ve only seen them play twice since I stepped down. 

They were the best of times, they were the worst of times. Nothing, absolutely nothing, prepares you for it. I’d sat on a million committees but this is 24/7. You never get a penny in expenses, very little thanks; you put a huge amount of income into it and tap up every friend and contact you know. All the guys on the management committee do. Until you take up the position, you have no idea – absolutely none – of what the job entails. It is relentless. The finances of the club become an obsession.

The point often overlooked is that soccer is a business and in Ireland it is a business based on donations. Gate receipts account for less than 30 per cent of a club’s income. Players and staff are professionals, this is their livelihood. They play for clubs so they can support their partners and children. We are a long way from the days of a Sunday kickabout.

The people are great – players, colleagues, almost everyone really – but there’s an avalanche of problems and you end up giving up watching your own kids’ soccer matches. No more tennis or golf. You sacrifice everything for it. And somehow it gets to the stage where even when you win you don’t enjoy it.

That night in Cork, I remember instructing our secretary to sit in the office until we got our full share of the gate – we couldn’t survive without it – and she was having to threaten to stay there all night until the split was done fairly. Somebody from the FAI suggested she go home, that they would sort it out the following week. There was not a chance we could let that happen.

Split the gate

There was serious money involved that night, certainly by comparison with the time. That May, we played Sporting Fingal, who beat us in the FAI Cup final later the same season, in a League Cup quarter final. They had the likes of Ronan Finn, Alan Kirby and Eamon Zayed playing – lads we couldn’t have afforded – but we went to Santry and won 1-0. When we split the gate, we came away with €340; it didn’t pay for the chicken dinners on the way back west and you’re left wondering: “how are these guys running that club?”

Things improved. We were successful and so turnover increased. But even then cash-flow, for all sorts of reasons, is a nightmare.

With Neil Connolly of Connolly Volkswagen in Sligo, one of the main sponsors who were vital in keeping the show on the road.

The money for playing in Europe is huge by the standards of our domestic game but it only arrives six months after your participation. In 2014, the year after we won the league, when we were drawn to play against Banga Gargzdai in Lithuania, we struggled to come up with the money required to fund the trip beforehand.

Things aren’t helped by the fact the draw was made a couple of weeks before the game or by the fact that while you are still taking it in the fans are booking all the cheap flights. The bank allowed no overdraft facility so in the end I had to put something like €18,000 on my Visa card. I got reimbursed but I was collecting the post ahead of my missus until I did.

In the small hours at the season’s end, Ivor Parke – a Sligo Rovers legend and committee member – remarked on how relieved he was that the football matches were finally over and how sad and wrong that felt. Everyone at the table agreed. It was simply the relief that the seemingly ceaseless struggle had momentarily abated. Little wonder clubs struggle to fill their voluntary committees each year.

Village bonfires

In hindsight, a few moments stand out. Clinching the league title obviously and carrying the cup back across the Shannon for the first time with village bonfires throughout the county were proud moments. Not that you get to dwell on it at the time. I spent the next day trying to sort out a DVD to bring in a few quid for the next season.

There are other memories. Joseph Ndo was a tremendous guy and his speech out in the Ukraine before the European game against Vorskla Poltava was inspirational and bonded all present in that ‘band of brothers’ moment that stays with all who were privileged to have been there.

Sligo Rovers players Jason McGuinness and Joseph Ndo celebrate with the league trophy in 2012. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Sligo Rovers players Jason McGuinness and Joseph Ndo celebrate with the league trophy in 2012. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Having paid my own way over, I doubled as team doctor to save money. And getting to tell the players just before the cup final in 2010 against Shamrock Rovers that there were 36,000 people in the stadium that day because they, as a team, were that good, was special. I absolutely believed it. We were a smashing side.

I left knowing so much more about the job than when I took it on but could never go back. I am immensely proud of those who worked alongside me in different capacities and have nothing but admiration for the people, all volunteers, who run clubs likes Dundalk, Cork City and Shamrock Rovers. Realising the adversity and challenges they face, I support them all in Europe.

I hope Sligo Rovers continue to progress but I wish all the clubs their share of success and reasonable financial security. That way, at least, the chairmen have some chance of sleeping at night!

Dr Dermot Kelly is a consultant at St Vincent’s and the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear hospitals in Dublin. A lifelong Sligo Rovers supporter, he had two spells as chairman between 2009 until 2014

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