Sorry tale of Athlone Town as investigation report looms

Two months on, club preparing itself for what probe into alleged match-fixing will find

The findings of the FAI’s report into alleged match-fixing at Athlone Town are due for release soon. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

The findings of the FAI’s report into alleged match-fixing at Athlone Town are due for release soon. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

 

It is almost two months since Athlone Town’s game against Longford that gave rise to a full scale investigation by the FAI into allegations of match fixing but much longer since the club seemed to descend into a state of acrimony. The board, it seems, has utterly alienated the club’s biggest benefactor of recent times and resisted calls from a core group of long-time supporters to surrender control.

Most League of Ireland outfits might struggle to cope under the weight of a match-fixing probe, a dispute in relation to the ownership of its ground or a supporter revolt. Athlone, led by chairman John Hayden, soldiers on regardless of all three, although you would wonder what exactly is being achieved at this stage.

Crowds at home first-team games average barely 200, a squad made up of very modestly talented foreigners and amateur locals scrapes by towards the foot of the first division table and the bulk of the town’s population seems utterly indifferent to it all.

There is much talk that the FAI will release the findings of its investigation shortly but there are very different takes on what should be expected. There has never been any suggestion of wrongdoing against Hayden or any other director but a local radio journalist suggested on social media last week that the club generally and its players will be completely exonerated. Others believe that something, whether substantial or not, will have been found and some sort of action justified.

The club’s Latvian goalkeeper, Igors Labuts, has, it is revealed, previously been involved in games that were “escalated” (scrutinised) by Uefa on 17 occasions. Photo: Oisin Keniry/Inpho
The club’s Latvian goalkeeper, Igors Labuts, has, it is revealed, previously been involved in games that were “escalated” (scrutinised) by Uefa on 17 occasions. Photo: Oisin Keniry/Inpho

The club say they have been given no indication of any impending announcement or what it might contain and it is certainly easy to understand that they feel aggrieved at having been obliged to live under a cloud during the six weeks or so that the investigation has been running. Their games may not get too much media attention these days but the betting story has been attracting a fair few column inches both home and abroad with Der Spiegel the latest overseas publication, after the Asia Times and Romania’s Gazeta Sporturilor, to run a big piece that delights in just how small the club is.

It is not clear to what extent the issue might dominate the proceedings at Wednesday night’s AGM but then it is not clear either how many will be at the event or who they might be. Marc Formeaux, the French agent who was the board’s point of contact with the investors from Portugal who are widely reported to be a front for the Chinese agent “Eric” Mao Xiaodong, was due back in town over last day or two so he might be. But Declan Molloy – who has put up an awful lot of his own money to pay off debts on the stadium and, at different times, kept the club afloat – will not as he is not even a member at this stage.

The league is littered with “money men” who got burned but few can have got as little bang for their buck as Molloy who, one former club official recalls, put in around €45,000 one season a few years back by way of “sponsorship” and opted to have no name on the club’s shirts.

He was, it seems, supporting a transition to what he hoped would be a community run club but now even his claim to effective ownership of the stadium he paid some €550,000 to clear the debt on is disputed by the club on the basis of a Deed of Trust that was signed around the same time as a new lease a couple of years ago.

Two different lawyers shown the documents by The Irish Times describe them as contradictory and suggest the Deed of Trust is, at the very least, open to challenge, but the club only made one payment of rent under the terms of the lease with nothing paid in more than a year as they claim to own the ground despite paying Molloy nothing for his stake. Indeed Athlone Town Stadium Limited, whose registered directors also include former FAI President Paddy McCaul, has been unable even to ascertain whether the club even holds a valid public liability insurance policy for the ground although the club has told The Irish Times that it does.

Like the stadium company, Peter McLoone – who was asked by the association last year to compile a report of the state of affairs at the club after it failed to fulfil a fixture against Waterford United following the refusal of its amateur players to travel pending the payment of overdue expenses – was unable to obtain evidence of the policy’s existence, despite asking for it.

Hayden’s way with people has not helped much. He is, as one person puts it, somebody who “prefers walking through doors to opening them”

An exchange of correspondence quoted in his report suggested that the board, which includes former player Michael O’Connor, envisaged the possibility of stepping down if that was what McLoone recommended but in fact he recommended next to nothing, just that the FAI consider conducting a due diligence of the club’s financial situation really. The opted against it but are now involved on a few fronts, trying to clear up a developing mess that various people attempted to bring their attention to along the way.

Most obviously, the situation was transformed before the start of this season by the arrival of overseas investors and their seemingly far-fetched scheme for routing talented prospects through Athlone to England. This first year, Formeaux apparently claims (he has, along with just about everybody else declined to be interviewed by The Irish Times) was just to be about sizing up the standard of the game here and what would be needed to progress the project in year two and beyond.

The club, though, admits it is not entirely certain of who is actually behind Formeaux or why, for instance, he and a man called Davide Poli – whose address is given as being in Naples – would register a company called Dama Management in Ireland.

Inevitably, there is huge scepticism about it all among the group of most vociferous supporter/critics, led by former club official and long time fan Tony Connaughton, who now, in addition to a great many other things, blame Hayden for bringing in the overseas investment and all that has, in one way or another, flowed from it.

Hayden’s way with people has not helped much. He is, as one person puts it, somebody who “prefers walking through doors to opening them”. He is widely accused of arrogance and can certainly be abrasive.

Even those that are well disposed to Connaughton and what might be described as his “consortium”, though, are not entirely convinced that they are the answer to the club’s problems but he believes that others will come out of the woodwork once the way is clear for them.

Hayden and co show no signs of calling it a day, however. The club puts the number entitled to attend the AGM at between 50 and 100 but the critics say the actual number present will be well below that and so the event will not amount to much more than a glorified committee meeting.

It is, at least, hard to imagine how things could get much worse although we will soon find out.

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