This week the League of Ireland (aka the Airtricity League … even for me, as generally not very enthousiast towards the generally adopted football culture and as an enthousiast of things such as artificial turf as playing surface, naming league divisions after sponsors sounds horrible) started its new season. Shamrock Rovers are defending their title. Derry City are making their unofficial comeback in the Premier Division. And county Louth will again look forward to the derby between Drogheda United FC and Dundalk FC. Odd, because didn’t Dundalk relegate last season after finishing bottom place? Yes, but as has been the case quite often in recent years, the financial collapse of another club forced the league into taking relegating teams back on board in the top flight. That Sporting Fingal would be the one collapsing this year though, was beyond expectations because the club was flighing high, even having played Europa League qualifiers last year after winning the FAI Cup in 2009. Fingal seemed to be a success story, but it seems beyond the surface finances were not well managed. A story heard way too often on the Emerald Isle. Sporting Fingal only had a short existance, 4 years after its launch it is already dead and buried. But it were intensive years for sure.
The club was founded as recent as 2007. Fingal County Council wanted to create a new club in the north side of Dublin, the rapidly expanding capital of the Republic of Ireland. As the suburbs grow continuously, the new suburbs further away from the older city center areas seem attractive locations to offer the population a local club to support. Shamrock Rovers, after about 20 years of wandering around homeless, found a new target audience by basing itself in a newly built stadium in Tallaght, a southern expanding suburb. In the north side of Dublin, the areas further out of the city center did not have a club in the League of Ireland yet, only having amateur outfits in recreative leagues such as the United Church League and the Leinster Senior League. Fingal County Council (within county Dublin, the de facto capital district of the country) saw potential and helped setting up a new club. The fact the club was embraced by the League of Ireland was controversial: did the Irish people really need yet another Dublin club when areas without professional or semi-professional club also had clubs showing interest to take the leap to professional football? In the end however, Sporting Fingal FC was launched and was welcomed in the First Division (the second level). The second level, yes, and not the newly created A League (the de facto third level where clubs wishing to eventually go into the League of Ireland as well as some reserve teams of Premier Division teams play). They were welcomed immediately in the First Division due to the financial collapse (here we go again!) of First Division outfit Kilkenny City which could no longer afford to stay in the League and voluntarely stepped back to amateur league status.
Sporting Fingal, while waiting for the completion of a stadium in the Fingal-Swords area, found a home in the Morton Stadium in the Santry area of Dublin. Their first season (2008) saw them finish at a respectable 3rd spot. The year 2009 however launched Sporting Fingal into fame: in only their second year of existance, they promoted to the top division by beating Bray Wanderers in a promotion/relegation play-off. In addition they won the FAI Cup, beating Sligo Rovers 2-1 in a final played in the Tallaght Stadium. Winning the cup and promoting to the top flight in only the 2nd season of existance, Sporting Fingal looked like proving the criticisers wrong and became an instant success. Ironically, two more clubs collapsed at the end of that season: Cork City nearly went bankrupt and was only saved by a take-over by FORAS (the de facto supporters trust) collecting enough money to manage Cork City although relegation to First Division was inevittable due to the financial chaos. Even worse was Derry City. The Northern Irish club playing in the Republic’s league could not be saved and went bankrupt. The club folded and re-started again in the First Division. Same name, same logo, same ground, but de jure a new club. The collapse of Cork and Derry (who had won several titles and cups the years beforehand, dominating the league the previous couple of years along with Bohemians) resulted in Bray Wanderers being saved from relegation, although they were only re-invited into the premier division a week before the kick-off of the season. A signature to the bad management and chaos that has become typical to the Republic of Ireland’s league.
Sporting Fingal continued its rise to fame in 2010: their first season in the top flight saw them immediately finish at an impressive 4th place. Thanks to the prior season’s cup win, they were also playing in Europe in what was only their third season of existance. Opponent in the qualifiers of the UEFA Europa League was Maritimo Funchal from Portugal. Again Fingal left a good impression, losing only 3-2 in Portugal. The two away goals caused high expectations for the return leg, which was moved to Dalymount Park, the stadium of Bohemians FC. The expectations this time weren’t met, as the Portuguese outfit scored another 2-3 win. But for such a young club, the overall story was a success for Sporting Fingal and the club had great prospects ahead.
Then however came the aftermath of the 2010 season. On 3rd February 2011, a month before the start of the new season, the club had to admit that the financial side of the club was in bad state and that players were not paid. 6 days later, the club fired their entire squad of players due to the lack of finances to keep the squad going. One single day later and only 7 days after the financial chaos was revealed, the club withdrew from the top division by dropping their Premier Division license. The club was less than a week away from their Setanta Cup debut and about a month away from the start of their second campaign in the top flight. The loss of one big investor made the whole club collapse. One single day later the club officially folded. 9 days earlier the club seemed to have a bright future ahead, and suddenly it didn’t even exist anymore. It didn’t even take two weeks for the club to collapse. What seemed a promising rising star of Irish football, was dead and buried.
Fingal’s council was planning to build a new stadium in Lusk with 4000 capacity, with options to increase to a 12000 capacity. While building that, Sporting Fingal would groundshare for 3 years with the (sigh…) financially unstable Bohemians in their Dalymount Park. It is unclear if the Lusk project will now have a football future ahead or not.
Consequence of Fingal’s sudden death, was that with about a month to go, Drogheda United received the news that they were welcomed back to replace Sporting Fingal in the top division. Drogheda normally was relegating after finishing on bottom spot the last year. The fact Drogheda stays in the top flight now due to another club collapsing, is ironic given the fact that the club nearly collapsed itself two years earlier and went through administrationship for a while. This was after having won the League of Ireland in 2007, having also won 2 Setanta Cups and 1 FAI Cup. Like Fingal, the sudden success was followed by sudden collapse, with that difference that Drogheda narrowly survived.
Clubs being succesful and then suddenly collapsing the next 1 or 2 years seems very odd, but sadly enough it is becoming a frequent sight in the League of Ireland. Clubs tend to be quite poorly managed, and the competition from the many football fans prefering to follow Celtic or an English club also leaves local clubs with poor attendances. This is however no excuse for bad financial management, which unfortunately seems a typical element of League of Ireland football lately. A short summary:
– Shelbourne FC had won 3 titles in 4 years time between 2003 and 2006 and the Drumcondra (a district of Dublin) side also was shining in Europe, eliminating Hajduk Split in the Champions League qualifiers and getting draws against Deportivo La Coruña and Lille OSC. The club won the league on goal difference in 2006, finishing on equal points with Derry City. However, the club’s bad finances then were no longer possible to hide. The club collapsed, the death of one of the former chairman also added to the collapse of the club. It was even unsure if the club would survive. Their Premier Division license was withdrawn, and the club narrowly got a First Division license. With veterans and young players willing to play virtually for free, Shels started in the second level in 2007, already being happy to have survived the collapse. 3 titles in 4 years were hiding the fact the club overspent on transfer fees and player wages, and when European and domestic success did not attract extra sponsors and fans as hoped, the club sunk from the celebration of winning the league to the depth of nearly collapsing. Shelbourne step by step rebuilt a healthy financial structure and now try to gain promotion again to the top flight after a 4 seasons in a row on the second level. The club surely went through dark times though. At some point, fans of Athlone Town complained that there was no light in the toilets of the away fans. It apparently was not wise for the club to spend money on something as simple as a light bulb. Weither this is true or a wild rumour I don’t know, but for sure the club can be very happy to say they survived this collapse.
– Cork City was next in row. In 2005 they won the League of Ireland by beating their only remaining competitor, Derry City, 2-0 at home at Turner’s Cross. The euphory was huge: the Cork side had broken the dominance of Dublin rivals Shelbourne and the club (with a very strong support for Irish standards) was champions of the country. In 2008 financial struggles began. Investors and board members left, and before the 2010 season the Premiership license was withdrawn. Cork City Investments FC Ltd was wound up in court, the fan group FORAS enroled an emergency team (their first games there were only a 1 or 2 reserve players available) in the First Division under the name Cork City FORAS Co-Op. Only when they managed to collect enough money to purchase the Cork City FC name from the liquidators, the club could continue as Cork City FC. The club is now in the hands of fans and will now start a second season in the first division.
– Derry City’s case was even worse. One of the teams on the island with the longest history and most troubled history. The club won the Northern Irish league once and the IFA Cup thrice prior to being the victim of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The club faced fierce violence and a biased FA who deemed football in their Brandywell home (in a strongly republican area of Derry) too unsafe, eventually forced Derry to withdraw from the Northern Irish football and never return. After more than a decade without senior team, the club gained permission to take a fresh start cross-border in the League of Ireland, the Republic of Ireland’s league. The club was also successful there with large attendances, winning the FAI Cup 4x (the latest in 2006) and winning the league twice. In 2005 and 2006 they were runners-up, losing the title to respectively Cork and Shelbourne on the last day of the season. Sour, but when both Cork and Shels collapsed the next years you could say Derry were the moral winners. They took Shelbourne’s place in the Champions League qualifiers in 2007-2008, although this did not become a success, losing to Armenian outfit Pyunik. The season before in the UEFA Cup they did have success, eliminating IFK Gothenburg and Gretna FC, and then falling to Paris SG.
However, by the end of the 2009 season also this club collapsed within the few years after the successed were adding up. The club had broken league rules with illegal contracts and failed to meet financial agreements with Dungannon and Linfield, both of whom still owed money from Derry City. Derry effectively lost the battle and after a long and interesting history ceased to exist. A new club with the same name, colours and stadium erected in 2010 and immediately won the championship title in the First Division, promoting to the top flight. While for many people this is just the return of Derry, legally it is a newly formed club. Ironically their first league game was against… Cork City FORAS Co-Op, that other succesful club that had collapsed financially the year before.
– Kilkenny City AFC withdrew from the first division in 2008 due to lack of finances.
– Cobh Ramblers managed promotion to the Irish top flight in 2007. One year after this success, the club dropped not one but two divisions at a time: they relegated out of the premier division but financial troubles saw them lose their First Division license too, sending them back to the A League (third level and not de facto a part of the League of Ireland). In 2010 they did nearly promote back to the First Division of the League of Ireland, but Salthill Devon won the promotion/relegation playoff and condemned Cobh to another year of A League football.
– Another club who only existed briefly was Kildare County FC. The county already had a succesful amateur club with Newbridge Town FC, but people wanted a club in the League of Ireland. Kildare County FC was chosen as name, hoping to draw fans from the entire county. They groundshared with Newbridge Town FC. The club failed to attract a decent fanbase and ceased to exist in 2009. The last fixture of the club was against Shelbourne, where the fans actually had to convince the players to play this last game and fans had to run the ticket sales and canteen as the entire club board resigned already. Kildare lost 1-5 and after fulfilling that last game, it was over officially.
– Limerick FC, having won the domestic league and FAI Cup twice each + having won three League Cups, de facto folded in 2006. A local consortium took their place and enroled a team in the First Division called Limerick 37 (as the original Limerick FC was founded in 1937). The club now still plays in First Division and re-adopted the Limerick FC name.
– Dublin City FC, a homeless and almost supporterless club run by the mala fide chairman R. Seery (see earlier article on this club in my blog) folded halfway the 2006 season due to lack of finances.
– Shamrock Rovers FC is the one club who successfully survived financial issues. During several years halfway the last decade the sword of Damocles hung above the head of the club: the club had been homeless for nearly 20 years, wandering from ground to ground and having groundshared with every Dublin club except UCD. In 2006 the club relegated for the first time ever after being beaten by Dublin City FC in the promotion/relegation playoff. They had to play this playoff due to a points deduction for … financial chaos. It were the loyal and large groups of fans who collected money to effectively take over the club and save the club. Shamrock promoted back in its first and so far only season below the top flight, moved to the newly completed Tallaght Stadium and won the League of Ireland championship last season (2010). A rare example of an Irish club who came back stronger than before after nearly collapsing, surviving and reviving thanks to their large and extremely devote fans.
– while having started the new season and nearly missing out on winning the 2010 championship title, Bohemians FC have been in financial troubles for several years and it is a question mark how much longer the club will be able to avoid collapse too.
The League of Ireland the last decade has suffered a lot from the many badly managed clubs: clubs collapsing within a few seasons after winning trophies showed how poorly clubs were managed, and the league repeatedly had to –sometimes within a week before the start of the new season– take clubs back on board in the premier division despite relegation. In a way you could say that clubs such as UCD (who have very very few fans but are very well managed) and Bray Wanderers (nearly relegated several seasons in a row, once actually relegated but invited back into the premier division due to Cork and Derry collapsing) are actually rewarded for being properly managed despite poor performances on the pitch sometimes. But for sure the Republic of Ireland’s league is a graveyard. Numerous teams, often succesful ones, collapsed shortly after being highly succesful. It is a sad testimony of an underlying problem: the competition with Scottish and English football and the poor management of several clubs has left the Irish football with a lot of scars and image problems. Clubs being well-managed AND succesful on the pitch have become a rarity.
Have things been better north of the border? Not really. In the North, also we saw the collapse of a few clubs, but they were not very succesful clubs, which means the collapse was not getting lot of attention. Omagh Town ceasing operations was the one case where a club’s demise got lot of media attention. If you know that Omagh’s financial collapse was partly due to lack of fans, while the same city has an active fanclub of… Accrington Stanley of all clubs, then you again see the problem of Irish and Northern Irish teams suffering from people prefering the professionalism and glory of the Scottish and English football, even when their choice of team to support is not always a logical one. Fanclubs of teams such as Accrington Stanley are not exceptional. Tranmere Rovers and Stranraer are other examples of relatively obscure teams having fanclubs on the island of Ireland.
Northern Irish football suffers from lack of attendances even more than the league of the Republic, but somehow well-known clubs managed to avoid folding like those that were succesful south of the border recently. That should not hide the fact that lot of northern clubs too are suffering financially. Even one of the "big two", Glentoran FC, is in financially troubled situations, and the move to a new stadium as desired by the club is still a question mark because there is no money for that new stadium. The only Northern Irish club who is very succesful financially is Linfield FC, who benefit from their stadium being used for Northern Ireland national team games, with Linfield receiving a 15% of the incomes of those (well attended and often sold out) national team games. This gives the club a huge advantage financially, compared to other local clubs. The day the national team would leave Windsor Park, Linfield’s finances would be worrying too, but with the construction of a new national stadium ongoing forever but not leading to concrete action yet, it seems the national team won’t move very soon and Linfield should be safe financially. The rest of Northern Irish football is in troubled state as well, the financially wealthy teams often being those who don’t aim for the trophies and prefer lack of silverware rather than overspending and risking to collapse.