Putting football supporters first

We’re all familiar with the image: disgruntled supporters massed on the pitch, chanting ‘Sack the board’. But what happens when the fans become the board?

FORAS (Friends Of The Rebel Army Society), the Supporters’ Trust which owns Cork City, was set up in 2008 with admirable intentions of developing ways in which to assist the football club, such as fundraising with a view to building a training facility which could then be leased to the club for nominal rent.

But the spiralling financial turmoil which brought City to the brink of extinction within two short years resulted in FORAS having to step in to save the day in 2010 and, in doing so, the supporters found they were now the owners of the club they loved — a responsibility as daunting as it was entirely unfamiliar.

“If you ask anyone involved in FORAS, the original aim was to one day, perhaps, maybe, have a shareholding — and then, all of a sudden, we were running it and owning it completely,” says Niamh O’Mahony a former board member of Cork City and secretary of FORAS.

“We went from a position where we would be spending an hour discussing should we have a table quiz to, hang on, we need a manager, players, a football ground. There was a huge amount of support locally but also people who didn’t think we could do it. We were doing something very different — there was no precedent for it in Cork — and not everyone believed it could work.”

And the biggest eye-opener for the fans-turned-owners? O’Mahony doesn’t even have to think about the answer.

“Money. All the costs involved — things you never think about as a supporter. Player insurance. Player contracts. Public liability insurance. Dealing with banks. You start counting the people coming in the gates. You see a player get another yellow card and you think ‘that’s a fine’. In short, you start seeing things from a business perspective.

“You realise you can’t stretch yourself for that extra player because you want to ensure you can pay all the wage bill. As a supporter, you only ever want more players and better players but when you’re running the club you’re taking two steps back and thinking about everything that’s going on at the club. There’s trojan work going on in the background that’s unseen and unappreciated but the first team is all that most people ever talk about. So you’re launching a handbook in the Dáil and yet people are mainly looking at the form of the first team.”

The handbook in question — The Heart of the Game — which was launched last week by Minister Michael Ring, is a detailed how-to guide for supporters interested in playing a more active role than just singing their hearts out for the lads (important though that is), covering everything from how to establish a Supporters’ Trust to actually running a football club — not that the one should necessarily follow the other, as O’Mahony is at pains to point out.

“There’s a myth out there that if you start a supporters’ trust, you’ll end up taking over the club,” says the Project Manager for The Heart of the Game. Short of owning a club, Niamh emphasises, there’s a lot a properly organised fan base can do, especially if they enjoy the goodwill of the existing owners, including voluntary work, fundraising and cementing links to the local community. But, as in the case of Cork City and, before them, Shamrock Rovers, having a supporters’ trust already in place can ultimately mean the difference between life and death for a football club, should the nightmare scenario threaten.

“When people ask why do we do what we do, it’s because we came so close to losing something that’s extremely precious to us,” says O’Mahony, whose father’s family home was in the shadow of Turner’s Cross. “And we would never want anyone else to be in the same situation. It’s really difficult to run a League of Ireland club right now and you can never future-proof things 100% but, with fan-ownership, you have people who are tied personally to the club and who would never do anything to jeopardise it. And when you combine that with the skills and experience that is out there, it’s a much stronger platform to be working from.”

The 68-page The Heart of the Game, funded by the European Commission in partnership with Supporters Direct Europe, draws on the FORAS experience and other clubs and supporters groups, as well as economists and academics. Niamh O’Mahony laughs when she acknowledges it’s the kind of thing FORAS could have done with back when they were starting out.

“Reaction to the handbook has been great,” she says. “Somebody nailed it on the head when they said it’s hope. The rhetoric around the league has always been difficult to overcome, and we know that it has problems, but you can either sit on the sidelines and criticise and ask why the Government isn’t fixing it and why the national association isn’t fixing it, or else you can organise and if you do that, it makes it far easier to act in a cohesive manner. But as one of the founders of FORAS said: ‘If you need a Supporters Trust it’s already too late’. It takes time to set one up and that’s what The Heart of the Game is there for.”

The document can be downloaded free at www.heartofthegame.ie

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