A League Cup game next Monday night will generate more of a following than usual considering the impressive starts made by both teams to this year’s league campaign.
Off the pitch, away from the hurly-burly of chanting crowds and tough-tackling players, there is a refreshing feeling of collegiality in the air.
This is because both Rovers and Cork City are now safely owned and run by their respective fans.
The recent shared experience of financial difficulties helped foster a strong link between the two. In 2005 Shamrock Rovers were saved from extinction by the fans’ group ‘The 400 Club’. Cork City FC found themselves in similar territory in 2010 when the fans’ group ‘FORAS’ stepped up to the plate.
The current sense of stability enjoyed by both is consistent with the ethos of the sustainable fan-run club. Other general advantages include a higher integration with the surrounding community and a democratic system for deciding the direction of the club.
But there is a less obvious, and arguably more important, benefit. It is crucial in any business or profession to have someone to call for assistance, not just in times of crisis but at any stage of development. Fan-run clubs are more inclined to ask for and give help than traditional clubs.
The Supporters Direct group based in the UK acts as an umbrella body for fan-run clubs throughout Europe, encouraging inter-club assistance.
But why are those clubs more likely to leverage assistance from other clubs?
“Supporters talk to each other a lot easier and a lot more than sole owners would do. There are less egos involved,” said former sole owner and chairman of Cork City from 2001-’07 and current FORAS member Brian Lennox.
There are similar clubs in the league. Bohemians have been a members/fans’ run club since its inception in 1890. Derry City, Sligo and Finn Harps now enjoy various levels of fan ownership. Even Cork’s opponents last night, Bray Wanderers, recently announced they would move towards becoming a community-run football club.
Co-operation between these clubs, rather than bitter and divisive competition would serve the league and Irish football better in the long run. While considering these positive developments it is important not to lose sight of the underlying issues of running a football club. Fan-run clubs are not the panacea to all football’s financial difficulties in this island or any other.
“No matter which structure of ownership a club enjoys the important principles remain the same; financial management, transparency and good governance are as important in fan-run clubs as they are in any other form of ownership model,” said Niamh O’ Mahony of FORAS.
“This requires effort on an ongoing daily basis, week in, week out, year after year.”
There are, unfortunately, examples of clubs that lost sight of these principles. Stockport County enjoyed the dizzy heights of the English Championship. But when rot set in the club spiralled and the supporters’ trust took control. Some naive business decisions led them into administration and eventually back into private ownership. Last year they were relegated to the Conference North, a fall of four divisions.
However, there are other more successful examples such as Portsmouth who, despite falling down to League Two, have stabilised under a fans’ owned trust. Now their average home attendance is higher than the home gate in the 1990s when they were two leagues higher.
The consensus would seem to agree that clubs owned by fans are a welcome development in the League of Ireland.
The fact that this Monday, Cork City and Rovers will show up at Tallaght Stadium with more at stake on the field than off it, owes much, if not everything, to those who decided enough was enough.
They, more than anyone else, deserve praise for bringing stability and credibility to a league that recently has been short on both.