‘Sleeping giant’ awakens from slumber after Déise wake-up call

These are hectic times for Waterford FC. Friday’s First Division win over Athlone Town attracted their biggest crowd of the season at almost 2,000, a fundraiser was held at the greyhound stadium on Saturday and another healthy attendance showed up yesterday at the RSC for the EA Sports Cup game against Cobh Ramblers.

‘Sleeping giant’ awakens from slumber after Déise wake-up call

“Waterford is a sleeping giant for football and the buzz is back,” asserts Kenny Browne, a local and one of the club’s marquee signings having won the FAI Cup with Cork City last season.

“There’s a myth out there that Waterford are throwing money at getting promotion but I know the plans are long-term.”

That outlook makes a change from the week-to-week existence Waterford found themselves in less than a year ago.

Their rich heritage couldn’t prevent the begging bowl literally been handed out during matches involving other clubs at Dalymount Park and Markets Field seeking a survival lifeline. Those deep pockets of local businessman John O’Sullivan the club relied on for rescue remedies had to be sewn up at some juncture and a public appeal for €80,000 to see the campaign out was mounted.

Players and staff going weeks without wages needed only to look into the barren main stand at the Regional Sports Centre for explanations about their plight. The seating area on the opposite side of the ground famously opened in 2008 by Giovanni Trapattoni was occupied only by ballboys retrieving many of the clearances punted by their beleaguered defence.

Averaging attendances of 270 in a division considered the backwater of Irish football was bad enough but a snapshot of their fall from grace was highlighted on the final day of the season when the 50th anniversary of the first league-winning team was marked. Amongst the sparse turnout for the visit of Athlone Town, watching the warriors of 1966 reunite on the pitch at half-time, was Lee Power.

Given his last connection with Irish football came 22 years earlier as a Norwich City striker jostling on the periphery to break into Jack Charlton’s squad, Power’s presence went unnoticed by the locals. They weren’t aware he was eyeing up their club as the latest project in his business portfolio which encompasses horse-breeding, gaming and football. Since 2013, he’s been Chairman of League One club Swindon Town.

London born and bred, Power’s Irish relatives are from Youghal on the east side of Co Cork heading towards Waterford, an affinity sufficient to spark an interest in acquiring an outfit languishing in the second tier of Irish football.

“If the club had gone out of business, I couldn’t have seen a way back,” admits Pat Kelly, the veteran secretary of the Waterford schoolboy league and supporter of the club since those glory days of the 1960s.

Where others saw doomsday looming, Power spotted a new era. Neither he nor the club and the fans have looked back since he assumed control in November, overseeing a revival that began by dropping the “United” from the name and restoring the original crest adorning the three ships synonymous with the county’s history.

Pat Fenlon, a blast from the past through their time together with Ireland’s U21s, was recruited by Power with Déise man Alan Reynolds courted for the head coach’s vacancy from his post as John Caulfield’s assistant at Cork City.

If the staff intake impressed, the calibre of player headhunted matched it as a blend of youth and experience signed up. Shane O’Connor, one of the best performers in the division last year, arrived from Cobh Ramblers and the experienced Mark O’Sullivan also came from Leeside, soon joined by Cork City teammate Browne. Galway thought they had snared ex-Spurs winger Kenny McEvoy till he chose his hometown club and Patrick McClean, younger brother of James, trekked south from Derry City alongside David McDaid. As part of the Swindon connection, teenager Tom Smith arrived on loan and promptly won the fans’ player of the month.

Power wasn’t to know at the time of his rescue mission that a play-off route to the Premier Division would be mothballed by the FAI weeks later, yet his team have made a decent fist at claiming the one and only promotion berth available.

Despite losing to a late goal at Athlone on the opening night, they’ve gone unbeaten since and are clear at the summit by three points just past the quarter stage of the campaign.

Equally important as that form is the reconnection between the club and the Waterford natives. Controlling queues, rather than sourcing fans, is the challenge for club administrators on match nights now, not just at the turnstiles but also for purchasing raffle tickets and hot food.

“There’s spectators coming to the RSC now that haven’t been there for a years,” explained Paul Cleary, a former player and now General Manager of the Blues.

“Waterford was always known as a community club and we see that with three generations of the same family attending matches.” For the players, it’s the type of environment which influenced them to drop down a level.

“After losing against Athlone, our first home game the next week against Cabinteely was the big test,” explains Browne. “I would have been happy with 700 showing up but there was another thousand on top of that.

“If we’re getting near to 2,000 for the visit of Athlone, which is far more than most Premier Division clubs are getting, I’d be certain of 3,500 coming for fixtures with the likes of Cork City and Shamrock Rovers next season.”

For all their progress, some glitches have cropped up. Reynolds started the campaign as head coach only to run into dispute with his employers, the FAI, where he works as a co-funded development officer in Wicklow. His assistant John Frost ran the show on Friday from the sideline while Reynolds sat in the stand.

Local businesses have started to embrace the revolution, evidenced by a stream of interval activity on the pitch, yet their jersey remains without a main sponsor. One of Power’s immediate aims is to add a commercial manager to the full-time staff, a measure hoped to maximise input from the business sector.

Early days naturally bring with it mixed fortunes and Browne is sure the combination of on and off-field success will fuse in time. As an FAI Cup winner with two different clubs, the defender can sense a good thing and underlines his commitment to the cause with an interesting declaration.

“I had a great time at Cork City and I think they’ll finally win the league this season,” he admitted. “However, personally, winning the First Division with my local club would mean more to me.” With that sort of buy-in, it’s no wonder Waterford’s renaissance constitutes one the league’s most intriguing plotlines this year.

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