Priming Cork City for the future

A double-winning season is quite the foundation for Cork City’s new general manager to be starting from. But Paul Wycherley’s primary focus remains budgets and balance, he tells Martin Claffey.

Priming Cork City for the future

As a €300m plus English transfer window closes, the eye-watering wage Alexis Sanchez is earning at Manchester United is being digested by Cork City’s new general manager at his offices at Bishopstown Stadium.

A shake of the head from Paul Wycherley. “What is it — maybe half a million a week?

“My own view is no player is worth that money but from a professional point of view, if the accounts and books stack up, if that’s what the market demand is and you’re paying the market rate, then I think that’s perfectly fine.”

Wycherley is getting used to his new office at Cork City’s training ground, and the new GM recognises the massive responsibilities entrusted to him by the club.

League champions. FAI Cup holders. WFAI Cup holders. U17 League champions. These are exciting, unprecedented times for the Turner’s Cross side, and not just on the pitch.

Seven years after emerging from the ashes of administration, turnover at Cork City FC reached an incredible €2.7m in 2017.

“In two years, turnover at this club has increased 75%, and that’s huge,” says Wycherley. “We are now a small to medium-sized business, whereas a couple of years ago effectively the club was literally no revenue but you still had to pay the bills.

"We’ve built up our revenue and profile and you have to have agreements in place to reflect a small to medium-sized business.”

After the launch of their new home kit in early December, stock lines were sold out in seven days. More children’s shirts sold before Christmas than in the whole previous season. And heading into 2018, the big figures just keep getting bigger.

“We’re looking at a 65% increase in season ticket sales compared to last year,” explains Wycherley.

The club is on a serious upward spiral.

The onus will be on Wycherley — along with senior team boss and current manager of the year John Caulfield, naturally — to keep it on that trajectory.

That’s not easy. For every football fairytale, there’s a whole list of nightmares.

Having worked for almost five years at Queens Park Rangers in west London, Wycherley saw for himself how a football club can haemorrhage cash, and put its very future in question.

“In my time at QPR, I think I experienced two relegations and one promotion, and the year I joined, the club was just promoted the previous year,” he recalls.

“(Manager) Mark Hughes started the same day. When I arrived at the training ground, there were Sky Sports cameras everywhere.

"The security staff were saying ‘you can’t come in’. I was telling them ‘I’m arriving for my first day at work. I’m the lead foundation coach at the academy.’ I was much further down the hierarchy.”

It’s fair to say that when he left Cork for London 14 years ago, Wycherley didn’t think he’d end up holding the reins at The Cross. So how did he end up here?

While he played GAA growing up in Kinsale, and rugby at secondary school at Christians, it was at UCC studying finance he discovered his passion, with UCC Soccer Club.

“I got involved in playing at UCC soccer club, and then I got involved in coaching and administration. I ran the Quarry Cup (UCC’s interclass competition) — 96 teams in 2002 and then I got involved in the running of the Collingwood Cup when it was held in UCC in 2003. That gave me a taste for sports administration. And in my final year at university, I was specifically in coaching.

“I completed my degree at finance at UCC and at the age of 23, I moved to London. I worked in investment banking with Nomura, an international bank, but after a year, I left banking to study sports science.”

From then on, football would no longer be just a pastime.

“I completed a masters in sports science at Brunell University and got my first job in sports development at Elmbridge Borough Council in Surrey.

“Then I got my opportunity in professional football with Millwall FC.”

In at the deep end. Millwall proved an excellent place to learn about football. For all the high-profile problems at the New Den, the club is a genuine community affair in south-east London.

“I spent three years working in Millwall’s community development scheme. I still have lots of good friends there. I think Millwall does as much as any club in England with regard to community engagement and social inclusion. There’s a small minority who don’t reflect what the club is about. The club works harder than any other because of the negative perception.”

All the while, Wycherley had been building up his coaching portfolio, along with his sports business acumen.

In 2012, he moved across London to QPR, as the lead foundation coach at the club’s academy.

“I was involved in coaching, operations, administration, scouting, everything really,” he says. “The academy operation of a club like QPR is bigger than most League of Ireland clubs.”

When he took the appointment, extravagant F1 mogul Italian Flavio Briatore had just released control at Loftus Road to Malaysian aviation magnate and Air Asia boss Tony Fernandes, but the turbulence was only starting.

“The club went through a huge amount of change,” recalls Wycherley.

“I joined during a period where it felt like there was unbelievable change and yet it was probably far more stable than it had been under the previous regime.”

Relegation was narrowly avoided in 2012 under Mark Hughes but the club didn’t escape the drop the following season.

Promotion was gained via the play-offs a year later under Harry Redknapp before another relegation.

Seeing the effects on all elements of the club left a big impression.

“The extreme highs and extreme lows: From an academy perspective you don’t get involved in the first team dealings but it does affect everybody. Those relegations didn’t happen on the last day... you knew those relegations were coming. So even though you’re doing your day job really well — or not, possibly, the mood is influenced by something you have absolutely no control over.”

The West London club didn’t lack for colour.

“Tony Fernandes was a nice and friendly guy. At first, he was hands on, but then not so much.

“At that time we shared the same training facilities with the first team. I was a big Manchester United fan growing up so Mark Hughes would have been a hero. I was slightly starstruck. Hughes was friendly but a private guy at QPR and he didn’t interact much with the academy.

“Redknapp would be much more meeting and greeting people, and interacting with the staff and fans.

“From the players, Joey Barton was very friendly, very interested in the academy, he would come and speak to staff and the academy players and always wanted to know what was going on.”

With the first team yo-yoing between the Premier Division and the Championship, Wycherley would outlast them all at QPR.

The darker realities of English football finance also became clear working in London.

“It’s difficult for young players to see the bigger picture. For academies, 1% actually make it to any level of professional football in England. But the kids I was coaching don’t think about the 1%. They think they arethe 1%. They all can’t be. It’s really tough, extremely harsh. I see very little with the Plan B or C — 99% will need that.

“In England, you have agents for kids as young as 10. I coached those players, whom clubs would now come in for, offering £5,000 (€5,700), £10,000 (€11,400). There’s so many moral and ethical dilemmas.

“The football industry, particularly in the UK, doesn’t follow normal business rules. I’ve seen that and I’m totally against it. I always thought if I was running a club, I would do things differently. I’m now in that position, with the top football club in this country.”

Wycherley left QPR in late 2016. The entrepreneurial spirit in him surfaced again.

“I decided to set up my own business in football in the recruitment of staff. That’s where I was up until two or three months ago. There wasn’t the plan necessarily to come back to Cork.

“Sometimes things seem like they happen for a reason, and they just fit into place. It looks like that with moving to Cork City FC.”

Last July, Wycherley married fiancee

Sinead, a teacher from Garryvoe in East Cork. “We got married at UCC in the Honan Chapel. At that stage, we weren’t even planning to move back to Cork.

“I was back in London and the Cork City general manager’s job was advertised on the club website and I just basically said, I’m going to throw my hat in the ring. It looked like a fantastic opportunity.

"It all happened very quickly, it’s been very exciting, both for myself and Sinead. We love London and still do, but from a life perspective, there’s no better place to raise and start a family than Cork. We’re back home.”

In October, days before the Turner’s Cross club completed the double, he was appointed City’s new general manager, responsible for the day-to-day running of the organisation.

“On the pitch, John Caulfied looks after everything. I don’t get involved in that side at all, about how John is going to win a match.

“Off the pitch, we’ve got operations, marketing, merchandising, the academy, and linked with all of that is a huge amount of volunteers and the board of directors. We’ve recently merged with the Cork City Women’s club and we now also have the amputee team. Everything reports back to myself as general manager.

“I’m trying to get a hold on the club as a business. That’s my responsibility.

“Off the pitch, the staff has increased by 250% in two years, and there is still a need for a greater number of professional paid staff, within a sustainable model, albeit keeping our volunteer ethos and workforce to the core. The volunteers always have been, and will be, the lifeblood and backbone of the club.

“On the pitch we want to be winning trophies, competing for trophies on a season-by-season basis, last year being the best year in the club’s history.

“We want Cork City to be the first Irish club to qualify for the Champions League group stages. I’m not saying that’s this season. But certainly within a number of years. We’ve seen Dundalk get close.

"We want to be that club. If we want to get to these places, we need better facilities, and that’s where Glanmire comes in.”

The Glanmire development is part of the FAI’s plans for a Munster Centre of Excellence, in the suburb north-east of the city. Launched as a project in December 2016, the 30-acre site is seen as key to future of Cork City.

“We have been assured from the FAI that the Centre of Excellence in Glanmire will be a top priority when the Government announces the national project funds in March or April. If this is the case, then we would hope work would start in September or October of this year.”

What’s also crucial is that City will never again face a situation where the club’s very future is at stake, and Wycherley doesn’t envisage it.

“You have to be very careful that you build this club to a level that all of a sudden if the club has a turn, that you’re still able to maintain a sustainable model. You’ve got to put structures in place off the pitch that reflect that so it’s not just about whether we win on a Friday or we lose.

“We’re not going to be winning the double every year. we’re not budgeting to be winning the double every year. it’s a delicate balance.”

City has been extremely active in pre-season recruitment, with major investment in the first-team squad. This puts more pressure on to find success on the pitch. Champions League football — without winning a match — is worth around €500,000 to the club.

"Europa League qualification is less than half that. But either figure puts the €110,000 prize money for winning the League of Ireland in the shade.

“I think it’s fair to say we’ll be hoping and planning to qualify for Europe again this season,” says Wycherley. “We’re the league champions. If for any reason we’re not

hitting that target, we can manage that.

“We are trying to build a rainy day fund and we are now in a position where we’re starting to do that. If we don’t qualify for Europe next season, we’d have to look at our budgets again but we are in the strongest position we’ve ever been to sustain a shock.”

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