When the FAI and Sport Ireland published the report of their jointly appointed Governance Reform Group back in June, one of its 78 recommendations flew very much under the radar; namely, the inclusion of two seats for supporter representatives on an expanded FAI Council.
League of Ireland fans, sadly, are familiar with how the processes of examinership and winding up a business work, and had started talking about the need for better governance within Irish football well before FORAS, the supporters trust that owns and runs Cork City FC, were invited to be part an EU-funded football governance project in 2012.
The project brought together League of Ireland supporters, intent on taking action and supporting their club, for the first time and also planted the seeds of what has become the Irish Supporters Network (ISN) as we know it today.
ISN serves a dual purpose: It supports cooperative football clubs such as Cork City FC, Finn Harps, Galway United and Cobh Ramblers, as well as supporter groups that are (or are trying to be) proactively involved within their football club.
There is not a club in this country that would function without the input, skills and expertise of its supporters across a range of largely voluntary roles.
However, supporters are rarely, if ever, effectively represented within the formal structures of the game in Ireland and have yet been allowed to banish the stereotype of rabble-rousing troublemakers.
Instead, national associations, clubs, sponsors, players and various other constituents globally focus on their specific priorities while labelling themselves as de facto supporters whenever there’s talk of proper inclusion.
I’ve been involved with supporter issues for nearly 12 years, working as interim CEO for a Europe-wide supporters organisation in that time, and Ireland is not unique in this respect.
The realities of being a League of Ireland supporter are not pleasant. Leaving aside facilities — a considerable issue — I always offer the comparison of attending football and rugby fixtures over the same weekend in Dublin a couple of years ago.
On the walk down, I encountered the Gardaí’s public order unit. I was searched entering the ground, as was my handbag. Home and away supporters were strictly segregated, which meant our movement was limited. The toilets were, simply, not usable. I could not buy alcohol if I wanted to and away supporters were ‘kept back’ for 15 minutes after the full-time whistle. When we were allowed on our way, we were surrounded, once again, by the public order unit on exit. Trust me, it’s never a relaxing experience.
The following day I attended a Munster game at the Aviva Stadium, wearing Cork City FC merchandise.
Supporters were not segregated, and I was not searched. Not only could I buy alcohol inside the ground, I could bring it to my seat and get more if I wanted to!
Nobody was forced to delay their exit from the stadium either. Until now, who has raised these kinds of experience — in an organised, formal way through the lens of a supporter?
Three supporter groups made submissions to the Governance Reform Group — You Boys in Green (YBIG) Mandate and the Confederation of Republic of Ireland Supporters Clubs (CRISC) being the other two — and all three will now work together to ensure the voice of all supporters is heard.
The move to include supporters in this way is not without precedent but it is, nonetheless, progressive. English supporters have two seats on the FA Council, Northern Ireland fans one on their equivalent, while supporters in Spain recently agreed to take a seat on their national association’s council. Despite this, the decision to formally include supporters within Irish football has been questioned repeatedly by individuals both privately to the FAI and directly to us in recent weeks.
Our response has been clear. Take off our colours, and supporters are professional people with considerable experience and skills that will be of use in the challenging months and years ahead.
Just as the supporters’ movement in Ireland is fragmented so too are the many different constituencies. Looking after your own patch first has been the modus operandi at all levels and if the cultural change that’s needed is to be seen, then all stakeholders are going to have to work together and put the collective good of everyone first and not last.
In recent weeks, ISN was invited to attend the League of Ireland clubs meeting as an external stakeholder alongside players and managers representatives. We have had informal relations with the FAI for years now, but this was an important and formal step.
Being in the room allowed us to listen, to feed back relevant information to our members, and highlight the contribution supporters can make — ensuring our perspective is properly taken into consideration in key decisions.
The way forward for everyone in Irish football is through dialogue and collaboration.
There have been some positive signs in recent weeks. However, the bulk of the reform work remains ahead of us all.
- Niamh O’Mahony is secretary of the Irish Supporters Network (ISN) and one of the two supporters representatives at FAI Council for the next 12 months