Foras members tonight vote on the future of their club, Cork City… Whether to hand over the ownership rights to Trevor Hemmings’ Grovemoor or maintain it as a fan-owned organisation and seek alternative investment capital.
A simple majority suffices with the board and the club staff recommending the Hemmings option.
At the beginning of this year, Cork City’s finances were in such a parlous state that a League of Ireland licence for the 2020 season was in major doubt – which could lead to the club going out of business. Things had reportedly reached such a critical point that the SOS was sent out to Preston North End (and its owner Trevor Hemmings) in the hope that, by surrendering the Alan Browne and Seán Maguire sell-on clauses, the club could keep going.
From that, the discussions advanced to the point of takeover talk but, should the motion not be carried at tonight’s meeting, there are concerns that the licensing process for 2021 could see City once again in a tight spot. It is possible a Foras-owned entity would be refused a league licence and, while Grovemoor would need to act fast to secure a licence themselves, such an outcome is less precarious.
At the end of last year, City had losses of €400,000, a deterioration on the 2018 accounts, and given how things have gone in 2020 – with the club denied gate receipts since March – there is no chance of things turning around.
With some thrifty economics, it would be possible to turn things around over time, but most likely at the expense of on-pitch competitiveness. While no investor in the League of Ireland has ever become rich, Grovemoor’s financial muscle would at least give City some clarity and peace of mind on the financial front and ensure that fans are able to support a team that is able to compete once again.
One issue with a fan-owned club is that there are too many opinions. With Hemmings, it’s one voice and it is business - he’s not going to do something that would put his largesse in jeopardy.
The Foras board of management are grateful to Grovemoor and Hemmings for his role in getting them out of a hole in the spring and they have unequivocally backed the move. That is to be expected but also of note was a statement on Tuesday from the club’s administrative staff, who made a similar pledge of support for a yes vote.
Interestingly, that statement made the point that the sale of the club doesn’t have to represent the end of Foras but rather a chance to press pause and recharge and still play an active role in how the club is run. Ultimately, that may prove to be the best of both worlds for the club and its supporters.
What Foras members will be voting on this evening is the option for English investment company, Grovemoor, to take over the club and assume its debts for the nominal fee of €1.
Despite calls from the membership in a survey during the summer for a clear business and sporting plan to be revealed before any vote would take place, no plan or proposal has been forthcoming to outline the direction the club would take should the sale go ahead.
Instead, members are being asked this evening to vote to approve a proposal they have not yet seen.
A member of Grovemoor hasn’t been available, to members, supporters, or the media, to answer questions pertaining to the potential takeover, meaning members are still in the dark about key concerns regarding the potential future of the club under Grovemoor Ltd, and the shape it will take as supporters again take a back seat.
One of the key concerns for Foras members is how much influence supporters would have in the future direction of the club should it change hands to private investment – remember the club were in the High Court and fans protested outside the ground over a decade ago under the previous owner before the fans' co-op took control.
The future of the club’s youth structure is another pressing concern; the sell-on clauses of Alan Browne and Sean Maguire saved the club the last time, and finance from young talent is an important income stream for many League of Ireland clubs. Given Preston's history in signing young players from the area, there are fears that the club’s youth structure may be changed to a ‘feeder’ system for the Championship club, owned by Grovemoor and Hemmings.
And given the history of so-called ‘white knight’ owners - not only in Cork but across the League of Ireland - there are major concerns among members about the exit strategy, should Grovemoor decide to release the club from their portfolio in the future.
While Foras members are being asked to vote in support of the potential future sale of the club to Grovemoor Ltd this evening, the English consortium isn’t the only offer on the table at the moment for the sale of the club.
Should a ‘no’ vote pass today, Grovemoor can still return with an offer, another consortium may step up their bid to take control of the club themselves, or indeed Foras can attempt to fundraise and convince the FAI that the club can survive into the future. Surely a spell in the First Division – where financial pressures aren’t as great – would allow the club to recalibrate away from the spotlight. Bring in a new, hopefully local, investor, and build from the bottom up? However, with the 2021 licencing process already underway, time is of the essence.