TOM COUGHLAN is having morning coffee and a scone in an almost empty pub by the Lee when the bread man comes in with the daily delivery.
A friend of the Cork City chairman, he comes over to say hello.
“I’ve lovely fresh breads if you want them,” he says.
“What have you got?”
“That’s not the kind of dough I need,” Coughlan shoots back, almost choking with laughter on his jam and butter scone.
It’s the morning after this week’s friendly between Cork City and Celtic at Turner’s Cross and, not for the first time in the former’s recent embattled history, dough of the folding kind is in short supply. It was confirmation that this glamour fixture would take place which, in time added on in the High Court, had seen the Cork City chairman pull one final rabbit out of the hat and source the sum of just over €200,000 which meant the club could settle its tax bill and avoid being wound up. Coughlan still declines to say who put up the bail money – “It was just business we got done,” he says – but it now is another debt which has to be paid.
To that end, Wednesday began promisingly, with some 30 tables at a grand a table taken up for a pre-match fundraising lunch in the Rochestown Park Hotel. But, come kick-off that evening, Turner’s Cross was no more than half-full as only 3,500 people watched a second-string Celtic beat City 1-0.
“It was a positive day but it wasn’t as good as we’d hoped,” Coughlan admits, “so we’re behind the eight ball again. But we’re a resourceful bunch of guys and we’ll turn it around.”
More than that, Coughlan, seemingly an eternal optimist, is convinced that, with the dramatic evasion of that winding up order, the worst is over for Cork City.
“Look, we’ve turned the corner,” he insists. “And the club is not going to get into a situation like that again. The worst is over because the stuff we have inherited is over. And the end of this season will be the very end of all that. Having said that, we have to constantly watch our costs.”
The Cork businessman, who took over the running of City when it came out of examinership, maintains he’s “thoroughly enjoying” his role, a statement which bespeaks some resilience considering the battering the club has been through off the pitch. On a personal level, he says the lowest point was the morning of that long day in court when Revenue initially refused to come to an agreement and Coughlan, his face buried in his hands, heard Justice Mary Laffoy say it looked like she would have no option but to wind up the club.
“That was very, very tough,” he says. “And it was tough on my family, on my dad, my brothers my sisters, on my wife and kids. I don’t want to let them down. I don’t want this club to die – and I certainly don’t want it to die on my watch.”
When City meet another cash-strapped club, Dundalk, at Oriel Park this evening, it will be a sobering reminder that financial problems in League of Ireland are by no means confined to Cork.
“The League of Ireland is dysfunctional,” is Coughlan’s view. “There are more people playing soccer than any other sport but we’re not seeing that in League of Ireland.”
He acknowledges the impact of televised English football is huge but thinks the game here doesn’t always help itself either, citing the date set for Cork’s recent Setanta Cup meeting with Cliftonville.
“It was put on by the mandarins at the same time that Manchester United were playing Arsenal,” he points out. “Cork City playing Cliftonville just cannot compete with Manchester United playing Arsenal. So we have to be more creative about how we cope with things like that. The FAI are doing magnificent work in the community but it probably needs to be tightened in terms of the benefits of it. We’ve got these regional development officers and schools of excellence but I don’t see it in the League of Ireland.”
He also suggests that the FAI’s running of the league needs to take more account of the routine harsh realities faced by the clubs.
“Certain things about running matches are too expensive, like security,” he says. “A lot of the club licensing needs to be looked at. It can’t be a diktat.”
Addressing his own mistakes since taking over at Cork, Coughlan believes his biggest was to commit to unsustainable costs.
“We honoured all our commitments to back pay which people said was naïve but I think it’s important we have honour in the thing,” he says.
But he also acknowledges the subsequently recurring problem of late payment of staff wages is not acceptable either.
“Absolutely not. Wages are critical to everybody. It’s just we got blindsided by this wave of (Revenue) money. We’ve dealt with that. But the reality is, in every sport, gates, revenue and sponsorship are down. We’re a microcosm of what is happening in the whole economy. But we seem to have become the public face of it.”
From now on, he says the club must cut its cloth accordingly.
“When we get to the end of season, everything is up for review. We’re doing financial analysis now to see exactly what we can afford next season. We’re looking in detail at projected gates and the reality is they are not going to be big. And because of the environment we’re in, there will have to be changes that may not be palatable for everyone.”
And despite become the focal point for popular criticism of how the club is being run, Coughlan says he wants to work with supporters group FORAS and other interested parties to find a way forward. “Our goal is exclusively the survival of Cork City. The sustainability of the club is about a group of people running the football club and that should be supporter-driven. My ambition is that Cork City will be owned by the people of Cork. And it will happen. You’re going to have differences of opinion, people will fall off the wagon, come back onto the wagon and that’s the way the train works. I’ll probably fall out of favour but as the headline in your paper said: name one popular chairman.”
And even as he warns that change is inevitable in how City goes about its business next season, Coughlan is still hoping that, on the pitch, the club can end this troubled season on a high and go on from there.
“We’ll have only seven players under contract at the end of the season so we’re in for a lot of change,” he says. “We’d like to keep Paul Doolin. We’d like to keep everybody. Dan Murray and the players have been magnificent through all this, as their performances have shown. I think we’ve something special going on and we’re only starting. If we beat Dundalk, we’re five points off the top.
“We haven’t given up on the league. We haven’t given up on anything. What do they say? What won’t kill you makes you stronger.”
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