In the main, life in the First Division of the Airtricity League is a hand-to-mouth existence — unless a club is lucky enough to have a generous benefactor.
Cobh Ramblers are not so lucky.
Manager Stephen Henderson says profits from a friendly last summer against Norwich went to fix the boiler and buy a new ride-on lawnmower.
Hence, securing Fota Island resort as their main sponsor this season is a godsend.
They were due to play their first home game of the season today at St Colman’s Park against Galway United.
Q. What does the Fota Island sponsorship mean in real terms for a first division club?
Michael O’Donovan: “Any cash coming in is very important. If you leave aside wages, a lot of the outgoings for a first division club are pretty much in line with a Premier League club. There’s still travel to away matches, medical, affiliation fees. The list is fairly substantial. All told it will probably cost us around €300,000 to run the club for the year. It’s always difficult to keep the head above water, hence partnerships like this are massive — and they lift the morale of the club. The last five years have been tough, the first two we were back in League of Ireland football, still labouring under a lot of old debt which we have now addressed. The club is a lot better off, better set up than it was six years ago.”
Q. Were things that bad?
Michael O’Donovan: “We came back into the league in 2013. We felt we could work our way out of out. But we were literally amateur in the sense of the players not getting so much as a cent for the first couple of years. We chipped away at the debt, which was a decent-sized six-figure sum but is now very manageable. A lot of that is down to the hard work of the treasurer Lesley Henderson, Stephen’s wife. She’s done a lot of trojan work to get the finances under control.”
Q.What are the key lessons learned from such a traumatic period for the club?
Michael O’Donovan: “You can’t count on money until it’s physically in the club’s bank account. That’s the motto: Don’t live on promises. Lesley is great at making ends meet. If we can get to the point where the gate receipts are a bonus, that extra bit on top, they you are doing well. Because you can’t rely bank on gate receipts. We weren’t even at 500 (spectators per game) last year, and we finished second. The problem, of course, was there was no play-offs last season and that absolutely killed it for fans, because we were a bit behind Waterford. But they had big money behind them, and I still maintain if we had even a quarter of the reputed investment Waterford had, we probably would have won that league.”
Q. You finished second last year. Do Cobh want to go to the Premier Division though?
Michael O’Donovan: “We wouldn’t be here otherwise. But we want to be completely self-sustainable. We won’t make the mistakes that were made in the past where we were paying out crazy money. It’s only in the last few years we’ve got out of that mess. We can’t go back to that. We won’t spend what we don’t have. Obviously if a sugar daddy came in you are not going to send him away but you have to live within your means. Part of our ethos is to develop our own players. We don’t pay wages, and the players know that, Stephen emphasises that to them. But when you are not paying them, we must understand that asking a player to travel the length and breadth of the country on a Friday evening is asking a lot — especially if he is trying to hold down a day job as well.”
Q. Good or bad for Cobh that the neighbours in Cork City are going so well?
Michael O’Donovan: “I think it’s a good thing. There’s a feelgood factor around Cork at the moment, and we have always got on well with City. When you consider where they were in 2010 as a supporters-run club to where they are now, it is the model. One of the best examples of how a supporters-run club can achieve things. We were one of the original members-run clubs but City have led the way in terms of what they have done with the model. If we aspire to that we won’t be far wrong.”
Q. Are you able to sell Cobh to young talent?
Michael O’Donovan: “We can’t go out and pay transfer fees and the big wages. I am not sure it’s what we are about even if we could. There’s a sense of achievement in developing your own players, when you can say ‘we played our part in his development’. It gives everyone a good feeling around the club. It’s the only model we can go after. We don’t have the means to go out and target the best players in the League of Ireland.
Q. Which obviously puts pressure on your scouting and coaching systems...
Michael O’Donovan: “We have some excellent underage coaches, Declan Coleman, Stuart Ashton, Ethan McCarthy at U19 level. They know where all the good players are in Cork and we can offer them the pathway to League of Ireland football. When we say ‘you will get your chance in Cobh’, we deliver on that. There’s a young lad here, James McSweeney, who is only 18 but a man-mountain of a centre half. He’s with us two years already, came from Carrigaline, but his father’s from Cobh originally. He’s one to look out for.”
Q. Is attracting bigger crowds ultimately about winning games?
Michael O’Donovan: “For sure. We are a unique nation in that regard, we jump on things. I’ve been in small towns in the UK, smaller than ours, where the local team gets fantastic support. Even to them, the idea of supporting a Liverpool or Man United above their home town team; it’s not the done thing. But we don’t seem to do that in this country.”
Q. So, sell me the package. I’m a fairweather sports fan...
Michael O’Donovan: “Come down, give us a look, you won’t be disappointed. You will see a really hard-working team of young, talented footballers. None of these guys will earn money to be driving a sports car but they will go through a brick wall for the team and the jersey. There’s a lot of gratitude in that too.”
Q. How much did the away trip to Longford last Saturday (2-2) cost the club?
Michael O’Donovan: "We went on the day. The only overnight we will have this season, probably, is Donegal (Finn Harps). The roads are so much better now anyway. You are talking €1,000 for the bus, physio on board, pre-match meal. We won’t have any change out of €1,500 for the away trips, and there are 14 of them. There is also the U19s, 17s, and 15s playing National League, albeit in regional leagues. The FAI has increased the travel allowances and youth development fund, but it is still a headache for every club.”
Q. Is there any salaried person in the club other than the manager?
Michael O’Donovan: “Our part-time administrator and bar staff are the only paid employees. Players get expenses and we have only one player on a semi-professional contract. We have to adopt that approach to protect ourselves but we are vulnerable because of that — there is nothing to stop any other club coming in and taking our player. OK you get a development fee if he goes on to bigger and better things, but it’s frustrating and it knocks you back. Because have no doubt, the raw talent is there in Cork, it really is.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved