How the Rebel Army Saved Cork City

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Following their sensational FAI Cup win, we’re reposting this article looking at the growing phenomenon of supporter-owned football clubs in Ireland, with the spotlight on Cork City. Borne from the official supporters club, the FORAS trust became the saviours of the southern giant as she flirted with extinction. The Turners Cross outfit are now the driving force in Ireland behind an EC initiative on football governance.

Niamh O’Mahony is a former Board and Trust member at Cork City and is the project manager of the EC Improving Football Governance through Supporter Involvement and Community Ownership project.

What drove you and others to get involved?

1467274_w2The origins of FORAS can be traced back to the club’s official supporters club. It was during the time of Brian Lennox, a respected chairman and FORAS member today, that the idea was first mooted but it was not until August of 2008 that the trust was ready to launch.

Unfortunately, the club had come under the ownership of an investment fund by the name of Arkaga in the interim period and went into examinership around the same time. The purpose of the supporters’ trust – which was set up initially with the objective of being supportive to the club – quickly became a focus for supporter action. The trust set up hardship funds for both the players and staff for instance and also actively engaged with the examiner throughout the examinership period.

The thought of losing your football club is a very powerful fear and supporters’ trusts allow supporters to come together in a legally-based and formal way to harness the idea of community ownership. FORAS, which now owns Cork City Football Club, is a co-operative and operates under a One Man, One Vote principle. Anyone can get involved by paying the fees and if you’re involved for more than a year, you can run for election to the Board.

That ideal – that people can come together and collective match what private business and individuals have offered football for decades – is what led me personally to get involved, and I know it has been the same for others over time. We, essentially, are the gaffers – and though trustees are not directly involved in day-to-day decision making, they have a huge influence on the ethos of the club and where both it and FORAS are headed in the future.

Could you elaborate on the involvement with the UK and European fans projects?

Pic: Cork City FC Facebook

Pic: Cork City FC Facebook

Having successfully entered the Airtricity League First Division as Cork City FORAS Co-op (until the club later bought the intellectual property of Cork City Football Club and its name) in 2010, clubs and supporters groups around the country started to get in touch and ask for advice and support.

The trust had been in touch with Supporters Direct and, along with representatives of that organisation, embarked on some preliminary case work around the country in late 2010. It was on the back of that involvement that FORAS was asked to be part of a group that was to apply for European Commission funding in July 2011.

The proposal was approved in October the same year – and FORAS became the lead organisation in Ireland for the Improving Football Governance through Supporter Involvement and Community Ownership project. There are seven other countries – nine organisations – involved in total, but the Irish project has gone really, really well to date.

A survey of League of Ireland and Irish football fans was conducted online and around a number of grounds last Autumn, a two-day conference was held in Cork in November and we have recently launched a handbook aimed at helping clubs and supporters’ organisations become more proactive about their own situations.

There are great examples to learn from in League of Ireland football and we are hopeful that the project will be the founding stone for a more sustained level of co-operation and support between supporters-run clubs and groups and all other stakeholders in Irish football.

We can also learn lessons from our European counterparts – more than anything it’s time that League of Ireland clubs realise that we doesn’t have to do battle on our own.

Cork almost went to the wall a couple of years ago; was that where the Trust was borne from? 

It’s a common myth that supporters’ trusts are simply takeover vehicles though. Our initial objective was to raise funds and build an asset that could be shared with the club at minimal costs; however, events over took everyone and we now find ourselves owning and running our football club on a daily basis.

The trust has over 650 members today and remains true to another founding principle – the guardianship of League of Ireland football in the county. The EC Project mentioned above, however, is an example of how the trust still has a very relevant role to play alongside running the football club.

This seems to be the way forward not just for Irish clubs, but football in Europe as a whole?

CorkCityvCliftonvilleFeb13_largeIn short, yes. Supporters Direct research has shown that having fans involved in the game in meaningful ways has a number of significant benefits including better financial stability, transparency and higher rates of active citizenship (volunteers to you and me).

We are hearing a lot about German football at the moment with Bayern and Dortmund in the Champions League final, and while the Bundesliga still has its own issues, the fact that clubs are members clubs is a very significant factor in the league’s set up. There is also a similar situation in Sweden where all sporting organisations must be owned at least 50% +1 by its members.

However, these types of rules and regulations – even though they seem ideal to many of us in Ireland and the UK – are under pressure from private interests, many of whom are keen to make money from a sport that has so much more to give and was never intended for profit making.

And that is why we are seeing increased calls for better supporter involvement in football across Europe – a position supported by Uefa and the European Commission amongst others. Take Spain’s La Liga as another example. Outside the big two of Barcelona and Real Madrid, Spanish football is genuinely in crisis – to the point that the story of FORAS and what is happening in the League of Ireland was seen as an inspiration at an event that I attended and spoke at in Madrid back in January.

Football was never meant to be a battle of the biggest wage budgets. Authorities and football associations are aware of this issue and acting through initiatives such as the Financial Fair Play. However, there is much more that can be done and supporters, as the most important stakeholder in the game, need to be involved in what happens next.

Is the future of the club in further improving the stadium to attract fans, or developing more of a production line from youth teams, or is the the model of a fan-owned club something that might ultimately swell supporter numbers?

I’m going to borrow a line from a fellow former board members, Sonya O’Neill, to answer this one. At Cork City FC, the reality is that the supporters are the most ambitious owners that the club has ever had.

We want everything for our football club – a great stadium to play in, fantastic training facilities, big crowds, quality players, a great youths system, community projects and initiatives, strong player development, a community-orientated ethos, transparency, openness, to be an integral part of the sporting and social scene in the county and to have success on the field. However, the latter will not be sought at any cost.

There are no white knights in Irish football, no American tycoons and no Middle Eastern billionaires. It’s the supporters that are saving some of the biggest names in Irish domestic football and with proper governance and legal structures behind them, the future is starting to look brighter and brighter…

Find out more at corkcityfc.ie

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