Throughout the most trophy-laden era in the city’s soccer history, just 100 fans in Cork owned season tickets. No misprint. One hundred. United made a loss every single year of their existence and they were disbanded due to financial woes before the start of the 1948 league. Within a fortnight, Cork Athletic had sprung up in their stead and the pattern began again.
Thirty-four years later, a different incarnation of Cork United ran into more money trouble. To solve its cash problems, the club had gambled on a money-spinning friendly against a Manchester City side whose biggest attraction was million-pound player Trevor Francis. I can’t remember whether it was the inclement weather or the failure of Francis to tog out but I do know the turn-out was very poor on the day. United incurred more debt when they thought they’d clear some and within months, they were gone from the league again.
The history lesson is appropriate because this week of all weeks it’s imperative to remember that in the League of Ireland only the names change, the story is always the same: financial mismanagement and miscalculations brings club to brink of extinction. It has been ever thus. In Cork and just about everywhere else too.
There’s no point in slinging mud at those involved in Cork City’s embarrassment. The list is too long and the targets too deserving. It’s not just a Cork problem anyway. This is much bigger than that. It’s the simple matter of the League of Ireland model being broken, fractured, and unviable. Choose whatever word you like because they all apply. It doesn’t work. It hasn’t for some time.
There is no joy in saying this. There is no satisfaction, even for those of us who’ve been pointing out for years and years that so many clubs were living beyond their financial means and flirting with disaster. It still needs to be said though. Again and again. At least until people take it in.
The country cannot sustain a professional soccer league. It couldn’t before the Celtic Tiger. It couldn’t during the Celtic Tiger and it certainly can’t now. The FAI, who haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory in the way they’ve handled the City debacle, need to tear the competition down and start anew on a semi-professional basis.
Better that the nation has its own league where players earn a couple of hundred quid and train twice a week than have this constant bankruptcy shuffle. The players, some of whom collectively milked this thing for all it was worth, can either agree to the new situation or go and try their luck across the water.
There is no other way. This searching for multi-millionaire benefactors and talk of supporters’ trusts taking ownership is all very well. Either situation counts for naught until everybody admits the money isn’t there to pay the players on a full-time basis. Any talk that moving back to semi-pro status endangers European progress is bunkum too.
Firstly, this obsession with the fairytale of potential Champions’ League qualification should have died with Ollie Byrne, the epitome of the spend-first pay later economics that bedevil the league. Secondly, it is possible to be a superfit and competitive amateur athlete. Ask any of the Gaelic footballers and hurlers who are currently far fitter than a few League of Ireland stalwarts trousering four figures each week.
There was a time in the mid-nineties when the senior rugby clubs of Ireland went a little bonkers with money. Professionalism hit the sport and the alickadoos got out the check books and began paying serious money to players and coaches to try to push their teams over the top. Smart businessmen that most of them are, it wasn’t very long before they all realized this policy was, even in a game awash with wealth, completely unsustainable.
Somebody in the FAI needs to make tough decisions of this ilk and to bring a modicum of common sense to bear. Whatever happens to Cork City on Wednesday, everybody already knows the next financial disaster will happen sooner (especially if Bohemians don’t win the league) or later.
Despite all this, the domestic league is in a potentially strong position just now. The recession should cause many of the weekenders to cut back on their trips to Liverpool and Manchester and London. There may even be a fall-off in subscriptions to Sky Sports and Setanta. Against that background, a club offering a cheaper, more accessible, and obviously more authentic match experience just down the road might well benefit.
The problem is that the very casuals Cork City and the rest might attract see headlines of the type that have been generated by this latest trip through the courts and think these outfits aren’t worth the bother. What else to think when the newspapers are full of talk about them being wound up? This is why financial prudence is so badly needed.
Cork City and all the potential Cork Citys in the league need to offer consistency and a guarantee of future survival if they are to bring in new customers (hate to use that word but it is what these fans are).
See, City will always attract most of the 2,000 or so who represent the hardcore of their support now. These loyalists will always be there but to get in another thousand every second week the club first needs to look like it’s going to survive in the long run. Here’s hoping it does. In a semi-professional set-up.