Money isn’t everything you know

An article I wrote for ‘Look Left’ magazine. Published last month.

When Premier League leaders Manchester City recently announced record losses of £195 million (€226 million), football observers might have expected an outcry from supporters.

However, in a sad reflection of the times that football finds itself in, fans, players and many pundits swallowed the club’s line – that the figures ‘won’t be repeated’ and this ‘demonstrates the level of investment being made by owner Sheikh Mansour’ – all too easily.

The race to the top now seems dependent on getting a rich benefactor that can plough endless streams of money into a sporting entity, transforming its ability to compete overnight. A quieter revolution is taking place away from the main headlines – that of supporter ownership and the idea that people can come together and own and run their club under the co-operative ‘One share, One vote’ model.

Leading the way in Ireland is the Friends of the Rebel Army Society, better known as FORAS or the owners of Cork City Football Club. Initially conceived as a vehicle that would allow fans to make a positive contribution towards the club – by creating an asset such as training facilities which would then be leased to the club – the co-operative had the ultimate aim of attaining some sort of shareholding.

Events at Cork City overtook FORAS, however. The club went into examinership in 2008 and though it later exited the process, financial difficulties throughout the following season led the trust to apply for a licence to participate in the Airtricity League for 2010.

The move was precautionary at the time but outstanding debts forced the holding company of Cork City FC back before the courts in early 2010 and when the FAI refused to give the club any licence on the eve of the new season – separately awarding FORAS permission to compete in the First Division – the race was on to get a team together in nine days.

“That whole time seems 20 years ago now,” FORAS board member Sonya O’Neill recalls. “The days in the run up to our first ever game (away to Derry City) were torture – wondering if we’d have enough players or a manager. We eventually got on a bus with the fans but once we arrived, we were hauled aside and told some of the players weren’t eligible.

“Those days are typical of the highs and lows that happen but winning the First Division this season has also shown what can be achieved when people pull together. During the Celtic Tiger, everything was judged by economic success; this has made it clear that there is huge strength in people coming together and giving a small amount on a continuous basis.”

Cork City FORAS Co-op finished mid-table at the end of its first campaign and, having bought the intellectual property of Cork City Football Club from the liquidator appointed to dispose of the previous regime’s assets, returned with its rightful name and a stronger squad in 2011. Promotion and a league title were secured on the final night of the season and came just days after another supporters-owned club, Shamrock Rovers, sealed Premier Division honours.

“There’s a cliche in football that clubs must be run like a business,” Sonya adds. “But the most important thing is that they are run well. We just try and approach things sensibly. We farm out work we know other people can do better – accountants, solicitors – and we have a huge amount of expertise on the board and amongst our members.

“We take our time with decisions and listen to the collective voice of the people that have the club’s best interests at heart. These are people that have been through the mill with the club previously and their priority is seeing it secure. Supporter ownership is something gathering momentum internationally and I wouldn’t be surprise to see two or three more Irish clubs run by their supporters in the next year or two.

“This issue isn’t exclusive to football either. The world’s economic problems are largely down to a small group of people, who had control over a lot of money. The world was reliant on what they did and because they failed, it’s been down to everybody to fix the problem by paying that little bit extra. Ordinary people are the key to sustainability.”

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