From Italia 90 to one man and his dog. Mark Hoskins explores what took us from a nation obsessed with the beautiful game to one that has turned its back on the terraces and finds there are dedicated fans determined to wrest control back from the money men.
In England, love got the World in Motion and the greatest football song of all time had bucket hats, bingo wings and barmen dancing arm in arm. In Ireland, a nation held it’s breath while mediocre football from lion-hearted Irish, and not-so-Irish, men brought a humble team to the edge of greatness and a rapturous, innocent homecoming unequaled for its outpouring of love before or since. That summer everyone became a football fan. The future of ‘the beautiful game’ on these islands looked rosy. Football became respectable. Money started pouring in. Somewhere along the line, though, the fans became disconnected. Today, football is big business. Manchester United FC, winners of six league titles in the last decade, is valued at $3.3 billion dollars by Forbes magazine. Wayne Rooney has an annual income of €20million. With this success, you’d imagine United’s hardcore support would be very happy; Yet in 2005, a group of supporters opposed to the stewardship of American tycoon, Malcolm Glazer formed a breakaway club, FC United of Manchester, and entered the bottom tier of English football. They’re standing against modern football. The spoils of big sponsorship, TV deals and billionaire buy-outs have only benefited those at the top. Historically big clubs like Leeds United have failed. In 2001, the club took out massive loans, believing that a windfall from UEFA champions league sponsorship was on the way. The gamble, however, didn’t pay off. They failed to qualify for the champions league on two successive occasions and financial implosion followed. They were subsequently relegated. Prior to the crisis, the Leeds United Supporters Trust (LUST) was established by fans to campaign for inclusion in the running of the club. According to Gary Hooper, chairman of LUST, “the largest group of stakeholders in football have been marginalised by the cash influx and involvement of soulless money-orientated owners who seek to push the emotional investment supporters make in their clubs into being a cash cow. That has to stop and its up to us as supporters to influence those who can bring about change.” The trust now has almost ten thousand members and in the long term it aims to secure power for fans at the club. Hooper believes fan-owned clubs can succeed. “The German model has shown they can, look at Swansea and what they have achieved if only with a 20% fan ownership; its time to look at these models seriously with eyes wide open and challenge the profiteers.” But he believes a root and branch reform is necessary from local to global levels of the game, “for me at present only UEFA genuinely listens to supporters and I applaud the work done under Michel Platini. FIFA is globally unrepresentative of any stakeholder in the game any more and with corruption rife, policy self protecting and questionable at best and the reputations of those who lead the organisation in tatters its time to start again” Irish football is in a sorry state. Despite some impressive results in European competitions over the last decade, domestic clubs have failed to capture the imagination of a supposedly sports obsessed nation. During the noughties, clubs like Bohemians, Shelbourne and Drogheda United, spent relatively vast sums of money chasing the dream of dominating the league here and champions league group stage qualification. What transpired bore remarkable similarities with the wider economy and almost on cue, around 2008, league of Ireland football spiralled into crisis. Dublin City, Sporting Fingal, Galway United and Monaghan United have all gone out of business. Bohs, Cork City and Shels could have joined them but for the efforts of their fans to keep them afloat. The Save Our Bohs initiative raised thousands of euro, while Cork City’s FORAS co-op, effectively reformed the club under fan ownership to ensure top flight football stayed in the rebel city.
At Shelbourne FC, the 1895 Trust has been established to ensure that Dublin’s second oldest club has a future. Niall Farrell, PRO for the 1895 Trust explains its goals are “to ensure responsible stewardship of the history and traditions of Shelbourne FC’, while some are specific, like finding a permanent home for the club, and promoting volunteering within the club. “They all add up to ensuring that Shelbourne has a stable future. Eventually, we want to work towards a mutually fan owned Shelbourne FC.”
Like Leeds, Shelbourne gambled on European success. Money was poured into the squad. They came close to the Champions League group stages, reaching the third round of the qualifiers in 2005, but it wasn’t enough. Financial implosion and relegation followed. Fan ownership could prevent this situation from recurring. It saved Cork City and has brought Shamrock Rovers back to the top of Irish football after decades without a home.
Farrell recognises the battle Irish football faces, “Kids can grow up now without ever seeing a live football match, and still be ‘hardcore fans’ of a club. The connection between clubs and fans is gone, in a lot of cases. In Ireland, we still see quite close relations between clubs and fans – but the vast majority of Irish fans support British clubs. That means that the direct link between a club and its community, which was a major driver in most clubs’ histories, can no longer exist. People say football is the global game, but the spread of televised, hyped-up football is killing the sport in many countries. The alternative, for me at least, is clear. Fan ownership makes sure that there will always be a link between fans and the club.”
It should be noted though, that fan ownership alone is not a panacea. Bohemian FC in Phibsborough, has been a fan owned club since it’s foundation in 1890. Like Shelbourne, Bohs had a financial meltdown at the end of the last decade, the two clubs having won eight out of ten league titles between them in the noughties. The future for football may lie in seeing it not as an investment opportunity, but as a resource for fans and communities alike, a labour of love that has the power to get the world in motion.
Hooper’s words ring true for many Irish football fans – “I believe the FA can be improved and should be encouraged to look again carefully and closely at its grass roots…the game belongs to those who invest most and you cannot put a price on the emotional investment made by fans.”