CORK CITY to the core, Declan Carey ticks a lot of boxes as the chairman of the club.
He comes from a family of eight and was introduced to City by way of a friendly with Leeds back in the early ‘90s. The Carey’s late father had the classic Cork grá for all sports but City-Leeds was the spark for Trevor and his younger brother Declan to fall in with the Rebel Army.
City came close to league glory in 1999 and by the time they’d get over the line, Declan was involved in running the website. A succession of awards followed for that and Carey was in the right place to assist as a fan-club member when Foras saved Cork soccer. He’s had a hands-on role since, though never expected to progress to his current position.
“I never had any great ambition to be involved on the board and certainly not chairman but it just developed over time. The social media and online side of things opened it up for me, that was where I was able to help Cork City and it was just a natural step then to come on board.
“Now, in my job with Amazon, I’m able to bring aspects of that to the board. It’s important for clubs to have their fingers on the pulse in terms of what’s happening in the general business world.”
The northsider is following in the footsteps of John O’Sullivan, Mick Ring, Jonathan O’Brien and Pat Lyons as the chair of the club in the age of fan-ownership. There are five newcomers on the board this term.
“It’s unusual and while it’s a learning curve there are full-time employees who are the people who ensure the wheel keeps turning for Cork City. Paul (Wycherley) is the Commercial Manager, Éanna (Buckley) organises match-day, there are people running the social media, it’s evolved completely from us selling programmes outside the ground or scrounging around week-to-week. It’s a longer-term view now.”
While former Irish international Niall Quinn’s suggestion that clubs in the League of Ireland need to try and attract investment, Carey is a firm believer in the fan-based model.
“The likes of Pat Shine [who sadly passed away last year] were key to forming Foras in 2008. The initial ambition was to have a 10% stake and some say in the club but when the Celtic Tiger died a sad death our money was all that was left to keep it afloat.
“Investors can come in but as we well know, they’re called investors for a reason. We tend to budget for the worst-case scenario in terms of European money but to be prudent you have to.”
While John Caulfield’s charges are back to the grind of the League of Ireland this Friday night away to Pat’s, casual supporters are attracted to glamour, top-of-the-table battles with Dundalk, visits from Shamrock Rovers, and mid-summer European ties.
“For our club, we need to be consistent and set realistic goals as a team but also as a club. We need to be getting into Europe every year, challenging for trophies.
“The buzz around the city when you’re playing a European game is incredible. It’s one time when Cork City are guaranteed to be the centre of attention and will also sell-out the Cross. There’s the pride of Cork at stake when you’re taking on a European team.”
The Cross is the best-attended ground in the country when the team are on a roll but Carey acknowledges the “challenge is trying to get someone who will come on board for a European night to attend more league games, in time maybe become a season-ticket holder or even join Foras if you’re that fanatical”.
He has converted his own partner Antoinette to the cause, but it’s not always easy.
Foras has 580 members and overall the club is in rude health. There are underage teams from U13 upwards, a solid female section and an amputee team heading for European action next. The support base has steadily expanded, though a dip in form could test that.
“There are buses coming up from Killarney, Clonakilty, west Cork in general, there’s a bus from Fermoy, we’ve to look beyond the city now. John O’Sullivan brings supporters down from Clonmel regularly and Cian Bargary and Cian Murphy, two very promising young players, are from Tipperary. That type of reach is very encouraging.
“It will be very unusual to be in a situation like we had when Seanie Maguire was banging in goals and we had such a big lead in the league. It was very popular to be seen at Turner’s Cross around then.”
Maguire was a phenom but one area of concern is why more players haven’t come through from the underage ranks, with Conor McCarthy the only regular to graduate from the U19 crop that held their own with Roma in 2016. Of course, Preston star Alan Browne spent time with City’s underage, via Ringmahon Rangers, before heading cross-channel.
“Aaron Drinan and Chiedozie Ogbene are currently in the UK and they would have been two of the stars in 2016. It is difficult, realistically, to bring through U19s on a wider scale when you’re going up against a midfield of Robbie Benson and Shields. You can understand why John (Caulfield) is conscious of the physicality of the league.
“Ideally, we want to maximise the talent in the ranks. Bodychef are vital in terms of nutrition and Colin Healy is now the academy director, as well as being U19 coach, and we’ll see the fruits of that over the next couple of years. You’ve McNulty, Conor McCarthy, Garry Buckley, Cummins up front, Shane Griffin, Gearóid Morrissey, Seán McLaughlin, Alan Bennett is club captain and so on. There’s still a Cork core there.”
In an ideal scenario, City would have facilities comparable to Legia Warsaw or steady success like Rosenborg, the teams who knocked them out of Europe in 2018. Yet, the League of Ireland operates on a far smaller scale. The club always trends online when there’s a bit of drama at Turner’s Cross, and the ‘brand’ is strong, but they must be pragmatic too.
“We have had to adjust our budget, everyone knows that. Our deal with Adidas is working out very well and a retro jersey we released last week sold very well. We try to do a lot more strategic releases. We can’t be caught up in trying to sell all our jerseys from the club shop. Even though it gives you a greater profit margin, that’s short-term thinking.
“Our shirts are in the UCC visitors centre now and we’re working on getting them into the airport through our commercial partnership. You absolutely have to have a new jersey out for Christmas, in terms of cashflow. It’s the same with season-ticket sales.”
Naturally, he’ll be enthralled by the on-field action this campaign but his priorities have adjusted.
“There’s no more shouting at the referee anyway! It’s amazing about how it works because while I was disappointed about losing to Dundalk as a fan, I was also thinking about what impact it could have on our gate recipients for the home game against Waterford.”
Last season was a disappointment on the field for Cork City, coming down from the high of a domestic double to fall short against Dundalk in the major competitions.
The John Caulfield era has been ultra-consistent, with the club finishing in the top two every season, but being brutally honest the squad doesn’t look as deep or talented as it previously did.
For Carey, there’s no reason to be concerned about the campaign, even if the opening game before the league begins tonight ended in a 2-1 home loss in the President’s Cup final to their perennial rivals Dundalk.
“Is it a transitional period? Hopefully not.
“We were excellent in the second half against Dundalk and Daire O’Connor was an obvious bright spark. He was highly-rated when we signed him from UCD but he still had to show he could do it against the best.”
In the opening phase of what will be a three-year term as the Foras-elected chairman of City, the northsider is banking on some new faces in the squad compensating for the departure of some gifted ballers like Kieran Sadlier and Steven Beattie. City have also lost Barry McNamee, to Derry, and John Dunleavy, after a run of devastating injuries.
“There’s a lot to be optimistic about. St Pat’s and Shamrock Rovers look very strong but they still have to make up a gap to us. We have lost a good core of players, the likes of Sadlier and Beattie especially, but in terms of the starting 11 we still have a talented team, with a nice bit of experience.”
Carey makes the valid point that even when recruiting players who have made their mark in smaller League of Ireland clubs there is a different dynamic when you’ve to deliver in front of the biggest crowds in the country at Turner’s Cross.
“There’s a lot of pressure performing in front of at least 3,000 fans every week in the Cross, when you’re expected to win. It’s different when you’re the away team. Some players step up to that and I’m sure it’ll be the same over the season.”
“You’ve to filter out the noise because if you read through threads or a forum or on Twitter you can get a great insight into what the core fanbase think. There can be some real nuggets of information in there.
“Any project we work on there is a section with ‘lessons learned’ on it and you have to face up to any mistakes you’ve made. Once you acknowledge them you can move on. Those processes work in business and it’s the exact same with Foras.”
The new chairman clubs must be proactive in creating interest in the League of Ireland and tapping into all online options.
Carey recently took over the chair for a three-year term but comes from a background of developing City’s website and social media presence.
“If you look at the initiatives which are coming in this season, a move towards online streaming and so on, that comes from the people involved with the clubs. I think the league is willing to adapt and learn from the clubs themselves.
“A couple of years ago, the FAI streamed the President’s Cup live, it was the same with a cup semi-final against Shamrock Rovers, streamed on Facebook Live. It didn’t help last weekend that it was a Six Nations rugby day and that was RTÉ’s priority.
“There’s been a change in staff in the FAI’s marketing team recently but it seems an obvious one to stream the President’s Cup every year. The Collingwood Cup was streamed live recently.”
There was frustration at the main broadcaster’s seeming disinterest in the clash with Dundalk last weekend. Carey doesn’t see the value in being caught up in issues that are essentially outside of the club’s control.
“RTÉ might only have shown 15 seconds of the goals from the President’s Cup final on the news but we have to be proactive. It’s difficult for RTÉ because, at times, the league doesn’t look well on television if you’ve an empty stand up the country somewhere with the camera pointed into it. When Turner’s Cross is full there’s no better venue for a televised game and the interest is there.
“Sky Sports are the strongest (subscription) package but we’re unlikely to see them picking up any rights and in terms of eyes on the product, RTÉ is far more important. A lot of people only have Soarview and the lower channels always draw more viewers.”
The 31-year-old feels the FAI have done well in guiding clubs in terms of generating local publicity, even if there isn’t an overall connection with the average sports fan.
“I think the FAI have been very supportive of the clubs, even in organising media packs, helping clubs to send match previews to papers, to improve their web design. Not everyone has the backing we have or the structures.
“Everyone who is interested in sport in Cork knows the basics of Munster’s season, the ins and outs of the GAA in terms of the league and championship, whereas there just isn’t the same awareness of the League of Ireland. A lot of people aren’t sure when it starts and finishes.”
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