WHILE Cork City supporters’ trust Foras was officially incorporated in 2008, two years before taking over the running of the club, the first seeds were sown five years before that.
Seán Ó Conaill was a member of the new fan-owned entity in 2010 but, while that was the first time many people became aware of the organisation, there were deeper roots.
“I always laugh when people say that Foras came in overnight and took over – actually, it took seven years to be an overnight success,” he says.
“The first steps were taken in 2003 and then it wasn’t until 2008 that it was incorporated. I remember when [general manager] Aidan Tynan came in and there was a meeting in the Telecom Club where he mentioned a stadium costing €40m – myself and Jonathan O’Brien, who I didn’t know that well, we were saying, ‘Let’s get rolling now guys.’
“Incorporating Foras was only the start of the journey, really. The next couple of years were very interesting.”
Ó Conaill’s first tentative ventures into exploring fan involvement in the running of a club came as a law student in UCC in 2003.
“Myself and the late Pat Shine were both studying law at the time,” he says.
“Pat did it by evening and I did it by day – we were very different in outlook but we became great friends and we were always ball-hopping each other.
“This was the first time when supporters were taking over English clubs, in the wake of the ITV Digital collapse – there had been the odd trust here and there but now you had AFC Wimbledon, FC United of Manchester and, one that’s forgotten by a lot of people, the Fulham Supporters’ Trust.
“The internet was different back then and, between emailing people and just finding stuff online, I was able to get the full documents for FC United, Wimbledon and Fulham. My thinking was that it’d be great for City.
“At the time, things were great. We had Brian Lennox, the dream owner, but I’d talk about it with Pat – what happens if he’s gone, what happens if he gets sick of the abuse, what happens if he gets hit by a bus?
“Our thinking was that, if there some sort of supporters’ organisation to help him, then this wouldn’t happen. The original name we had was Rebel Army Supporters’ Trust – Rast – and Pat said that was a terrible name!
“Some of the existing rules come from the document that we drafted as law students.”
In those early days, Foras was seen as a safeguard, a fallback option if disaster struck. Few expected that Foras would actually own City, but Ó Conaill felt the crucial thing was that it had been put in place in good time.
“Part of it is that you just set up and you’re there and you’re ready,” he says.
“It’s like in a humanitarian crisis – when you starting doing an air-drop of food, it’s already too late. If you wake up one day and you need a supporters’ trust, it’s too late.
“In a way, it didn’t really matter – the law requires you to have seven members to form a co-operative so we did that and there was a slow, organic process. Then, what you started to see was that, every now and then, there’d be a new crisis and people would wonder why there wasn’t more of a fans’ voice.
“I’d still be of the view that you can’t really ‘own’ a football club. The club belongs to the people of Cork – Foras are the current custodians of that and maybe Mr [Trevor] Hemmings and Grovemoor will be the next ones but you can’t own it.
“It’s like the Cork GAA teams, fair enough the county board run them but they’re the people’s team. We had to be ready to step in and take over on behalf of the people of Cork, as opposed to taking over for ourselves, and get buy-in for that.
“It was a case of asking people if they wanted a say in how the club was run – and a say was what we were looking for, we didn’t want to run the thing!”
But events dictated otherwise and, when City were refused a licence for the 2010 season, all of a sudden Foras had to spring into action to create a team ready for the first division.
“In one way, it was mad, but in another way it was planned for,” Ó Conaill says.
“There had been a Foras members’ meeting six months earlier where we said that we’d put in an application, only on condition that Tom Coughlan’s company didn’t get a licence.
“I actually met Fran Gavin and a guy called Pádraig Smith, who’s with the Colorado Rapids now. Fran gets a lot of bad press but he always gave us a full hearing and never dismissed us as a rabble of fans.
“When it happened, we were ready in one way but in another we weren’t ready at all. We made a number of very silly mistakes – the bus we hired for the Derry game was too small, for instance – but to get to that point we had a lot of work done.
“We had learned a lot the season before from working with Tom Coughlan. Setting up the match-night committee meant that we got a great insight into what the costs were of running a match and what was required.
“We also had people who had a lot of experience, like Joe Hurley and Gerry Desmond. It was interesting, but at the same time I wouldn’t like to go back there!”
One good decision made was the decision to hire Tommy Dunne as manager and Ó Conaill credits him with a very positive influence in the early years.
“I was working so much on the admin side, I almost forgot about the football,” he says, “I just told Éanna to text me when we had 11 players!
“In hindsight, looking back, Tommy was perfect – Pep Guardiola couldn’t have got City rolling as well as he did.
“He almost over-achieved that first year. We were never going to get promoted but he almost snuck a play-off. One of the things that people don’t give him enough credit for was that he got the organisation, too.
“He came from a real footballing tradition and he knew that we weren’t there just because we wanted to win matches but also because we wanted the club to be there in 20 years’ time.”
And, ultimately, that’s why selling the club need not mean that Foras comes to an end. The need for a safeguard will still exist and Ó Conaill hopes that the organisation will remain.
“Nobody buys a life-jacket planning to use it,” he says, “but you still buy it.
“Foras owning Cork City was an accident of history, it wasn’t supposed to happen, and some of things in the way that Foras is set up aren’t right for running a club.
“If I was doing it again tomorrow, I wouldn’t have made it a co-operative, for example, because there are certain things around that. It would have co-operative principles but it wouldn’t be a co-operative.
“But, in terms of Foras being there for guardianship – I don’t see that changing. The thing about private ownership in football is that it ends. Bar the odd exception, no club has stayed in the same hands forever.
“At some point in the future, Foras might be needed again so why not have it there? The big thing is that it needs to be there. What you don’t want is for it not to be there and having to be set up in a panic, because it’s already too late.
“When we were buying the assets from the liquidator, the solicitor, Ciarán Desmond, had Irish and he suggested that we do it in Irish.
“I think it was a legal first but it meant reduced costs for us. You harness little things like that as a community organisation that you mightn’t get otherwise.”
Kevin Lynch (2008-2010), Cathal O’Driscoll (2008-2010), John O’Sullivan (2008-2011), Sonya O’Neill (2008-2012), Jonathan O’Brien (2008-2012), Paul Hartnett (2008-2013), Kevin McCarthy (2008-2011), Seán Ó’Conaill (2009-2010), Catríona Boyle (2009-2011), Patrick Shine (2009-2011, 2018-2018), Pat Lyons (2010-2012, 2013-2019), Joe Hurley (2010-2011), Laura Barry (2010-2013), Niamh O’Mahony (2010-2013, 2015-2016), Pat Healy (2011-2014), Stephen O’Callaghan (2011-2014), Collin Power (2012-2015), Mick Ring (2012-2015), Erika Ní Thuama (2012-2015), John Kennedy (2012-2018), Darren O’Keeffe (2013-2019), Wyon Stansfeld (2013-2019), Alan Mooney (2013-2015), Derek Lynch (2015-2018), Mike Derham (2015-2019), Shane O’Connor (2016-2019), Declan Carey (2018-ongoing), Damien Sreenan (2019), Conor Hallahan (2019-ongoing), John Paul Clifford (2019-ongoing), Garrett Fleming (2019-ongoing), Colm McAuliffe (2019-ongoing), David Alton (2019-ongoing)