THE idea of being in a position of responsibility for your football club is probably more glamorous than the reality, but ultimately it’s a labour of love.
Niamh O’Mahony holds the distinction of being the first person elected to the board of management of Foras at the 2010 AGM, two years after the trust was officially set up.
“One of the things that changes when you get on the board is that you see everything through financial glasses,” she says.
“If you’re at the Cross at about half past five and it starts to rain, it’s a case of, ‘Oh, for God’s sake!’
“One of the things I love most about football is seeing young players at underage and watching them come through, but then you see that so-and-so from such an English club has put himself down on the list to come in.
“There’s a very different side to it and it’s financial doping. When you start looking at football in general, it’s a bit disheartening. There’s an academic in the UK called John Beech and I remember him saying that you can do everything right and as you’re supposed to, but if you’re working in an environment where the league itself is not sustainable, that’s a challenge.
“Things might just not work out — we know the League of Ireland and we know it’s under-funded and facilities are under-funded. When you’re sitting in the stand, you mightn’t consider those things.”
Living in Dublin, Niamh was one of a large band of City ‘exiles’ when Foras got off the ground.
“I would have known Sonya O’Neill and John O’Sullivan from things like the online forum and stuff, but because I was living in Dublin, getting to meetings was a non-runner,” she says.
“We were playing Shamrock Rovers in Tolka Park and John and Sonya met a whole load of us in Kennedy’s and explained the concept, just the idea of doing something collective together.
“It was about bringing the supporters together to be organised, it was never, ‘Let’s take over the club.’ I’m a massive fan of collective action, it’s very empowering and powerful when it’s done in the right way. I moved back to Cork in 2009 and as soon as I did, it was a case of, ‘You’ll come on the board, won’t you?’”
It meant that she was immersed in the role just as Foras took over the club, having to assemble a squad in little over a week after the awarding of a first-division licence shortly before the beginning of the 2010 campaign.
“The objective was to get to the end of the season as pay as many bills as possible along the way!” she laughs.
“It was nothing glamorous and it was hard work. You worry about it because there’s nobody to point finger at — we’re responsible for it. What we found is that, when people interacted with us, they were left with a very positive sense of what Foras was.
“That first year, I think we definitely felt a lot of support from the Cork City supporter base. It was probably when the team was more successful and running for promotion the following year that the city and wider public started getting behind it.
“For a lot of people, they didn’t understand the concept of it, even though Sligo Rovers had been member-run for 20 years, Shamrock Rovers were there, Bohemians are member-run.
“People are surprised if you say that half of the clubs in the Premier Division in 2020 are fan-owned, as you had Finn Harps there as well.
“Outside of the UK and Ireland, they call it community-ownership because they don’t have the co-operative model — they’re less focused on the shareholder but rather the absolute entitlement of members to be involved in having a say.”
There were of course ups and downs. Like many Foras members, Niamh ranks the 2011 first-division title-decider as her favourite memory — having to combine celebrating on the pitch after with looking after a box containing the top prize for a lottery Foras was running, as well as meeting her future sister-in-law for the first time (her first experience of League of Ireland football perhaps giving an inaccurate reflection of normality).
Of course, 2017 was also a high point, though perhaps one that makes the decline feel even more precipitous.
“During the double season, the vibe was that this was everybody’s,” she says.
“Everybody had an involvement and if you wanted to rock up at Turner’s Cross, people generally said ‘Hello,’ and ‘Welcome,’ and the key person in that, who drove the ethos and walked the walk, was John Kennedy.
“He knew more than anyone just what football can do, with putting a label on football.”
Ultimately, success was perhaps a factor in creating more ambition and flying too close to the sun.
“The most difficult thing to manage in football is expectation,” Niamh says.
“That in itself is one of the issues and the clubs that are really good at this are the ones who have a really good sense of who they are — they know what they are and what they’re not.
“Maybe I think more about this because I don’t live in Cork, but we have this wonderful sense of who we are and people not from Cork notice it more, because we’re all like each other.
“We have these wonderful traits as people, a wonderful city, a wonderful tradition in sport and in League of Ireland football and of developing talented player. We talk about Foras running a community club but then we had success and suddenly it was about repeating that as opposed to keeping to what our fundamental beliefs is.
“The reality is that only one team can win the title every year. The competitor that we had throughout that period had significantly more resources and yet we did manage to win a double, based on the ethos we had.
“The likes of UCC, Clonakilty Food Company, Cork Credit Unions — these companies were getting involved, yes, because the club was doing well but also because they liked what they saw.
“Clonakilty said that they liked the fact that the people they had sat down with and discussed contracts with were the same people volunteering on match-nights. There was no hierarchy and that meant an awful lot.”
And it’s that sense of togetherness fostered over more than a decade that gives her optimism for the future of Foras, even if the trust doesn’t own the club.
“I genuinely firmly believe in the model,” she says.
“I can understand why people voted in favour of the sale agreement but I think it’s unfortunate that people want to equate what are really extremely difficult circumstances in the world right now with the failure of a model that has proven very successful in other places.
“It’s kind of the easy argument — ‘Ah sure, it’ll never work out.’ It can work out if get people involved and get back to that ownership feeling like when you buy a car and look after it. Foras worked really well as owners in lots of areas and will work really well as a voice for supporters in the future, whatever happens.
“You look at where Foras took City from where they were in 2010. We were in contact with a lot of other clubs’ fans through the Irish Supporters’ Network and we were telling them that every club needs a supporters’ trust — it’s not anti-owner but it’s supporters organising themselves in support of their club, whatever that might be.
“Foras has a positive future — we need to sit down now and consider our role, whether that’s as owners or seeking a voice on the board of a new ownership and being constructive partners in that.”
First league game: v Derry City (a), 2010
Promotion to Premier Division: 2011
First European appearance: v KR Reyyjavik, 2015-16 Europa League
First FAI Cup: 2016
First league title: 2017