THE year 2012 saw no League of Ireland football played in St Colman’s Park.
It was the finale of a grim period in East Cork, which nearly brought an end to one of the oldest football clubs in Ireland.
Now, Cobh Ramblers are preparing for their 10th season back in the League of Ireland. The milestone also coincides with the club’s centenary celebrations, which will be commemorated with a number of events throughout this year.
The real story in East Cork is the transformation of Cobh Ramblers, who returned to the league, consolidated their place, and became the beating heart of East Cork’s vibrant football ecosystem.
Before the opening game of the new First Division season against Longford Town on February 18, club chairman Bill O’Leary took a second to reflect on the club’s journey over the last ten seasons.
“We’ve done okay on the pitch, like you could argue that in some seasons we should have done better,” he said. “We came close to promotion a number of times with Stephen Henderson at the helm. But, you can’t really fully measure the success of a football club based on performances on the pitch. I think it is much more than that.
“It is about building a sustainable model. It’s a about having a club which people feel represents their community and them. It’s about diversifying your revenue streams and including different parts of the community, like different nationalities and genders.
"That is sustainable because people want to be part of that club. They will be prepared to throw a few quid in.
"People will want to be actively involved. That is where we are headed. We’ve made massive strides towards that.
"You can see it in our attendances. Look at the last three home games we had last season, we were second or third from bottom, and we still brought in between 700 and 800 people. That tells a lot.
“The community is ready to come out and support us. Not only the Cobh community, because we’re not just a Cobh club. We’re a second Cork club. Lots of our players come from Cork, East Cork, and West Waterford.
"We have to think of ourselves as a regional club. That is a growth opportunity for us and we have to tap into that. Importantly we have now as a club secured a fantastic 100-year lease which gives us certainty in a quasi-ownership way.”
To understand the club’s story, a look into the history books is needed. In 2007, Cobh Ramblers were First Division champions and promoted to the Premier Division. The following year, the club struggled with debts close to €500,000.
At the end of the year, they were relegated and to ease financial pressures, club members voted to sell St Colman’s Park to the FAI. Cobh Ramblers were then demoted to the A Championship, the League of Ireland’s third tier.
Cobh finished bottom of Group 2 that year, and they only won one game in the league season. They played in the third tier until the final season of the A Championship in 2011.
The following year, Cobh were excluded from the new look eight-team First Division. As a result, the senior team had to wait until 2013 to go back to Irish football’s second tier.
O’Leary watched on through the chaos as a fan, terrified of the uncertainty which was plaguing Cobh Ramblers.
“It was a real worry,” O’Leary remembered. “As a spectator, you love the club but you don’t know the full details of what was going on.
"There was a lot of disquiet around the deal to sell the ground to the FAI. Many people were unhappy with the deal that was done and the nature of the deal.
Since the club returned to League of Ireland football in 2013, Cobh have consolidated themselves as a force in the south of Ireland. In 2016, they reached the promotion/relegation play-offs and lost narrowly to Drogheda United. That same season, the club won the Munster Senior Cup for the fifth time in their history.
This run of form continued into 2017, as they finished runners-up in the First Division, and the following year they reached the League of Ireland Cup final. In 2020, goal difference denied them a place in the play-offs.
Outside of football, one of the biggest successes the club had since returning to the League of Ireland was turning a profit in 2020. To O’Leary, this is just one of the many reasons why Cobh Ramblers are optimistic.
“We had to reverse the fortunes of the club, this is in terms of engagement with the community. I felt that had been lost. For whatever reason, that kind of connection had been lost with the town and region. I could feel it.
"That had to be reversed. That took a lot of engagement with people and a lot of meetings.
"On the back of that, there has been a financial prudence. We’ve been very careful and we are in a good position financially.
"Our creditors are almost negligible.
"But, they want to play for us more than the money. They see what we’re trying to do and they want to be a part of that.
"We’re careful and treat our creditors with respect. We did that now and we’re in a good position to build a sustainable future."