Cork City fans divided over outside investment to take club to next level

Rebel Army are pushing for promotion back to the Premier League but a decision has yet to be made about a possible link-up with an outside group
Cork City fans divided over outside investment to take club to next level

Wrexham's celebrity co-chairmen Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds during a press conference. Picture: PA

REMEMBER when Kieran Sadlier stepped up, stared down Gary Rogers, and slotted in the penalty which brought Cork City to the summit of Irish football.

The Rebel Army won the double and the following season they played in the biggest competition in world club football, the UEFA Champions League.

This came just seven years after the club was saved by FORAS, a supporter group, in the High Court at the last minute.

They are the current owners of Cork City, and they masterminded the club reaching Irish football’s Everest in 2017.

Five years on from that achievement and the team is playing in the First Division while navigating a possible takeover by Grovemoor Limited. Should a deal be reached with the group, who also own Preston North End, Cork City will cease to be 100% supporter owned.

Cork City's Kieran Sadlier celebrates scoring in the cup final. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Cork City's Kieran Sadlier celebrates scoring in the cup final. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

This isn’t the first time this season that an Irish club has been in this situation.

Last March, Galway United Friends Co-operative Society voted in favour of the Comer Group getting the option to acquire 85% ownership of the club.

This follows a growing trend in European football of clubs transitioning out of supporter ownership.

Portsmouth were the first high-profile team to vote in favour of such a takeover.

In 2017, the Pompey Supporters’ Trust voted to sell their shares to former Walt Disney chief executive Michael Eisner.

The injection in capital was immediately noticeable as Portsmouth started challenging for a play-off spot in League One and they won the EFL Trophy in 2019.

The most recent takeover over a supporter-run club was Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney’s purchase of Wrexham in 2020.

The Shamrock Rovers Members Club, who run the namesake League of Ireland club, have twice voted to accept outside investment. They voted in favour of receiving capital from Sydney-based accountant Ray Wilson in 2016.

The club got €1.5m which was used to upgrade the football facilities at Cement Roadstone’s Sports and Social Club at Kingswood.

In 2019, members voted overwhelmingly to sell 25% of the club to billionaire businessman Dermot Desmond for €2m.

Shamrock Rovers have used the injection of cash to build a solid foundation to their team, and that group of players delivered in the form of two league titles and one FAI Cup in three seasons.

They also reached the play-off round of last season’s Europa Conference League, and they are guaranteed to repeat that feat this season as they won their first Champions League tie this summer.

The transition comes during a time of increased calls for engagement with supporters at boardroom level in football.

A major reason for this was the formation of a breakaway European Super League in 2021.

To combat this, clubs in England endorsed the introduction of Fan Advisory Boards, and to nominate a Board-level official to be responsible for the club’s fan engagement activities.

The Premier League is now working with clubs and the Football Supporters’ Association to finalise a framework for fan engagement.

SOLID

Other clubs are happily carving their place in the world with a solid supporter-owned foundation.

Cobh Ramblers have repeatedly upset the odds in the Irish second tier. In 2016, they reached the play-offs for promotion to the Premier Division and goal difference denied them repeating that feat in 2020.

They beat heavyweights Dundalk to reached the League of Ireland Cup final in 2018, their first senior national final.

Limerick’s Treaty United are operated through a supporter scheme. They began life in 2020 with a team in the Women’s National League and the following year, a men’s team joined the First Division.

The club was built from the ground up and their first season in the League of Ireland ended with the men’s team reaching the promotion play-off semi-finals.

Treaty went agonisingly close to reaching the final and this season they are challenging once again for a place in next year’s Premier Division.

Their successes contrasted Dundalk’s story under PEAK6, which acted as a reminder of the dangers of corporate owners.

The US consortium took over the club in 2018 from Paul Browne and Andy Connolly and within two seasons they won every trophy in Irish football. The following year they qualified for the group stages of the Europa League, and this seismic achievement coincided with the explosion of a number of internal issues at the club.

The internal conflicts included a disconnect with the local community in Louth and a poor 2021 season, despite huge financial investment from the Americans.

At one point last year, the team was third from bottom in the Premier Division table and there was a real possibility of relegation.

The situation reached boiling point when a group of supporters protested against PEAK6’s ownership outside Oriel Park before a high-profile game with Shamrock Rovers.

The club was sold to a local consortium that September and there were widespread celebrations in the town with the news.

There is no doubt that fan ownership has a future in football, what remains to be seen is how far it can take a club.

Shamrock Rovers and Portsmouth both used the added investment to challenge for titles and trophies.

Even Wrexham pushed for promotion to the Football League last season, but they lost in the play-off semi-finals to Grimsby Town.

What is important is that fans know it is possible to take over and run a football club.

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