Caution needed with investment in the League of Ireland

Johnny Ward

In so many ways, Keith Buckley is everything that makes the League of Ireland unique, loveable and something worth cherishing in an era where elite team athletes seem to have ever less of a connection with the town and people they notionally represent.

After playing for Bohemians against Shamrock Rovers in 2015 in Tallaght, he took that selfie, stationed by a tram crammed with celebrating Bohs fans. “Getting me bike… and see these nuts singing my name… selfie of the year… that’s why I love this club,” he told Twitter.

That Buckley was cycling home after featuring in the biggest game in Irish football was simply magnificent. Staying true to the spirit of being a League of Ireland player, he followed the money in Bray, much to the dismay of Bohs fans – and one felt much to his own eventually.

“F*ck off back to Bohs,” roared an opposition fan at him during a game last season, to which Buckley reportedly fashioned an about-turn and shouted: “I’m bleedin’ trying!”

On his return to Dalymount in the off-season, Buckley said something – “I realised there was nowhere else I wanted to be” – that sounded suspiciously like what every fresh addition to a club might say, except there is no doubt but that he meant it. In the League of Ireland, there is only one Keith Buckley – and many more besides.

Bohs can reasonably claim to be the League’s coolest club, playing as they do in the true home of Irish football; selling, as they do, more craft beer than any other club bar – and of course those links with the incarcerated, and having an amputee players’ team. However, those stories that crop up around the country that seem to have no other purpose than to keep ‘#greatestleagueintheworld’ trending rarely do anything but warm the heart.

Indeed, just this week, Limerick tweeted that Tommy Barrett would be officially unveiled as the club’s new boss at a press conference on Wednesday. “Tommy’s first signing will also be unveiled,” concluded the tweet, with Buckley’s team-mate Eoin Wearen promptly and curiously ‘liking’ it, an intervention soon picked up by mutual followers (such as the excellent journalist Neil O’Riordan, who thankfully took a screen grab).

You can guess who signed for Limerick yesterday.

Bohs pay their players peanuts – it is remarkable how they can put together such a competitive side week on week – and they thrive on a dying narrative. All of which makes one that bit more wary of the American takeover of Dundalk, which is agreed in principle and is expected to be announced any time now.

When the Lilywhites rendered the realms of fantasy a reality in European combat in 2016, I ventured to some of their away games, including against FH in Iceland. In a bar outside Reykjavik, awaiting the charter flight, fans mingled with journalists.

One hack stumbled into conversation with a distinctly powerful man of middle age, with a shaved head befitting a bouncer and sporting ‘The Town’s’ familiar black away jersey of which the superstitious Stephen Kenny was so fond.

“Christ, that big lad is a character,” the journalist said to me after a brief conversation with him that suggested there was more drink involved than was actually the case. “Who is he?”

“That’s Paul Brown,” I replied. “He owns the club.”

Belfast native Brown saved the Lilywhites along with Andy Connolly when a famous old institution flirted with ruin. Understandably, these two local businessmen now feel that it is time to let someone else move the club onto the next level, where investment company Peak6 comes in.

Last year, Galway United, being run by a handful of volunteers and struggling gamely to keep the train running, held talks with potential overseas investors too. Due diligence confirmed that the outsiders’ intentions were noble and a deal seemed inevitable – until it bled away to nothing.

The reason? The would-be investors simply could not see how they could make money from Galway United. Curiously enough, Galway has a potential fan base that would dwarf Dundalk’s.

In 2015, the Guardian found that 14 of the 17 Premier League clubs (excluding the three just promoted) were in debt. Peak6 owns a quarter of Bournemouth; its portfolio includes Roma too. That their Dundalk-related aspirations are almost entirely capitalist does not make them evil: they are investors.

All of this is fine, in theory – and Dundalk will hardly overstretch as a club, unlike so many in the league down the years. However, how the local community in what is a small town responds to the new ownership – Manchester United was never the same to many fans post-Glazers – will be telling.

Will it feel the same when they win? How long will the investors stick around? Will they toil with the local community like Bohemians do? How will they spend the money that followed that victory in Reykjavik?

If the League of Ireland happily remains true to grass-roots aspirations, many – Joe Brolly, most notably – lament Gaelic games’ conversion to a near-professional and elitist structure.

On that note, it was striking that Galway United striker Padraic Cunningham was offered a professional deal with Champions League-bound Cork City and instead chose to commit to Galway’s Gaelic football team, which has roughly the same chance of All-Ireland glory in 2018 as United have of winning the Premier Division.

Cunningham was a shock Cork City target – no less, perhaps, than Josh O’Hanlon – around the same time as he started togging for Kevin Walsh’s Galway seniors. Galway’s county board incentivised Cunningham’s addition further, it is quite clear, on hearing of City’s interest.

The promise of a secure job alongside a sponsored set of wheels has become a regular occurrence at intercounty level so one can only speculate what terms Cunningham was presented with that made the Galway county board’s offer more appealing than that of a full-time professional outfit like the League of Ireland champions.

Keeper Shaun Patton, too, has eschewed professional football in Ireland to play for Donegal.

One wonders what American investors would make of it all.

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