League of Ireland football has faced many criticisms down the decades, ranging from financial instability, outdated training facilities and stadia and a lack of advertising.
Perhaps most damming of all is the idea that little to no connection exists between clubs and local communities.
Of course there are fine examples of clubs who are at the centre of their communities and even though hugely successful periods on the field have played a role in the rise of clubs such as Dundalk and Cork City in recent years, these are also two clubs that the people of their respective communities felt passionately enough about to put hands in pockets for and save during darker days, a real sign of the meaning and connection at these clubs between supporters and board level.
However, these are examples all to rare from times gone by, with clubs based in regions where junior football is king such as Limerick, Athlone and even Dublin suffering the worst effects of a split footballing fan base.
The good news though is the importance of a strong link with the local community seems to finally be registering with League of Ireland clubs, or at least it should be, after some extremely impressive projects at some of the country’s top clubs.
In recent weeks both Bohemains – a club who have led the way with their community work in recent years – and Premier Division champions Cork City both launched amputee teams, a first for League of Ireland clubs; whereas Cork City have also announced that Cork City Women’s Football Club will now come under the collective Cork City FC banner.
Not only is this a wonderful way to make Cork City FC more inclusive as a club but it is a major step forward and boost in the arm women’s football in this country.
Former Cork City FC Women’s goalkeeper Trisha Fennelly spoke of her delighted following news of the merger between Cork City FC and the women’s side.
I think it’s a fantastic thing for women’s football! In my opinion it shows how far the women’s game has come. And it proves that it’s being taken a lot more serious now than in the past. I’ve seen the work that has gone into that club in the past from everyone involved over the years, there was times when it really struggled and between the players and the people in the background they kept pushing and look where the club is now.
Working on Bohemains ‘more than a club’ project since December, Carina O’Brien spoke of the ‘’Gypsies’’ desire to deliver social inclusion through sporting programmes.
More than a club is a new initiative funded through the European Regional Development Fund with the FAI and Welsh FA. The programme is a unique partnership between Bohemian FC and the Football Association of Ireland with the objective of creating a sustainable social enterprise in our community which will develop and deliver life sciences and sporting programmes to promote social inclusion.
Clearly passionate on Bohemains work in the community, Carina went on to state the club see community work as a responsibility, something other League of Ireland clubs most certainly have not in times past.
‘Bohs feel it’s extremely important to not only continue their current community work but in fact to grow and develop that. The club feels that’s it’s not optional to do community and social inclusion programmes but it’s part of their responsibility as a club.
Perhaps the prime example of a community club in League of Ireland football is Sligo Rovers. The Westerners annual draw brings in anywhere in the region of €60,000 or more with businesses far and wide contributing prizes, but why is there such a strong link between community and club and can other League of Ireland clubs learn anything from the Showgrounds based outfit?
Just last month Sligo Rovers received a special award from the Minister of State for Equality, Immigration and Integration David Stanton for the clubs work through football with refugees and asylum seekers in the North-West region.
Sligo Rovers FC began working with residents of a local direct provisions centre over 12 months ago, in the hope of integrating the residents into their new community while also making them more aware of the brand of Sligo Rovers FC and the facilities on offer.
In co-operation with Show Racism The Red Card, weekly training sessions were set up with up to 30 refugees and asylum seekers taking part.
Initial results show the programme has been a smashing success, with asylum seekers and refugees in Sligo becoming more active in the community through football while also becoming more familiar with the ‘’Bit O’Red’’ as a result.
Sligo Rovers were the only League of Ireland club to receive such an award, although it should be noted that Bohemains have again been a leading light in this area over recent years with scores of refugees and Asylum seekers welcomed to Dalymount Park for matches as guests of the club and its supporters.
Equally impressive with their community based projects of late has been one of Sligo’s rivals, Finn Harps. The Donegal outfit, who continue to struggle towards a long overdue move to a new stadium, have put community and youth in particular at the heart of the clubs ethos.
Sending former Celtic star and current Harps midfielder Paddy McCourt to Lurgybrack and Kilmacrennan National Schools recently, Finn Harps have once again announced they will host a national school skills day in March open for all primary school children in the County. Speaking at the launch Paddy McCourt said,
It’s vitally important for kids to be shown and to participate in soccer skills & if there are any skills they like, under a fun, no pressure situation, it gives them the opportunity to get out and practice them at home.
Continuing the theme of focusing on Children at a young age, Harps have also championed crucial causes such as road safety and healthy eating.
Offering the National Road Safety Authority a free advertising board in Finn Park, the club have put morals above finances, but will also be hoping an increased presence in local schools will lead to a swell in gate receipts as the club look for promotion once again this season, although it most be noted that is far from the driving factor behind the clubs excellent community work to date.
In fact, Finn Harps schools programme chief and club Secretary John Campbell reveled it costs anywhere up to €8000 to run such projects but feels that figure is minimal in comparison with the long term benefits for both community and club.
Road Safety is an important issue to Donegal given the tragedies over the years. The logic of the road safety campaign is that perhaps children will listen to messages on road Safety from Finn Harps Players quicker than from any other Adults.
On Community work in general, this was something started way back when I was Chairman. Myself and the fellow directors agreed that it is vital for a Club to have strong community connections to survive and build support going forward.
Aside from road safety, Finn Harps have also increased their commitments to other community projects.
We now service 64 Schools with a total number of children of over 8000 with a 50/50 gender split. We run three football competitions and a skills day each year with ALL the coaches volunteers. It costs about €7k to €8k per year ALL found from fundraising and thankfull now from sponsorship from a local Company, Kellys Toyota
It’s hard work but all the coaches do it for the love of it, half of our coaches are female which is unique. We also are proud to say we have a female Muslim Coach. The whole community Programme is an investment in our future.’
That final line from John is undoubtedly the most striking. Community work should of course be seen first and foremost for what it is, a way of using your influence and stature to help out whatever way you can in the local area.
However, all clubs need to start seeing community work as an investment for the future and not a one-off PR stunt.
For too long now many League of Ireland clubs have neglected this area due to an obsession over first-team success in the short term. While all supporters and those involved in the running of clubs of course want instant success, the long term futures for clubs is of far greater importance.
Work in the community not only improves the image of the club and makes it more attractive to local sponsors, it’s often the first contact a young child and his or her family may have with that club. It only takes one positive experience, be it a coaching session at school or a family fun day at the ground to turn a passerby into life long fan.
With the well reported American-based takeover of Dundalk FC now completed, questions of the clubs commitment to continuing its strong ties within the Town naturally surfaced at the recent local meeting between the new consortium and ‘’Lilywhite’’ supporters.
Thankfully, when pressed for an answer on the matter, members of the new ownership group stated their intention to not only continue the clubs community foundations but to strengthen them through a number of ways including looking at women’s football in the local area and an improved academy system.
This again feeds into the ‘’football for all’’ ethos we are now seeing our Irish clubs buy more and more into as the importance of inclusion through sport becomes more evident by the day in modern society.
The above examples show that this message is indeed starting to resonate within the League of Ireland, but like everything else in this world there is always more we can do to not only improve the product but indeed the communities our clubs were designed to represent.