Interview – Neale Fenn on Cork City and the League of Ireland in 2020 (Part 2)

In the second of a two-part of interview with Cork City manager Neale Fenn, he discusses how the League of Ireland is different now from when he started playing in the league back in 2003.

Fenn also discusses his progression in attaining a UEFA Pro Licence, the different personalities on the course, what it takes to manage a professional football club and the potential plans for the future of Irish professional football.

Click here to read Part 1.

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JC: You were a player in the League of Ireland from 2003 to 2010. How would you compare the League of Ireland from 2003 to 2010 compared with now?

NF: There was a lot more money back in 2003. Let’s compare 2005 when we won the league here, there was probably five or six teams I felt could win the league. It was obviously a good Cork City team. But there was a good Shels team, a good Derry team, Drogheda were good. Bohs weren’t bad, I’m not sure they were great. St. Pat’s.

They could all challenge for the league, whereas nowadays, it’s probably only Dundalk or Shamrock Rovers are going to win it, whereas, back then, the league was a lot closer, there was a lot more money in the league, there was more experienced players in the league at the time.

The league now is a lot younger. I’d say the players are fitter now. The lads looks after themselves better now, but most teams back in 2005 would have been full-time. Except maybe Athlone Town and Dublin City.

JC: Would there have been a lot more alcohol in the league back in and around 2003/2005?

NF: Yeah, the lads would manage themselves differently now.

JC: You’d have been managed by Pat Dolan in your first season at Cork City (2004). Supposedly he’d go around to pubs and clubs in Cork city looking for players and drag them out if he found them!

NF: Apparently he did. I don’t know. I’m not sure if he did do that. I think he might have liked to spread that so as to stop people from enjoying the nightlife of the city excessively. He certainly was an early trendsetter for the right diet and the right intake of fluids at training. He was well into that. I thought he was brilliant. He made the club, he really sold the club. He coined the phrase ‘The Rebel Army’. He was just brilliant for the club, he knew everything about everyone.

I liked Damien Richardson as well though (who came in as Cork City manager in 2005). I went in as assistant at Drogheda about four or five years ago. Damien came in as manager and he was the same. The same passion for the game and a hatred of losing.

JC: About Damien Richardson, he doesn’t strike me as the type of manager who’d be throwing teacups around the dressing room or the like?

NF: Oh he would, he would go mad. He would lose it and go mad. Not all the time, just if you weren’t doing what he wanted and you weren’t playing well, he would soon let you know. He would certainly give you enough praise as well if you were doing well though.

JC: You are doing your UEFA Pro Licence. You started in January so you’d be it with people like Damien Duff and Robbie Keane?

NF: Yeah, Stephen Rice as well. Vinny Perth, Andy Reid, Paul Hegarty. So, a good few lads from the league.

JC: And would there be people who you’d think: ‘Yeah, I’ll learn from this guy’. Or; ‘This guy has a big future as a manager?’

NF: I think it’s tough to see who is going to be a good manager. There’s a lot of elements. You might be a good coach but you might not be a great communicator or recruiter. You need a little bit of everything to be a manager.

JC: You need to be almost obsessed because it’s almost literally 7am to 7pm six days a week?

NF: Yeah, it’s not just about what you do on the pitch. It’s about what you do off it. You’ve got to be a face for the club. You’ve got to be able to sell the club to players, to investors and on the commercial side of it. So it’s not just on the pitch coaching. I know that the results is what you’re judged on but there’s a lot more that goes into being a manager than just the results on the pitch.

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JC: And are there aspects to doing the Pro Licence that you like and don’t like?

NF: Yeah, there’s lots of that. I left school at 16 so, sitting, listening and reading and writing wouldn’t be my favorite part of it. The practical stuff I enjoy. Listening to speeches is good from people like Michael O’Neill who did a Q and A with us at UEFA headquarters which was excellent. We had the Bristol Rovers chairman who was excellent.

We’ve been assigned a team to watch during Euro 2020. Mine is Germany. I had to watch Germany, do a profile on them. All the players and then we’d watch every game, analyse every game and do video clips and that’d be for every game. So we have that instead of having a 15,000 word final essay for the Pro Licence. There’s a lot of work in it.

On the other side of that, you’ve got video clips on your huddle as well, so that’ll be what I’m doing in my spare time! The huddle is a site where clips are uploaded onto huddle where you watch your clips and add it to your presentation (for the Pro Licence). So that takes a good bit of time.

JC: Moving on from that, what would your thoughts be on an all-island league?

NF: I haven’t seen Kieran Lucid’s proposal. Obviously it all boils down to prize money. I think it’s better for teams in and around the North than it is for us. If you’re Derry and you’re playing against Linfield or whoever their rivals are up there. If we play against Glentoran or Glenavon or Cliftonville, are we going to get the same sort of traveling support as what Derry would get or Dundalk would get?

Or even clubs coming from Dublin? Are we going to get that? So I’m not sure we would see the benefits of it.

Having said that, playing against different teams, rather than playing against the same teams all the time is good.

JC: Do you think an all-island league would raise the standard?

NF: I think whenever there’s money it should raise the standard. Obviously, when people are chasing bigger prize money you try to sign better players and that increases your budget. Obviously the better players cost more money so I would imagine that raising the prize money would raise the standard.

JC: I suppose there’s another complication to it as well, how do you choose which clubs come from which leagues? Do you choose seven from League of Ireland, five from the Northern Irish Premiership? If you did that from the 2019 season though, you’d have no Cork City.

NF: I’m not sure how they’d split it. Whether you’d do it on an average league finish of the last 5-6 seasons? Whatever way you’d do it you’re going to upset somebody.

JC: You’d have seen the recent RTÉ soccer ad, saying: “Follow your team, follow your team” and they’re showing Liverpool score a goal. There’s not one second of League of Ireland footage in that ad. That caused controversy in League of Ireland circles. What were your thoughts on that ad?

NF: I think when you’re in the League of Ireland you think all football fans are into it and watch it but when you socialise with people outside, it’s a niche market. If you’re RTÉ and you’re having to compete for viewing figures and commercial numbers, you’re going to go where the biggest numbers are. I don’t blame them for doing that.

For example with women’s football, I think commercially, is there more money in women’s football than in men’s football? No, but women are getting phenomenal coverage and crowds and it’s to do with the way it’s marketed. There’s not more people taking an interest in the women’s game because the standard has gotten so much better all of a sudden, it’s just getting marketed better and rightly so, they have very skilful players. But it is all about marketing and that comes back to money.

JC: On the television point again, Sky Sports cover some games in the Northern Irish Premiership. They’re not covering those games for free. If they could get on board with an all-island league, that could be interesting financially.

NF: I agree. I’m don’t know what the Sky Sports money is for the Northern Irish Premiership. I think clubs need to do more for the product as well though. When I was playing with Dundalk, we were playing in Europe and all of a sudden they decided to paint Oriel Park. Why not paint the ground for League of Ireland games though? Why does it have to be for a European game? While I was at Longford, they got new seats and painted the ground because they were playing a couple of (underage) internationals there. Why not do that for League of Ireland games?

I remember taking my little lad to Bohs once and he needed to go to the toilet. I remember the toilet was all backed up so we had to leave. It’s changed now at Bohs and they’re doing great stuff but what are we doing to try to attract people?

We can’t just say: ‘You’ve got to come because it’s your local club and you’ve got a duty to come.’ You’ve got to attract people by first of all having a good product on the pitch. You’ve got to make it a nice experience as well. The days of the 1980s where people were herded around like animals in pens, that’s all gone now. You’re trying to appeal to families and kids. Again, it all comes down to money. Go around the toilets at the start of the day before the game wouldn’t be too much trouble though.

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JC: Do you think it could happen that your staunch Liverpool fan could choose to watch Cork City over watching Liverpool?

NF: That’s hard to answer. Where I live you have people who say they’re Bohs fans but they don’t go to the games. Around Tallaght though, you have a lot of the local people who do attend Shamrock Roves’ games, they buy into it. The dignitaries are always at Tallaght (for League of Ireland games). When the managers of the national teams go to games, they tend to be at Tallaght because it’s a nice place to go to. You need to buy into it, but it’s about the whole experience of football.

JC: You’ve probably heard the suggestions about reducing the League of Ireland Premier Division from 10 teams to eight. What are your thoughts on that?

NF: I like 10 teams. You do get sick of playing the same teams too often. I understand the reasons for having eight teams, it comes down to money. I like the fact that there’s different challenges playing different teams. As much as it’s a long way to Finn Harps and it’s a long way to Derry, it is a different challenge and it’s a good way to test yourself.

JC: The main proposal was that there’d be an eight team League of Ireland Premier Division, an eight team First Division and then promotion and relegation from regional leagues.

NF: Yeah, I’m not sure that there’s enough teams who want to be professional or semi-professional in Ireland. I know in England you’ve got a pyramid where you’ve got probably 50 teams who want to make the next step up, who’ve got an investor, they’ve got someone with a few quid who wants to throw it in and who wants to get in the league.

Over here in Ireland, I’d imagine, if one team goes bust in the First Division, I wouldn’t think there’s many who’d want to take their place, which is the problem you’ve got with having a regional league, I just don’t think there’s the teams there, the cost involved is massive.

JC: Speaking of England, that’s not a traditional Irish accent you have, would you see yourself going back?

NF: In terms of lifestyle, I like it here, the kids love it here. I’m certainly in no rush to go back to London and the only place I lived in England was London so I wouldn’t be in a rush to go back there. Professionally wise, I think that any manager eventually would like to manage in the Premier League. You want to manage as high as you can so I wouldn’t rule it out.

JC: So, if Manchester United sacked Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, you wouldn’t turn that job down?!

NF: Once I get my Pro Licence!!

JC: One final question and it’s a bit of a clichéd question I have to admit. You’re probably too young to have a particular highlight as a manager but what would be the highlight of your playing career?

NF: It’d have to be my debut for Tottenham in the FA Cup against Manchester United at Old Trafford. I was playing against the likes of Beckham, Scholes and Keane. Some people tell me that it went downhill from my Spurs’ debut but that was a big moment for me.

JC: Thanks for your time Neale.

NF: Pleasure.

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