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We are all familiar with the tragic story of the native American Indians, and how the ‘White Man’ swept across the plains, levering the tribes away from their traditional homelands and onto the arid and soulless reservations that almost saw the deaths of entire cultures.
One of the reasons why the deceit of the invaders worked so well was that it was predicated on a concept that the native Americans found to be utterly ridiculous; the ownership of land. When the invaders offered to buy the earth beneath their feet, the tribes readily agreed, just as we might be delighted to takes a man’s money should he be foolish enough to offer it in return for some air.
The very idea that a man could ‘own’ the land on which they were privileged to roam made no sense to these people. They practically gave it away.
Football may have few things in common with the great American frontier, but this more spiritual attitude to the concept of ownership is one. For, despite the best efforts of our material traditions, the idea of one man owning a football club is one that only goes so far.
For someone of my generation the model of a football club owner is a blunt and unsophisticated self-made man. The English version probably made his money manufacturing toilet bowls somewhere north of Birmingham, while his Irish equivalent is an unembarrassed devotee of party politics who can’t understand why the Quinn family are getting such a hard time.
In the wider world the trend in club ownership has since moved on from these pillars of the Rotary club to men whose backgrounds are considerably less transparent. We are largely shielded from it here, by virtue of our financial insignificance, but this new breed are an altogether more ruthless version. On the world stage the personal fortunes of modern club owners are likely to outstrip those of small countries. And in extreme cases, such as with the Serbian warlord Arkan the Tiger, clubs have become the personal fiefdoms of some truly terrifying individuals.
It’s easy to look at the iron grip of the Glaziers at Manchester United, at the violations that took place recently at Rangers, and at the disdainful silence of the all-powerful Abramovich and imagine that the control of football clubs is moving ever further away from the grasp of the supporters.
But this would be to ignore three pertinent facts. First of all, many supporters actually want a ridiculously wealthy tyrant to take care of all the everyday headaches. Secondly, for those that would rather roll their sleeves up and get involved, there have never been more fan-run clubs. And thirdly, when things do go wrong and the supporters gather on the hills dressed for battle, they almost always win.
Most owners don’t have it easy. They spend their time fighting fires, making themselves unpopular, and spending lots and lots of money. They are the ones that carry the financial can, and they are the ones that have to make a decision when nobody, including them, knows what to do.
They are the people that pay the fine when the fans light their flares and they pay the printers for programmes that don’t get sold. They pay a player’s wages when he can’t play, they pay for lighting and security on night’s when nobody shows up to use them. They do a lot of things that most of us wouldn’t like to do. But they also get to sail the ship.
The truth is that most owners are in it for the good times. They arrive with ambitious plans, some money in their pockets and a genuine belief that they can give the supporters what they want, success on the pitch. Often they are naive enough to imagine that these good intentions are currency, and can be traded in good faith should things go wrong.
These are understandable mistakes which can be, and frequently are, forgiven. But woe betide the club owner who guards against an uncertain future with the notion that, because it is their club, its fortunes are nobody’s business but their own.
By all means, give yourself a nice office, put fish tanks in it if you want, and mark out a parking space next to the front door. Put your company’s name on the front of the shirts and redecorate the director’s box. Invite your friends, let them in for free, and even name a stand after yourself if that’s what floats your boat. But please, for your own sake, don’t lose sight of the fact that, whatever it says on the title deeds, you only have this special thing on loan, and for the briefest of times.
The law can say what it will, the gates can close and the grass may turn to meadow. The paint might peel and the concrete fall to weed. The entire dream might shut down. But all that will be lost is the paperwork. Because a football club, any football club, only really exists in the hearts of the people that love it, and for as long as they are willing to carry the torch forwards that club will always remain a living thing.
There are examples of this all around us.
Cork City disappeared from view just two and a half years ago. Try telling the 2,709 people that showed up for their game last week that their club no longer exists. Derry City too. And what about Shamrock Rovers? Pronounced dead on more than one occasion, the club limped on for over two decades after they lost Milltown and now they are thriving.
Shelbourne, if they were a horse, would have been put down in 2006 but there are fans out there who won’t let them die. And Drogheda United, second in the Premier League as I write this, were rescued from oblivion by supporters who wouldn’t allow the plug to be pulled.
There are difficult times ahead for our league but we should remember that the clubs we give our hearts to are not just legal entities. They are what happens when enough people believe in an idea and set their hearts to making it happen. They rest on solid ground but they are such stuff as dreams are made of. They cannot be owned by any one man, nor can they be ended by one.
Simon O'Gorman began reporting for Extratime in 2010. He remembers Milltown and Flower Lodge and, back in the mists of time, saw Diego Maradona play at Lansdowne Road. He now lives in Co Kildare and reports on Shamrock Rovers among others. Simon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org