How much would you pay to hear Tony Britten’s Champions League anthem fill the evening air at your football club? For Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the tally is already past half a billion. For the members of Shamrock Rovers, it’s closer to five grand apiece and counting.
On Tuesday night in Tallaght, the Hoops were first to redeem the rewards. When a beancounter has tears in his eyes before a single cheque is signed or cashed, you know you’ve crashed a special evening.
That was Rovers’ financial director James Nolan.
“When that moment came, it was pretty emotional for a lot of people, people that have been with the club through thick and thin. It was a huge thing psychologically.”
It had been 24 years. James is too young to remember the glory nights when Rovers Byrned up the league before the Milltown betrayal and took for granted regular outings in Europe’s premier competition.
“You’re weaned on the stories of it; it’s almost a little mystical. But to be involved and actually touch it and experience it is fantastic.”
The hard road back to here, via the 400 Club and the fans’ takeover of the club, has been well-chronicled.
For both James and myself, Wynn’s Hotel on Dublin’s Lower Abbey Street holds special memories. I tend to recall the all-you-can-eat dessert trolley when the uncle picked me up at Heuston before an All-Ireland. James will never forget that incredible day in 2005 when Shamrock Rovers fans queued to commit their savings to save the club.
There were many queues for mad things during the Tiger, but you suspect the people in Wynn’s that day are happier now than if they’d opted for the flat outside Plovdiv.
Rovers needed â‚¬450,000 to get out of examinership and the supporters’ group had done a deal with Bank of Ireland to allow members commit â‚¬48 per month to five or ten-year loans that would give the club cash up front.
“I was absolutely stunned,” admits Nolan. “When I got to the hotel, there were already 40 people waiting. It was one of those moments where you knew we were onto something here. It gave you a lot of strength.”
Anyone involved with Rovers in those days needed all the strength they could draw on, the days when anybody in Dublin with a decent garden drew the curtains every now and again to check if the Hoops were playing out there – then sharply pulled the blinds regardless.
Nolan remembers well the nadir. “If you were to pinpoint it, the worst moment was playing a home game inCork. That showed the state the club was in.”
The first game in Tallaght was the big incentive, but nights like Tuesday are important milestones. Rovers just sneaked into the draw as the last seeded team, ensuring Flora Tallinn were kinder opposition than they might have faced.
Nolan recalls weeks glued to Livescore, keeping tabs on the Bosnian Premier League. Thankfully, a first title for FK Borac Banja Luka wouldn’t send them above Rovers in the coefficient rankings.
Papers talk about a European windfall but the reality doesn’t linger long on the credit side. “We got â‚¬330,000 for qualifying but we knew that was coming. That was in the budget so that’s gone.”
“Cashflow is still a killer,” says James. “Gate receipts are lower for rescheduled matches. Bonuses kick in for players and managers. It can prove difficult sometimes. Any money that comes in from Europe should be put in the context of money we had budgeted for this year not coming in. Sponsorship, gate receipts, we’re really having to fight to try and maintain the levels we have.”
All the same, the club is on a surer footing now, even if it’s impossible to make brash predictions for anything to do with the domestic game. The money is gone from a league which never had money in the first place.
As Nolan admits, “There is talk of a 16-team league next season but there isn’t the quality at the moment for a six-team league.”
Could the membership model that has dragged the club out of doldrums eventually hold it back if new investment is needed? Nolan disagrees and says the club will always have a cup of tea ready for a sugar daddy. If the deal is right.
“The way we’ve always looked at it. If you can bring us onto the next level, we won’t stand in your way. But we’ve got to make sure they can do that. We’ve talked to certain people about putting money in, but it wouldn’t be enough to do much more than we can currently do. There’s not much point in doing that and taking the risk that it falls apart because we’ll never be in a position to do what we did before.
“Circumstances were just right for us. We were at the height of the Celtic Tiger. Supporters were able to stump up. We had the right mix of people with the right energy levels. If something happened again where someone got control of the club and things went wrong, I don’t think it’s something we could recover again in the same way.”
Turning last Tuesday’s 1-0 win into real progress is the next challenge.
“If we win the next round, big if, we are automatically into the group stages of the Europa. If we were to reach the group stages, that’s where the paradigm would really change for us dramatically. That’s when potential investors would really start to look at you. It would really put us out there.”
There are frustrations. It can be difficult attracting and keeping players with budgets tight. But then fan frustration – and Nolan is foremost a fan – is still football’s great leveller. On Thursday, I heard the saddest lament yet of the football year. A little fella, no more than eight – Fabregas 4 on his back, for now – filling in his pal on the Nasri situation. “We can’t afford his wages.”
They know more about that at Rovers, but you don’t see nearly as many Arsenal shirts – or United orLiverpool- around Tallaght these days. When a back turns, it’s Twigg, Sives or Sheppard. That’s what makes Nolan proudest.
“One thing we’ve really tried to do since getting to Tallaght is get the kids in. For games where season tickets don’t apply we’ve been offering a three-for-one deal, where you get an adult and two kids in for â‚¬20. We sold 700 of those tickets the other night.
“When you walk around the Square, the kids are all wearing Rovers jerseys. They don’t know much about the history, but they are excited as the rest of us. There is a real buzz around matchdays.”
Tomorrow, 500 fans will be in Estonia to see if Rovers can take another step. You hope the music doesn’t stop yet for them.
An abridged version of this article first appeared in the Irish Examiner