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Dublin: 10°C Saturday 16 January 2021

How a financial crisis ended up being the best thing that ever happened to Bohs

Burdened by a €6.7m debt, Bohemians were forced to cut their cloth to suit. As a result they have turned their club around both on and off the pitch ahead of today’s top of the table encounter against Shamrock Rovers.

Bohs are a members-owned club.
Bohs are a members-owned club.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

AUSTERITY. THE ERA was defined by that single word. Economists loved using it, so too politicians who faked concern when they talked about cost-cutting measures, double-dip recessions and the public feeling the pinch.

It didn’t take long before the word made its way from television studios and Leinster House into football grounds. If the noughties were going to go down as the decade of boom and bust – Shels, Drogheda, Derry, Cork all suffering financial meltdowns after winning or challenging for leagues – then the following decade would get a new title, as the age of austerity replaced the age of excess.

No one felt the new reality more than Bohemians. The club were living beyond their means and were €6.7million in debt by the time they saw the light about nine years ago, their board voting to slash their annual wage bill from €1million to €140,000. In so doing, their successful manager was lost, as was the entire first team and hopes of winning anything significant.

Or so we thought. If you measure success by trophies when you can’t afford to pay for them, then yes, the last decade has been a grim one at Dalymount – their second-place finish in 2010 followed by eight seasons when they never ended higher than fifth.

Delve a little deeper, though, and it’s clear that they’ve won things they never had before. Over the last three years, the club’s membership has more than doubled while their financial report at last week’s AGM highlighted revenue growth of 150 per cent since 2015. For eight successive years the club has posted a profit.

“That is a very strong position for any League of Ireland club,” board member, John O’Connor, told members in his financial report. “For people who have been at AGMs going back to the start of the decade, you would remember talk of liabilities of over €6 million. So we have gone from that to having assets of €300,000.”

The good news doesn’t stop there. A decade ago, when they ran into financial trouble, the club realised they were in an identity crisis as well as a monetary one as the possibility of losing their Dalymount Park home became scarily real. “We had to ask what Bohemians was all about,” their chief operating officer, Daniel Lambert, says. “Were we about a team? Or were we a club? We had to make ourselves relevant to the area and the community, to insulate ourselves from results, to make people come here because they love the club and not just because they want to see a team win.”

Nice words and some would say overly idealistic ones, too. Yet look closer at how the club is run, its board of management made up of volunteers rather than investment bankers or benefactors. Look at the work they do, their investment of time and resources into homeless charities, their work with prisoners in Mountjoy, asylum seekers, the St Vincent de Paul, Special Olympics teams, retired people, schoolchildren, adults with mild mental health issues, adults with autism and with mild physical disabilities.

“What we are doing away from the pitch isn’t marketing,” Lambert says, “it is happening because it is the right thing to do and we want to make ourselves distinct. We don’t just want to be a one-dimensional club obsessed solely with winning. There’s more to us than that.”

Lately, though, they have been winning. Five league victories on the trot, including a thrilling 2-1 defeat of champions Dundalk, have lifted them to second in the table, and if they beat bitter rivals Shamrock Rovers today, then they’ll go top as this shortened season moves swiftly towards the finishing straight.

It sounds like the perfect story. Except nothing in 2020 is perfect. Bohs, like everyone else, are playing in front of empty stands and terraces. “Not having fans in the stadium to get behind the team has been really frustrating for everybody, including the staff and the players,” Keith Long, their manager, told the AGM.

“We know it is even more frustrating for you, the supporters, who have kept the club afloat and who have kept us in jobs effectively.

keith-long Keith Long has turned Bohs' fortunes around. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“I bring you back to the statement that the club made early on in the pandemic that we wanted to pay the players. It was really powerful and I have reminded the players of that; why we do it and who we are playing for.”

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A manager like Long only comes along every once in a while. There can be an intensity about him, people say, but he’s humble and hard-working, appreciative of the chance the club gave him after a brief period with Athlone Town ended in relegation. There six years now, from the word go he was willing to buy into the club’s ethos.

“We don’t live in a football bubble at Bohemians, we live in a real world,” he said to me in 2017. “Bohemians is a special club, with a rich tradition and history. They fell on lean times but I have no doubt we will rise again because the custodians of the club are good people, hard workers. The culture and value system is something I admire.”

In an earlier era, when their culture was different, the Bohemians board had a reputation for being trigger-happy, sacking Roddy Collins and Stephen Kenny shortly after they had each won a league title. Now they, like rivals, Shamrock Rovers, have learned the value of patience. Some clubs obsess with finding a new striker but this rival pair, placed first and second in the league, searched instead for a new structure.

“The thing we have tried to communicate to our members is that the league, as a whole, is operating in a false market,” Lambert said. “There is money being put into other clubs by benefactors. We can never operate in that marketplace again. We had to do something different out of necessity when we were burdened with all that debt.

“But it has been worth it because what you get in Bohs — indeed the League of Ireland — is something real. Look at the Premier League, and you get the total sterilisation of the football experience where you go into a ground and are told exactly where to sit. There is no sense of excitement. Dalymount, tucked behind all these old red-bricked houses, is part of the city’s architecture, there’s something special about it.”

Yet they nearly gave their home away, agreeing to sell it in the noughties for a proposed move to a greenfield site near Dublin Airport. It was austerity and the property crash that saw that move fall through. “Had we left the area to go (a new stadium near) the Airport, I genuinely feel it would have led to a slow death of Bohemians. Ironically then, the failure of that (proposed move) ended up being the best thing that could have happened to us,” says Lambert, “because we changed how we operated.

“We became value led, led by identity. We looked back to look forward – considered the ethos of the club’s founders and sought to replicate those values. We got people to buy into the club, not into a team. We want to keep that going.”

The biggest challenge to that, ironically, comes from good news. A cash injection of between €1m and €1.5m is due from Wolves following Matt Doherty’s sale to Tottenham.

matt-doherty Bohs had a 10 per cent sell-on clause inserted when they sold Doherty to Wolves. Source: Kostadin Andonov/INPHO

Pushing for a title, pressure may come to invest more heavily in the team at the expense of everything else. In many respects, as history has shown, League of Ireland clubs are often at their most vulnerable when they are in the cusp of success. “We have to be prudent,” Lambert says, “as we don’t feel the (Doherty) money is a game-changer in any way. It’s welcome, yes. But you look at what Dundalk spent (on their team) last year.”

In short that was an awful lot more than Bohs can afford. A lack of money hasn’t stopped the team rising, though. Win today against Shamrock Rovers and they will announce themselves as genuine title challengers for the first time since their crisis began all those years ago. This is a morality tale, not just a football story.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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