David O'Connor. Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
back in the big league

'Wrongly there was an assumption we were spending massive money on wages and should be walking the league'

Shelbourne CEO David O’Connor talks to The42 about running a football club in his mid-twenties, the new FAI and the 2020 season.

OF BALLS.IE’S INTERNS down the years, only one ever phoned in ahead of his third day to say he wouldn’t be making in as he’d just been appointed as Chief Executive of a football club. 

Thus David O’Connor put journalism on hold to run Shelbourne at the age of 26.

“I couldn’t turn it down, in spite of the natural fear that, ‘Yes, I’ve just been a footballer, I have a knowledge and passion for the League of Ireland”, he tells the42 over coffee, ”but I have no business acumen, and no solid qualifications in business.” 

O’Connor played in the League with UCD, Shamrock Rovers and Limerick before reconciling it with the long-term.

“By the time I was 21 or 22, I realised I would peak as a League of Ireland footballer and I wouldn’t make a financially sustainable career out of it. I finished up playing and was soul-searching a bit.”

He had qualifications: an Arts degree in UCD along with a masters in Geography and a degree in sports management, done online with a university in Denmark thanks to the PFAI, but when he finished up as a footballer, he wrote a couple of articles for the Irish Independent on the challenge of adapting a footballer’s skills for the world in which the rest of us are shuffling along.

Along with applying to a few corporate jobs around town, he decided to see if journalism was something for him, until “something came up.” 

Not half. 

An old colleague from Rovers had read one of his pieces in the Indo, and rang him to put him in touch with Andrew Doyle, who was set to invest in Shels. One meeting with Doyle led to another five-hour summit in Blanchardstown a week later, and the meeting ended with Doyle offering O’Connor a role with Shelbourne. 

At this point, O’Connor also had the offer of a corporate job in town, so naturally it hinged somewhat on the precise role he had in mind. 

“What about Chief Executive?” 

“Yep, that sounds good!” 

“In fairness to Andrew”, continues O’Connor, “he said part of his reason for getting involved was to give younger people a chance to fulfill roles beyond their years. It was a no-brainer.

“It still is a little bit surreal”, says O’Connor. “The first couple of weeks was about, ‘This young guy coming in’, I wanted to give the right impression to people – the volunteers and the Board of Management – that I was looking for them to help me initially. 

“A lot of people assumed I’d known Andrew for years: I’d never met him until a couple of weeks before I took the job. 

“He took a risk in offering me the job. Obviously he had to clear it with the board prior to that and it was agreed, but they all take a punt. It depends on who you ask if they think I’ve done a good job or a bad job since! I’m forever grateful for the opportunity. 

“It’s been crazy, a whirlwind 20 months and a lot has happened at the club since, which has made for an exciting few months ahead.” 

david-oconnor O'Connor playing for UCD back in 2013. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Not that his grounding as a player hasn’t been useful for his current job.

“The biggest skillset is dealing with people and having good interpersonal skills. That would have been developed in the dressing room and that’s been the skill I’ve used the most: emotional intelligence and knowing how to deal with people.”

Last year’s main objective was achieved, as Shels won the First Division title, albeit after a slow start, losing four of their first six games. They hired a similarly inexperienced manager in Ian Morris from Bohemians’ playing squad, but O’Connor insists there was no panic in the early days. 

“The panic for me came in after 60 minutes against Drogheda [in game's penultimate season]! But there genuinely wasn’t. I fully believed that the squad Ian had put together would, over the course of a full season, be more than strong enough.

“Wrongly there was an assumption we were spending massive money on wages, and then came the assumption we should be walking the league. 

“We won the league by nine points, but we weren’t spending the money people thought we were on wages. But we couldn’t come out and say that so we had to deal with that pressure.  

“The relief after 89 minutes in Drogheda after Lorcan Fitzgerald scored, there was that relief. Then the emotional outpour. I wasn’t a Shels fan growing up, but seeing the crowd after that game was incredible.

“Seeing what it meant to people, the genuine emotion; what is refreshing about sport was seen on the pitch in the 30 minutes after that Drogheda game.  

“Nothing I did on the pitch can compare to that feeling. That said I didn’t have the most glamorous playing career, but it wasn’t comparable.” 

lorcan-fitzgerald-and-deane-delany-lift-the-trophy Lorcan Fitzgerald and Deane Delaney lift the First Division Ttitle for Shels last year. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

O’Connor has busied himself since, ahead of the opening game of the new season away to Cork City on Friday. Morris has been tied down to a new contract and they have recruited six new players, including Karl Sheppard and Georgie Poynton. The commercial side has been hectic too, with the Premier Division’s promise of bigger games and television coverage making the club an easier sell to sponsors.

Shels brought out their traditional red home kit along with a blue away kit to tap into the city’s GAA colours, and O’Connor spoke to The42 an hour before Flyefit were announced as the shirt sponsors. 

The players will remain part-time this season – that will be reviewed during the year – and the ambition for 2020 is to avoid relegation. 

There is another larger, longer-term project in the background too, as plans look set to go forth for the development of Dalymount Park. Bohemians will temporarily ground-share with Shels at Tolka Park while the stadium is under construction, after which both clubs will move to Dalymount full-time. 

It has stalled somewhat in the last 18 months, however, and the opening has been pushed back to 2024. The Irish Times reported recently that the Council would seek to fund the project by selling Tolka Park, but O’Connor says that has not yet been decided. 

“That’s not definitive, that’s not what the deal was at all, there is no clarity around that.

“It will be in excess of €30 million, Shelbourne aren’t in a position to contribute to that, so it’s out of the club’s hands to an extent.

“Both stadiums need a revamp. The ideal scenario would be a greenfield site that both clubs can share, obviously there is resistance from Shels’ people to move to Dalymount which is understandable.

“But we recognise we need to have a proper facility to play out of to attract younger fans, families and to create a better product for television.” 

O’Connor is new to this gig, but his experience running a League of Ireland club tallies with most others. 

“As with many conversations about football in Ireland of late”, says O’Connor, “it comes down to financing and balancing books.

“We are trying to get to the place where each section of the club – men’s and women’s senior teams along with boys’ and girls’ academies – are self-financing and self-funded. I have much more of an appreciation now of how difficult it is to balance books. The first team are in a place where, hopefully if we have a good season this year, that will be more manageable. But for the women’s team, there is very little revenue stream coming in and there has been very little support from the governing body up to now, in terms of the Women’s National League, in spite of the fact our squad has five full international players.”

“Until we get to a place where those sections of the club are genuinely self-funded it’s going to be a challenge. 

“The model is that every section will be self-funded. Andrew made it clear he hasn’t come in with a blank chequebook, as it’s not what we are trying to achieve as a club.” 

O’Connor says support for the Women’s League “has to change” and is optimistic that it will. The government’s bailout of the FAI was announced hours after we met, and it included an €800,000 pot to go to the development of the League of Ireland and the Women’s National League.

O’Connor had limited experience of working with the John Delaney-led FAI – has he noticed any substantial change in dealing with the new regime at the Association?

“I think it’s a little bit too early to tell in terms of the new regime. I think there is a long way to go. There still seems to be a lack of communication and transparency around how people are put into certain roles. But I do think it has improved drastically in the last six months, in terms of communication between clubs and the new people in the FAI.

“I’m taking Niall Quinn as an example. I don’t know Niall personally, I dealt with him a couple of times and I think he will be a great appointment, but feedback I’ve received from people around the league is that there’s not necessarily an issue with Niall, but with how this role was created and why there wasn’t a more transparent process, things like that. 

“That’s because of how things were done previously, that there is a natural defence mechanism. I do think it is on an upward curve in terms of where it had been. Obviously it couldn’t have gone much further down.” 

niall-quinn-shane-ross-td-and-gary-owens Niall Quinn with Gary Owens (right). Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Quinn was appointed to a role as Interim Deputy CEO last month, a role that was not mentioned in the FAIs’s governance review blueprint of last year nor publicly advertised.

(When we put that issue to Interim CEO Gary Owens at the funding announcement later that day, Owens responded by pointing out that he went through a rigorous recruitment process, suggested the recruiting of Quinn to the Board, which was subsequently ratified. He also underlined the fact both of their roles are interim, and would be subject to another rigorous process if they wished to stay full-time.)

“Even among League of Ireland clubs”, continues O’Connor, “I think there is a lot more work we have to do to communicate better among ourselves. There can still be an ‘us versus them’ mentality when it comes to sharing information.

“If you sat down with 18 clubs and asked them what they wanted from a new FAI or newly-run League, you’d probably get 10 different answers. I think the clubs themselves need to be more collective for what they want for the league going forward.”

One vision on the table is Kieran Lucid’s proposal for an All-Island League, work on which continues in spite of the IFA’s public rejection of the idea. 

“Most clubs I’ve spoken to among the League of Ireland look at it positively and are very much open to hearing more. I’m intrigued by it I have to say, I think it’s a massive opportunity and I think it comes down to clubs buying into it. 

“Then there is an element of a leap of faith to say, ‘Right, we’ll put our trust into Kieran and his group and go for it.’” 

Leaps of faith seem to be working out pretty well for Shelbourne. 

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