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Laszlo Geczo/INPHO Galway United players during the warm-up against Bray earlier this week.
# transformation
'We lost players who didn't want to train mornings because it wouldn't suit their work'
Director Jonathan Corbett on the big changes that have taken place at Galway ahead of today’s crucial play-off second leg.

LAST UPDATE | Nov 7th 2021, 10:04 AM

IT’S A BIG day for Galway. 

They host Bray Wanderers in a crucial First Division play-off semi-final second leg (kick-off: 5pm).

The tie is in the balance after Wednesday’s first leg at Carlisle Grounds ended 0-0.

Whatever the outcome, they have come a long way since August last year, when John Caulfield replaced Alan Murphy as manager with the club second from bottom of the table.

Jonathan Corbett has experienced plenty of highs and lows since he was first appointed chairman five years ago and indeed in almost 40 years of attending Galway matches.

He initially joined as chairman when Tommy Dunne was manager before leaving for “business reasons” during the Shane Keegan era, only to return roughly a year and a half ago as a director.

“There are eight other directors on the board and every one of us does the same amount of work,” he explains.

“I’m a businessman in Galway. I own the Londis in Galway city across from the hospital there. It’s 24 hours. We also run a few apartments around Galway, Athlone and Killarney.

“It’s important there to have a connection with [the community]. The big thing is raising money for the club to keep the club running.

“My day is nearly 70:30 – 70 Galway, 30 my own business. My brother, my sister and my wife are all business partners. They pick up a lot of the slack but it’s the same for nearly everyone on the board, we do our jobs and we take calls and have certain stuff we need to do for the week — getting certain stuff ready for the team or John, making sure that the food or buses are organised.”

Appointing Caulfield, who previously enjoyed great success with Cork City both as a player and manager, has been key to Galway’s recent rejuvenation.

“The difficult thing is having a legend at the club and having to relieve him with Alan Murphy,” Corbett says. “That was horrible. When you get involved with your home club, they’re the things you don’t want to do, but it had to be done.

“I hope that Alan comes back to the club in some form over the next few years. He’s a really good coach, it just wasn’t the time for him.

“John came in mid-season. He wanted to change how the training went from evenings to mornings. He did that very fast and he was kind of getting a lot of the players ready for the next season.

“We came close [to promotion last year] but we lost to Longford. He had already set the process in place of the times he wanted, where he wanted to do training and the levels he wanted to go to.

“I suppose there is a financial charge to going full-time training as well and not just on the club, a good few of the players are still working. And if you’re training at nine o’clock in the morning, before, we were doing evening training. That takes a hit there. Also, you have players who are in school or college. So you have to work through all of those pieces of the jigsaw to pull them all together and see can we make it work.

“We lost players who didn’t want to train mornings because it wouldn’t suit their work. So there were pitfalls in it.

“But on the other side of it, it makes them a better player, it gets them ready for matches a lot better and gives them better chances.”

This new approach is paying off. Galway finished the regular season in second place, just six points off champions Shelbourne, and they will be most people’s favourites to prevail in the play-offs.

On full-time training, Corbett adds: “Straight away, [John] asked us. That’s what he wanted to do and could we back him on it. We said we would.

“We have the Comer Brothers involved, Luke and Brian. Without them backing us, that wouldn’t be able to happen. That is the number one factor, if they weren’t giving the financial backing to the club, that part of the jigsaw would not be able to happen.”

The brothers have been the club’s main sponsor since 2013, ploughing substantial fees into the team, including — according to a 2019 Irish Independent report — €20 million for the academy alone.

The club are beginning to reap the benefits of this emphasis on youth, with 17-year-old Alex Murphy among the promising players to break into the first team recently.

“We feel that because of the underage structure we have now and because of what’s happened with players under 18 years of age [with Brexit], I think we don’t stop and think about the talent that’s gone through Galway over the years — Ryan Manning, Daryl Horgan, Aaron Connolly — there are more of those coming through. There are seven or eight players in our underage structure at the moment that will go where they’ve gone. We have no doubt about it. And now, they can’t be taken by Dundalk or Shamrock Rovers because we have a [high-level] structure and training there.

“I do think John has pushed us on probably a bit faster than we wanted to go, but he was right. He has pushed us to go full-time training and to make sure everything is right at the club before we take the next step.

“We want to be in the Premier Division. If it’s not this year, it’s not. But if it happens, we’re ready for it. I do feel the club is on a trajectory in the right way.”

john-caulfield Laszlo Geczo / INPHO John Caulfield's appointment has been key to Galway's rejuvenation. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

And in Caulfield, Corbett says, Galway have a manager devoted to giving youth a chance.

“You go to the senior team and look at some of the players that John has brought through from underage. And he’s continuously going to all of their matches. He must go to 12 matches every week at evening times or weekends, seeing players at the academy and players in junior football in Galway.”

The current outlook, therefore, is very positive, with Corbett expecting around 4,000 fans in attendance for today’s game.

Yet he is not getting carried away. He knows the club cannot afford to be “throwing money at players” — a temptation he admits they have succumbed to in the past.

The early days of the pandemic also provided a reminder of how precarious life as a League of Ireland club can be.

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“I remember it was a Friday night and we had a Zoom call about how we are going to pay wages for the players because we’d committed to paying wages.

“At this stage, the government had not announced any of their supports. I was sitting with staff saying: ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen the next few weeks with our shops or businesses.’ We didn’t know where it was going to go.

“I said to the players: ‘This might not work out. We don’t know where this is going to go either.’

“But in fairness to the FAI, after a few meetings, we could see that we had light at the end of the tunnel.”

It was not the only moment of drama at boardroom level in recent years. In 2018, it seemed as if a Saudi Arabian consortium was set to take over the club, only for the deal to ultimately collapse.

“We did a fair amount of due diligence and it wasn’t working out on both sides and I suppose it just fell away,” Corbett explains.

“At the moment, we’re 100% owned by the co-op. Without the sponsor of the Comer brothers, we wouldn’t be able to do what we’re doing because of where we’ve been. We don’t own our stadium, we don’t own our training facilities. We’re on our way to developing two or three different sites over the next three years. And that’s a big step for the club.

“We have a really good relationship with the Galway FA. We looked at it at the time and the people who came from Saudi Arabia probably just didn’t sit right.

“Is the club open to something like that happening? You’ll always see what the next step is.

“Without the Comer brothers, the football club would still be competing but the money they’ve given us over the years has helped us develop our academy and players and coaches. And as long as they’re still with us, we won’t need anyone taking us over.”

Corbett continues: “The club folded going back, I wasn’t involved obviously. What happened was, they overpaid in wages, they went too far in what they were paying, they couldn’t meet their obligations. That’s always at our forefront when we’re doing budgets and we’re making decisions if we’re going to be buying equipment or going full-time training.

“How can we push ourselves to without putting the club in a difficult position? What happened to the club is always going to stand on whoever’s on the board at Galway United, they’ll never want that to happen again. 

“I will say money has to come into all the clubs in League of Ireland, whether it’s a TV deal or making our facilities a lot better than they are because at the moment, that’s where we struggle in comparison to Leinster or Connacht Rugby, or even if you go to Croke Park.

“We just don’t have the facilities to look after people. I think that’s a big one for the future of League of Ireland — when we get them in there on match nights, the football has to be good but around it has to be good as well.

“In previous years, there were probably only one or two people running the club and that’s when it gets dangerous, there’s too much pressure on them, so having a really strong board makes a massive difference.”  

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