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Dublin: 5 °C Sunday 29 March, 2020

'It's still very sore for everyone down here. It wouldn't have happened to a Dublin club'

Waterford owner Lee Power on the side’s Europe League controversy, his show of support for John Delaney and thoughts of pulling the financial plug.

Lee Power (file pic).
Lee Power (file pic).
Image: EMPICS Sport

IT’S BEEN AN interesting three-and-a-bit years since Lee Power became owner of Waterford.

The investment from Power, a former Norwich and Ireland underage footballer turned businessman, boosted the club both on the field and off.

They gained promotion to the Premier Division in 2017, finishing fourth during their first season in the top flight.

They initially thought they had secured European football ahead of the 2019 campaign, but were controversially replaced by St Patrick’s Athletic after contravening Uefa’s licensing rules.

Power took the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but was ultimately unsuccessful in his bid to challenge this decision.

The setback had significant financial consequences. Last season, there were rumours Power was considering pulling out, but the chairman subsequently confirmed he would continue to finance the club.

The Londoner, who has family from Waterford, admits he is still reeling from the club’s Europa League exclusion, nearly a year after the news was confirmed.

“I don’t think it would have happened in any other country,” he tells The42. “That’s the downside of Irish football and probably the state that it’s in at the moment.

“Not for me just financially, but to all the supporters, the staff that worked so hard, to take that away from them I thought was disgraceful. 

There was a lot of talk that I was going to pull out this year because of that — I did give it some thought. But there are changes being made and different things being spoken about and I’ve decided to roll the dice again.

“My hope is that the people in the city and the county of Waterford come and support the team. I’ve just gone there to spend… Well millions now actually in getting it to where it is.

“The disappointing bit last season were the attendances towards the end — it’s down to the city if they want to support the team. I’ve done my bit. Rennie’s [Waterford manager Alan Reynolds] done his bit.

alan-reynolds Waterford boss Alan Reynolds committed his future to the club at the end of last season. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“If you support a team, you need to support it through thick and thin. I think everyone was so let down by the Uefa decision that it caused a real dampener at the club. I’m hoping that was the reason and everyone’s geared to come back out this season. Fundamentally, if they don’t, there’s only one thing that happens to a football club.”

And is there anything he feels the club can do to entice supporters back?

“I don’t think we should have to. I’m a football supporter. I’m a Millwall supporter. As long as I’ve got breath in me, whenever I get a chance, that’s my roots, that’s my team, I’ll go and watch it.” 

And asked about the biggest challenge of running the club, Power returns to a familiar subject.

“I’m still in shock that we weren’t allowed to take our place in Europe.

Our head of finance spends six months dealing every day with the FAI and Uefa, and then to be told a week before, it’s because you haven’t been going for three years, they knew about that before they even started. Why come over and have two site visits if we ain’t going to be able to participate? It was a ridiculous excuse.

“There was a lot politically going on with the FAI at the time and it’s still very sore for everyone down here. It wouldn’t have happened to a Dublin club, that’s for sure. And it’s not a surprise that it was a Dublin club that took our place.

“There are still no answers. All we get is: ‘Well, that’s the situation.’ And it’s cost me tens of thousands to try to get some answers. I just wanted to know the truth — obviously that can’t be the reason [the three-year rule]. There have been precedents set before us. Other teams in the same situations have been allowed to [compete]. 

“I just hope that with this new shake-up in the FAI and the talk of possibly removing ourselves from the association and setting up our own league, it’s probably one of the key reasons that I’ve decided again to have another go this, because you can’t run a league like that.  

“I think all the owners talk the same language as what I’m speaking — something needs to change. They can’t expect individuals to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds to support the local football team [without reward].”

a-view-of-the-rsc-ahead-of-the-game Power has been disappointed by falling attendances at the RSC. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Power subsequently says he will consider his long-term future as Waterford owner if the situation does not improve.

“Yeah, you couldn’t carry on [if things don't change]. I’ve always said that, [from] when I was asked to come in there. 

“We lost our major sponsor that everyone worked hard to get. That was part of the European bill. We lost a load of different commercial income. And I don’t think the FAI realised the impact that it’s had on us as a club.

“And the fact that we’ve had no answers, that’s the worst thing about it.”

In response to Power’s criticism, an FAI spokesman said: “Waterford FC applied to Uefa for an exemption to the three-year rule. This application was refused by Uefa.”

And speaking of the association, Power attracted headlines last April for a statement supporting the then-embattled John Delaney. The former CEO has since left the organisation following a series of controversies during his reign, but the Waterford owner has no regrets about the statement in question.

“Not at all. I stand by it now. John was the reason I came at the time. He said: ‘Look Lee, this football club’s in trouble. Would you come and help us save the club?’

What I said in my statement is John’s done nothing but benefit Irish football, from my point of view. That club might have gone out of existence. It was John that came in and asked me to do that and that’s what I have done. During my couple of years there, John has been nothing but helpful in helping us keep a League of Ireland team in business. 

“Like I said before to people, which they don’t put in the statement, is that I’m not aware what John was doing on and off the pitch, what the finances were at the FAI, what had happened in the 10 years previous — obviously, I’m not privy to that.

“I was only talking about my own personal relationship through that two-year period. 

john-delaney Power was critcised in some quarters for issuing a statement in support of former FAI chief John Delaney. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“You read [about] the FAI and the state they’re in at the moment financially. You can see why the League of Ireland gets starved, because obviously they’ve done whatever they’ve done with the money.

“I think any other league would have a TV deal for the national league — we haven’t got one, we don’t get a penny, which is ridiculous.

“You look at the betting companies, for argument’s sake, in world football. Obviously, I’m involved in gambling and have been for years, in horse racing and casinos — that’s my background. In the month of June, I think the Irish league is the most gambled-on league around the world.

“So again, you’d think that somewhere along the line, you’d get a major sponsor from one of those and also a televised games to enable that commercially to work for everyone. 

I think that’s what the clubs are exploring now — a breakaway to try to be in charge of their own dynasty and commercially, any money due in from sponsors goes into the league’s pockets, not the national association’s. It’s maybe having a different entity like they do in the UK and most other countries, and seeing if that works better.

“I think it’s got to happen — there are no two ways about it — for the future of Irish football, otherwise it’s never going to go anywhere.”

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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