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'People told me I was mad when I bought Swindon and it's the same with Waterford'

Waterford FC owner Lee Power outlines his ambitions for the League of Ireland club.

Waterford FC owner Lee Power.
Waterford FC owner Lee Power.

MORE SO THAN in any other walk of life, the fine margins between success and failure in sport — but football in particular — are incredibly pronounced. In the short-term, one result can define a season but also has the capacity to shape a club in the long run.

In the case of the 2012 SSE Airtricity League promotion/relegation playoff, the outcome has had a huge influence on the landscape of Irish football and the fortunes of the two clubs involved.

In the five years since, Dundalk – who won the tie 4-2 on aggregate to maintain their Premier Division status — have gone in one direction and Waterford United (as they were called back then) have gone in the other. The contrast, both on the pitch and financially, couldn’t be starker.

After a 2-2 draw between the two cash-strapped and embattled clubs in the first leg at Oriel Park, a Michael Rafter brace was to prove the difference on the night for the Lilywhites, who were managed by Darius Kierans and had Chris Shields and Stephen McDonnell in their ranks.

Michael Rafter Michael Rafter celebrates after scoring for Dundalk against Waterford in 2012. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

After plummeting to the bottom of the Premier Division, Dundalk were given a lifeline and two years later they were League of Ireland champions. The rest, as they say, is history, as Stephen Kenny’s men have reached unprecedented heights both domestically and in Europe.

Conversely, Waterford have since been consigned to the First Division and their financial difficulties came to a head last season when players and staff were let go in a desperate bid to keep the club afloat. The board issued an urgent appeal to raise €80,000 to ensure the six-time League of Ireland champions survived until the end of the year. Somehow, they did.

How much longer they were going to be around was another question and all the signs were that a club steeped in history would follow the likes of Sporting Fingal and Kildare County in going under.

So the intervention of Lee Power, the former Ireland U21 international and current owner of League One side Swindon Town, couldn’t have been more timely as he assumed control of Waterford from former chairman John O’Sullivan last November.

It’s not overstating it to say Power’s investment has saved Waterford but his decision to add the south-east club to his growing portfolio is far more than a rescue act; the 44-year-old points at Dundalk’s achievements as first-hand evidence as to what can be achieved.

Soccer - Nationwide League Division Three - Peterborough United v Plymouth Argyle Lee Power playing for Plymouth Argyle in 1998. Source: EMPICS Sport

But, the real question here is why?

Why would a multi-millionaire put money into a First Division club in a league with a history of ill-advised takeovers and financial mismanagement? Surely there are far more attractive and lucrative markets out there with less risk attached.

Yet Power’s answer is straightforward: he has a close affiliation with Waterford as a club, city and county through family heritage. He also sees genuine potential in the league.

“We looked at the League of Ireland as an upcoming market, and Dundalk highlighted that with their achievements and the more we looked at it, it was a market that I wanted to be heavily involved in,” Power tells The42.

“Waterford was the only club I wanted to be involved in so I asked my friend Eamonn Collins [former St Pat's manager and football agent] to find out if Waterford would be available and lucky enough for me there was a possibility it would be.

“There were no guarantees as it’s a very complex process when you’re buying a club in Ireland as a lot of them are owned by trusts or committees. We were just very lucky Waterford was owned by an individual and with my roots in the city, it just fitted well.”

General view of the Regional Sports Ground Waterford's home at the RSC. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

That individual was O’Sullivan, who had been chairman for over a decade and almost single-handedly kept the finances in check while the club was languishing in the doldrums.

From first discovering the club was available to takeover, Power met with O’Sullivan a couple of times in Portugal and four months later, all the paperwork was complete, the debts paid and the slate wiped clean.

It was during those meetings, and a visit to the Regional Sports Centre (RSC) for the last game of the 2015 campaign, when Power learned of the limitations O’Sullivan had been running the club under for a number of years. An average home crowd of under 300 and no primary shirt sponsor meant revenue was almost non-existent.

“When I found out there were a few problems financially, it was perfect for me,” Power continued. “I decided to come in and help out and get the show on the road.

“If anything it probably excited me more that the club had been in doldrums. It’s such a big club in Ireland, the history is there, and the fact that there hasn’t been a lot for the city and county to shout about was a big motivating factor.

Lee Power Republic of Ireland soccer 12/2/1992 Lee Power in 1992. Source: © INPHO

“Firstly, there have been a number of clubs who have gone out of business unfortunately and a lot of local people have been left with bills. It was very important to John and also to me that all these bills got paid and the debts got cleared and it was a clean slate and a blank canvas.

“It’s quite complex when there’s a lot of creditors involved and that’s the reason why we cleared those and started again.”

Once the future of Waterford was secure, Power went about identifying the right people he wanted at the club to drive this project forward. The crest and name (Waterford FC) were changed in a throwback to bygone glory days but the most important decisions were always going to be in a football sense.

With the financial muscle to invest resources into the squad and staff, Power convinced Pat Fenlon to take the role of director of football and then added Alan Reynolds, who had been first team coach at Cork City, as head coach. It was a clear statement of intent.

Fenlon’s first task was to assemble a new squad, with Power handing the former Bohemians and Hibernian manager a substantial budget to recruit the right calibre of player for their promotion tilt.

Pat Fenlon Waterford FC director of football Pat Fenlon. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I’ve worked very closely with Pat,” Power, who enjoyed a playing career with Norwich City and Peterborough United among others, continued.

“He was key to this project as well, to get someone with his pedigree and experience in the league. I was delighted but also surprised he was willing to drop down. But that just shows you he believes in the project and he’s managed to get a number of players to drop out of the Premier Division to come here. They had offers but wanted to join us and that bodes well.

“It’s a difficult one because we need to be promoted so we might have been a little bit more generous [with contracts] than we wanted to be to try and get out of this. It’s imperative that we get out of the First Division so the budget in place is probably the biggest budget in the league, but that doesn’t guarantee anything.

“Pat has spent the money well. I believe we’ve broken the transfer record, obviously bringing [Kenny] Browne back from Cork. We’ve spent fees, albeit different sort of fees to the UK, but they’re still fees and hopefully now that squad can achieve what we want them to achieve and then next season hopefully it’s a completely different ball game.”

It’s clear Power wants success, and in his first season that would equate to promotion, but it’s not the be-all and end-all and he stresses repeatedly that this is about the club’s long-term sustainability rather than instant reward.

Kenny Browne Kenny Browne is back at Waterford this season. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Power was hugely impressed by the facilities available to the club at Waterford Institute of Technology, comparing them to Premier League or Championship standard, and he sees the national U15s and U17s leagues as a huge opportunity to develop young talent from a county which has previously produced internationals such as John O’Shea, the Hunt brothers [Stephen and Noel] and Daryl Murphy.

He explained: “The big thing that attracted us here is the underage leagues. It’s a bit like our academy system in England. That’s the market we want to target and invest in. We want to get the best players in the city, county and the country to come to Waterford because it’s a bit like growing your own vegetables.

“Long after I’ve left and there’s a new owner, there is a conveyor belt of players coming through which means the club doesn’t have to go over budget and still be competitive.

“Pat has a number of different areas he’s responsible for but because of the way the football club is going to be structured with the youth system, he has a lot of work to do with the 15s and 17s.

“We want to put a structure in place like the UK structure and Alan [Reynolds] will be on the ground every day with the players. Pat won’t be spending as much time on the training pitch as Alan but he has other duties. We’re starting afresh with the club that needs to be built from the bottom up and build the foundations. Pat knows the ins and outs of Irish football and I’d want nobody better on my staff to do that.”

Alan Reynolds A former Waterford player, Alan Reynolds is the club's new head coach. Source: INPHO

A new era for Waterford FC started in rather inauspicious fashion last week when the Blues slipped to an opening day defeat to Athlone Town.

Fenlon’s side welcome Cabinteely to the RSC for their first home game of the campaign tomorrow night and one of the motivating factors for Power is to restore the pride in the club that may have been lost in recent times.

His father was born and raised in Waterford city before moving to London, but Power’s roots run deep having learned of his heritage during three years representing Ireland U21s in the early 90s.

“People told me I was mad when I bought Swindon. I mean Swindon were losing £5 million a season when I took over and Paolo di Canio had just left as manager,” he says.

“Everyone thought I was crazy and it’s the same here. But this is a blank canvas and the big thing in Waterford is I know if the team is doing well you’re going to get bums on seats.

“It’s a very proud city, it’s a very proud county and I know that from my playing days. As you can tell from my accent, I’m a London boy born and bred but when I was playing for the 21s, you used to see it and I learned it very quickly.

Netherlands Soccer Wcup Estonia Estonian international Sander Puri, pictured here tackling Arjen Robben, is one of Waterford's new signings. Source: Peter Dejong

“I’m proud that I have an association with the county through my family and I want them to be proud of the football club. Obviously I don’t speak like Waterford people but I’d like to think I’m one of their own and if we can get the place rocking, we want a bit of a siege mentality and we don’t want teams to look forward to coming to Waterford.

“We want to go out there and have a place which is very hard to come and I do believe if we manage to get promoted we would become one of the biggest forces in Irish football again.

“You want to do it for people like John O’Sullivan and all the volunteers who have poured their life into the football club. While this investment made business sense for me also, I want this to succeed for the staff, volunteers and all the supporters.

“I only want to succeed, I don’t want to fail anywhere. I want to put smiles on faces and want to make sure everyone is happy and we can look back in many years to come and reflect on a fantastic thing and for my family as well, my local team that I’ve managed to go over and help.

“It’s nice for them. Obviously my grandparents aren’t here anymore, but it’s nice for my father, he’s not very well at the minute, but I know he’s proud and I’m proud. That’s the big thing I want, it’s a proud county and if you give people something to hold onto, it will put a smile on their face and these people will go through a brick wall for you and that’s what we want.”

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