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Dublin: 5 °C Sunday 23 February, 2020

'If you're only involved to get something back for personal gain, you should just get the f**k out'

Stephen Henderson is hoping for another season of punching above their weight for his Cobh Ramblers side.

HAVING INITIALLY ARRANGED to meet Stephen Henderson prior to a pre-season friendly at St Colman’s Park last Tuesday night, the plans changed slightly when I woke that morning and found an update on my phone from the Cobh Ramblers manager.

Their game against College Corinthians was no longer going ahead. The Munster Senior League side had to pull out due to the unavailability of players. But what struck me about Henderson’s message wasn’t the need to reschedule our interview.

“What the hell was he doing awake at 4.34am?” I wondered.

Stephen Henderson Cobh Ramblers manager Stephen Henderson. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

When we convened instead at the Silver Springs Hotel later that evening, Henderson appeared bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for a man whose day began well before the dawn.

It’s been a long off-season. The impending return of competitive football is reflected in Henderson’s mood, even if his preparations for the 2018 campaign had been dealt a couple of significant setbacks already that day.

In addition to the cancellation of a game which was geared towards fine-tuning his side’s approach ahead of Saturday night’s opener away to Longford Town, Henderson lost his captain on Tuesday afternoon.

Chris McCarthy has been a key player for Cobh Ramblers, as evidenced by his inclusion in the PFAI First Division Team of the Year for 2017. However, on the eve of the new season, the defender decided to return to Munster Senior League club Mayfield United.

Coping with his departure will be a challenge, but overcoming obstacles on a regular basis is part of the job description when you’re in charge of the club with the smallest budget in second tier of the League of Ireland. Henderson knows the drill by now.

He does the job for the club and its players, not for any personal glory. He wouldn’t have lasted this long in the onerous world of the First Division otherwise. Henderson has been involved as a manager in 12 of the last 15 League of Ireland seasons. All but one of them were spent in a division where no club wants to be.

“There’s nothing glamorous about this,” he says. “I’m not cribbing about that either, whether I have to put out the corner flags, fix the nets, whatever. I love the club. I genuinely love the club. I love the people there, the volunteers who work so hard. There’s a lot that goes on in the background, but it’s brilliant, I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

This is Henderson’s second spell managing Cobh Ramblers. He returned in 2015, having first left the club at the end of the 2008 season before taking over as Waterford boss. But his association with Cobh began long before he was first appointed manager in 2004.

Roy Keane with Stephen Henderson Henderson pictured with Roy Keane before a friendly Waterford and Ipswich Town in 2009. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

The Dubliner, whose career as a goalkeeper also included stints with Shelbourne, Dundalk and Limerick, was part of the Ramblers side that achieved promotion to the Premier Division for the first time in 1993. The manager of that team, George Mellerick, would later become his father-in-law. Henderson is unlikely to relinquish the Dublin accent at this stage, but he lost his heart to Cobh Ramblers a long time ago.

“Work. Pain relief. Ramblers,” is his description of a typical day.

Henderson’s five-day-a-week job is with medical devices company Depuy in Ringaskiddy. He starts at 5am each morning and is home before lunch for the couple of hours of rest he needs to ease the chronic back pain he suffers from due to complicated disc and nerve issues, for which he has undergone five operations in the past few years. After that, Cobh Ramblers takes over.

Henderson possesses an admirable passion for Irish football which he’s seldom reluctant to express. Strong opinions, about how the game should be played on the pitch, and administered off it, haven’t always gone down well in the corridors of power.

Nevertheless, it would be difficult for anyone to argue against the assertion that his heart is in the right place. The betterment of football in Ireland, and Cobh in particular, is always his incentive.

Whether it’s football or fundraising, there are few areas of the club in which he’s not involved. Ramblers is very much a family affair too. His wife, Lesley, is the treasurer. Colin, their son, made his debut for the U15s last week.

With the return of the play-offs, the structure of the First Division for this season is “a lifeline” for clubs, Henderson says. To elaborate, for their 2016 play-off against Drogheda United, 1,873 spectators showed up at St Colman’s Park. That’s approximately 40% of the figure for Cobh’s entire gate for the 2017 season, during which games were attended by average crowds of 339, as per the exhaustive and invaluable research carried out by

In 2017, Cobh’s budget was 10% of what was in place in Waterford, according to Henderson, yet they still managed to force their Munster neighbours to wait until the third-last game of the campaign before they could be crowned champions.

Despite finishing second, there was no opportunity for promotion available for Henderson’s side due to the restructuring of the divisions. Ramblers have ended each of the past two seasons as the highest-placed First Division side not to go up. The inexperience in their squad suggests they’ve been punching above their weight. More of the same will be required in 2018.

Again, the team who finishes at the summit of the First Division will automatically graduate to the top flight. But there are also play-offs on offer for the other three clubs who’ll find themselves in the top four on 22 September.

“The play-offs will keep it interesting and the quality of the division is as good as it’s been for many a year, because a lot of the clubs have invested as a result,” Henderson says.

“It’s going to be a cracking season. I think this year especially, if we were to get a play-off spot, that would be remarkable. But what the lads have achieved in the last couple of years, with our resources, is genuinely phenomenal.”

Kenny Browne and Patrick McClean lift The SSE Airtricity League First Division Aided by a cash injection from owner Lee Power, Waterford beat Cobh Ramblers to the 2017 First Division title. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Relying mostly on in-house recruitment, Ramblers’ U19 squad is vital to how the first-team functions. Last season, Henderson used 28 players. Fifteen were teenagers. Only two were over 23. The squad’s average age at the start of the campaign was 19.

“They’re genuinely a special group and fortunately we’ve kept most of them together,” he says. “I don’t think it’s patronising to say we’ve punched above our weight because, realistically, budgets dictate performances in football.

“We had a meeting on Saturday and it was brilliant. The feedback coming from them, it’s obvious they’re not here for money. They’re a group of good young players who want to become better young players, and they want to do it for Cobh Ramblers. It’s as simple as that. You can’t buy that.

“They’re a unique group of lads. That’s why we’ve overachieved. It’s nothing that we’ve been doing as coaches or management. It comes down to the players and their attitude, which has been unbelievable since I came in. They want to be professional, or semi-professional, footballers. That’s what their objective is. But they also know that there’s no hurry.

“They’re all acutely aware that there are players in this country going abroad at the ages of 24, 25 and 26 and making a good living in England. I remember up in Dublin people used to say you were finished if you hadn’t gone away by the time you were 16. I think a lot of players still believe that, and it’s ridiculous.

“When I’m signing a player, all I can sell him is a platform. We feel we prepare the players well, we give them good information, but they have to take that onboard. It then becomes about the mentality of the player. When you hear players who are 17 and 18 talking the way they were talking in that meeting, it gives you a real lift. That’s what keeps me going.

“We’ve been in this division for a while now and we might get tired of it, but seeing the enthusiasm of young players like that, that’s what drives you. And as much as it kills me when I see a player leave the club for somewhere else, it’s a double-edged sword. I’m gutted for the club that we’re losing a player, but I’m delighted for the player because that’s the platform we sold him and that’s what we told him would happen if he did the business.

“In that sense, we’re achieving the internal goals of what we’re trying to do for young players in Cork, but obviously as a team the holy grail is Premier Division football. If we can achieve that it would be unbelievable, but these lads never stop surprising me.”

Roy Keane with Bob Donovan Roy Keane, who's among Cobh Ramblers' alumni, at St Colman's Park with chairman Bob Donovan in 2015. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Bringing Cobh Ramblers into the top tier of Irish football wouldn’t be a first for Henderson. This time 10 years ago, he was preparing the club for a Premier Division opener away to Finn Harps after they clinched the only First Division title in their history in 2007.

It should have been a memorable year for the club — and it was, but for all the wrong reasons. Debts began to mount as a result of upgrades that were made to St Colman’s Park to ensure that the ground satisfied Premier Division licensing criteria. Henderson and his players weren’t paid for the majority of the season, at the end of which they were relegated.

Ramblers failed to obtain a license for the First Division in 2009 and were subsequently demoted to the now-defunct ‘A’ Championship. The East Cork club returned to the First Division in 2013, and with a new management committee in place, Henderson was back two years later — at which point the process of repairing relationships with creditors was in its infancy.

“With what went on around 2008, the club was terribly mismanaged,” Henderson says. “We’ve been trying to build bridges again, trying to build trust, trying to get that respectability back. They [creditors] were ignored for years so you have to open up the lines of communication to find out how you can go about fixing what happened. Lesley did an incredible job there. Once those processes began, the debt of the club started to drop dramatically.”

Substantial progress has been made ahead of the 2018 season. From a commercial perspective, Cobh Ramblers announced sponsorship deals this afternoon with Fota Island Resort and kit partner Joma. On the football side of things, a partnership with local schoolboy club Springfield Ramblers is in the works. The hope is that it will create a pathway for local players which will begin with the U6 team at Springfield, leading to the first-team at St Colman’s Park.

“When you see partnerships like these now,” Henderson says, “going out and putting the corner flags down before a match doesn’t mean anything. Ultimately we’re there because we love the football, so it’s all geared towards that. All the hard work behind the scenes is worth it when you see the lads go out and deliver a performance on the pitch.”

Underpinned by an ethos of volunteerism, Henderson is confident that further financial problems won’t arise because of how the club is now structured. His better half also keeps a tight grip on the purse strings in order to redress the balance that was skewed by previous malpractice.

Graham Cummins and Gary Dempsey Graham Cummins in possession for Cobh against St Pat's during the 2008 Premier Division season. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“I can’t get the money for a jersey from her, let alone a player,” he laughs. “She’s ruthless with it, as she should be. The way it works between myself and Lesley, what we do is make sure that we don’t bring Ramblers home with us. It’s something we didn’t do very well before and it led to arguments in the house. We’re doing that better now, although it helps when I’m not asking her for money for players!”

He adds: “There’s absolutely no way the club should be in financial trouble again based on the infrastructure that she has put in place. There’s a brilliant process there now between Lesley and Angela [MacCarthy], who’s the administrator. If it did happen again, it could only be through neglect.

“The financial plan that’s there is based on the minimum that comes into the club, not what we think might come in or what the potential is there for. It’s only about what we know is going to come in. If you start increasing your budget based on ifs and maybes, all of a sudden you’re in the shit and the club will be gone. That’s not how it’s going to work anymore. The club is more important than anything else here.”

Henderson admits that there are also relationships still to be mended with the local community. He recalls seeing 4,000 people in St Colman’s Park back in 1984 when he played against Ramblers for Hammond Lane in an Intermediate Cup quarter-final.

A travelling support of 1,000 made the journey to Athlone to see them clinch the First Division title in 2007. The appetite and interest is there. One of the challenges for Henderson and the club is to entice those people back.

“We very definitely lost ties with people through the nonsense that happened with 2008. I think people threw their hands up in the air and said ‘I’ve had enough of that place’. Hopefully the link-up with Springfield will help us to forge stronger links with the community, and hopefully those 1,000 people might start coming back, and coming back with their children.”

Plenty of hard work was required to get Cobh Ramblers Football Club back to where it is now, and there’s much more to be done if they’re to achieve what Henderson believes is attainable. His commitment to the club was reaffirmed last August when he and assistant manager Stuart Ashton extended their contracts until the end of the 2020 season.

Screen Shot 2018-02-22 at 17.33.28

The job is a constant uphill struggle, but Henderson’s view is that there’s no point moaning about the blisters on your feet after deciding that you’re going to climb a mountain.

“If you’re involved in a League of Ireland club and you feel like you’re owed something, like you’re entitled to something, you may as well get out of the club,” he insists.

“Running a club in the League of Ireland is hard. You give up your time knowingly. There’s little reward. You do it for the love of it and for the satisfaction you get from seeing young players living their dream on the pitch. If you’re only involved to get something back for personal gain, you should just get the fuck out. It doesn’t work like that here.

“As soon as I walk in the gates of St Colman’s Park, there’s just something… I just love the place. I love the homely feel about it. Obviously it’s where I met my wife, and now I also have Colin turning out for the U15s. Watching him running around in St Colman’s Park with a Cobh Ramblers strip on him, I honestly couldn’t explain to you what that felt like. Just brilliant.

“There’s no millionaire going to come into Ramblers and say ‘here’s a blank cheque, go wild’. Anything that Ramblers achieves is going to be through hard work and we’re going to be climbing hills. But we accept that. We’d like to make the hills slightly less steep, but we just keep working hard for the club off the pitch, and I think that reflects what happens on the pitch — because it’s an uphill battle for us to try and get out of this division as well.

“It’ll be another big hill to climb in the Premier Division if we manage it. We won’t run away from that, we’ll embrace it. You only get out of life what you put into it. I don’t know where it’ll take us, but what I do know is that the club is functioning in a sustainable way, it’s reducing its debt all the time and it’s producing really good players. But maybe there’s something even better down the line. We’ll see.”

Cobh Ramblers team Henderson dreams of emulating the 2007 Cobh Ramblers side that won the First Division. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

He adds: “What we want to do is create a model which will allow Cobh Ramblers to become a semi-professional outfit again — to give young players work on a semi-professional basis so that we won’t have to keep losing them to other clubs in the league.

“We want to be able to do that in the Premier Division, but through a cycle of player development which starts, hopefully, with Springfield Ramblers and other Cork clubs working with us in partnership to feed the players through. If we can do that and maintain a competitive team in the Premier Division, while staying within our financial means, that would be my dream for Cobh Ramblers.”

The club has endured some tough times in the last decade, but they’re beginning to see the light on the horizon again at St Colman’s Park. They say the darkest hour is just before the dawn. A man who sets his alarm for 4am knows that only too well.

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