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'We had three days to get a team together' - The story of how a new Irish football club was born

Tommy Barrett and Conn Murray discuss the formation of Treaty United.

Limerick

IT WAS by no means easy, but thanks to a small contingent of people with an immense passion for sport, League of Ireland football has returned to Limerick for the forthcoming campaign.

One anecdote sums up the chaos such a situation can prompt.

On Saturday, 20 February, it was confirmed that Treaty United had been granted a licence and would become the 10th team competing in the First Division this year.

Before that news was announced, the club were not allowed to officially sign any players.

The deadline for finalising a squad was the following Thursday, 25 February.

Tommy Barrett, who had been confirmed as the club’s senior manager earlier that month, held trials on Tuesday, meaning he essentially had three days to decide on a squad.

Dean George, a striker from Dublin who played for Athlone last season, was one of the players considered good enough to make the cut.

Yet Barrett needed a swift answer from George confirming whether he would commit to the club for the coming season.

With the deadline looming, he could not be contacted. So instead, his place in the squad was offered to another player.

George ultimately then got back to Barrett before the deadline with a positive response. He had been working in his day job as a teacher and so could not immediately be reached.

Barrett then decided he would include George in his plans, meaning he would have to cut another young player from the squad, or so he thought. At the last minute, it turned out that was not required.

There is a rule in the Women’s National League that a maximum of 25 players are allowed in a squad. Amid the hectic rush to get a team together, Barrett had wrongly believed this rule also applied to the men’s team, only to belatedly be informed it didn’t.

It was just one small insight into a deeply stressful three days in which Barrett was rarely off the phone, as he attempted to assemble a group for the new season.

The mixture of inexperienced youngsters and players who had previously competed in senior football, including Joel Coustrain, Tadgh Ryan, Conor Melody and Marc Ludden, then had four weeks to prepare for the campaign, which begins with a trip to the Carlisle Grounds in Bray on 26 March.

“All these lads want to play,” Barrett recently told Between the Stripes TV. “It’s probably going to cost them money a lot of the time, with the travel and that. But they’re the type of lads we want, hungry lads that want to be there.”

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***

tommy-barrett Tommy Barrett will coach Treaty United this season. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

As recently as last December, according to a report in the Irish Independent, not one but two Limerick clubs were vying for a First Division licence.

Even now, that issue shows no sign of abating. It was confirmed earlier this week that both Treaty United and Limerick FC will compete in three underage leagues, while the latter are understood to be intent on applying for a First Division licence next year.

Barrett himself has had a longstanding association with Limerick FC. He had two spells with the club as a player, as well as stints at Shamrock Rovers and Athlone Town.

While still a player, he took his first steps into the world of coaching, and his involvement in that area has expanded since hanging up his boots in 2012. He spent a number of years in charge of underage teams with Limerick and would also help out with the senior side in different roles at various points.

In January 2018, following Neil McDonald’s exit, Barrett officially took charge of the club.

After a decent start to his reign, trouble ensued. The team’s financial problems — which had been apparent when Barrett took charge, with owner Pat O’Sullivan looking to sell the club — worsened.

The predicament led to the departure of the squad’s senior professionals halfway through that season.

Their form subsequently took a nosedive and a 3-0 play-off aggregate defeat against Finn Harps saw the club relegated to the First Division come the end of the season.

It was a similar story in 2019. Despite some encouraging moments in the first half of the campaign, the situation gradually deteriorated, resources became increasingly limited, and Limerick ultimately finished bottom of the First Division having been deducted 26 points for failing to comply with the League of Ireland’s profitability and sustainability rules.

As a consequence of the growing financial burden, the club effectively dissolved, and last year, for the first time since 1937, there was no Limerick representative in the League of Ireland.

It was a bitter pill to swallow for Barrett and all those who had worked so hard to promote football in the county.

“I suppose the one learning for me is probably not to put up with as much,” he tells The42. “If things aren’t right, just walk. Your heart is ruling your head because it’s your local club and all those kinds of things.

“I should have left after six months actually, but when I stayed after those six months, I thought: ‘The First Division this year will be better.’ And we were flying, we definitely were heading for a play-off spot that first half of the season and then again, it just went pear-shaped with the off-the-field stuff.

“If you tell someone you’re going to give them 50 quid, give them 50 quid. And I’m not one for excuses, but it does affect you eventually. The lads weren’t paid for a month. They didn’t get their expenses for weeks and weeks.

“And we were still playing well. I remember the night it all changed, 1-0 up against Drogheda, we were second or third in the league and Drogheda were flying it, they were in a similar position. The last half an hour, we fell apart, they beat us 4-1 and that was it. And you could see it. It just sucks the energy out of you and the group. And it does affect them. That negativity around the place creeps in and you’ve just got to go then.”

***

a-view-of-markets-field A view of Markets Field, where Treaty United are due to play their home games this season. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

As a result of their struggles, just over a year ago, a group of individuals came together with the goal of restoring League of Ireland soccer to Limerick.

Conn Murray, a man with 40 years of experience in public service, working in several different local authorities including Tipperary, Cork, Waterford and Louth, undertook the role of chairman

They originally wanted to go with the name ‘Limerick United,’ but were prevented from doing so, as Pat O’Sullivan, the Limerick FC owner, had the rights to that name.

Instead, the moniker ‘Treaty United’ was used. The club entered a team into the 2020 Women’s National League but refrained from applying for a First Division licence until this year.

Meath native Murray, who as a youngster played soccer with Park Celtic and GAA for Navan O’Mahonys, has extensive experience in underage coaching at local level and was attracted by the challenge of establishing Treaty after finishing in public service last year.

“To be absolutely honest, I wasn’t sure what I was taking on,” he tells The42. “Therefore, that helped enormously. Because when you don’t see where you’re going on occasion, it helps to take the first few steps cautiously and we’ve done that. But we’ve built a huge, strong team around us. They’re the ones that give you the encouragement to keep going because the work they’re doing is phenomenal. It’s all voluntary and I am taken aback by the passion that exists at this level for League of Ireland soccer.

“The big challenge for us is not just sustaining a League of Ireland squad, but ensuring we can actually work with the local leagues, the local clubs, give that opportunity to the youths to get to those senior ranks that have been missing in the mid-west for quite some time. It’s nearly 40 years since we’ve had a senior men’s international player [Johnny Walsh made his one and only Irish appearance against Trinidad and Tobago in 1982]. Hopefully, it won’t be too much longer.”

In addition to Barrett, Dave Mahedy, the former Director of Sport and Recreation at the University of Limerick, is on board as Director of Football, while Murray also praises fellow board members such as Mary Shire and John Fennessy for their important contributions.

And Murray believes not having a senior men’s team ready for last season proved, in many ways, to be a blessing in disguise, given that they could not have anticipated the imminent perils of the coronavirus crisis.

“Without the opportunity to bring people to games, we have to create that base of support that’ll give us sustainability going forward,” he says. “So that remains for me the enormous challenge. 

“Would we have made it last year? We wouldn’t, to be perfectly honest. We were too raw and naïve. But this year, we’re very strong.

“We know the reality is that there are no crowds coming in, so from a financial and budgeting perspective, we’ve been very realistic in terms of what we can do.”

limerick-players-celebrate-their-promotion-to-the-first-division Limerick were promoted as First Division champions in 2016. Source: Tom Beary/INPHO

When asked about the mistakes that have contributed to the downfall of previous Limerick teams, Murray adds: “If I’ve learnt anything, it’s just being careful on the ambition side, in terms of what you think you are. Remember where you’re coming from, what you can do and compete at the level that you should be.

“At the end of the day, this is about bringing and sustaining League of Ireland soccer in the mid-west. It’s about giving young people the opportunity to compete at that level, so they can reach their potential and put their wares on display.

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“I know the fans will want us to push ahead and win things, but that’s not where my head is at this point in time.

“Will we struggle? We probably will, like everybody else. But we’ll do so on our terms and we will not commit beyond what we can do. We will grow over time. There’s no rush here.”

Barrett very much echoes Murray’s view: “I would be of the firm belief that Limerick senior football has to get its house in order because we’ve been nomads for years with no real place of our own for a training facility or venue really, so I think this group and this board have a vision where in the future, they get good partnerships going and potentially their own training venues and match venue. I think that’s very important — we’ve got to get that right, otherwise, we’re going nowhere.

“Then the underage, it’s very important for me to get that right, so we can actually develop players in this region more and more. We got a few over the last few years that are playing senior soccer around the place. Before that, there weren’t many.

“Even the U19s, or 13s to 15s, if you get them right, maybe in eight to 10 years, you might be back in the Premier Division organically.

“No disrespect to the last two teams that went up, but they were bought really — in 2012 with Pat Scully and Martin Russell in 2016. They still had to get them up and did a great job in doing that. But it proved that it wasn’t really sustainable.

“Success for me as a coach is: ‘Can we get players through to the first team, can we introduce professional players, can we get the facilities right, can we avoid off-the-field controversy, keeping steady for four to six years and producing players?’ Because how many managers have success winning trophies? Not many. Not to say I don’t want to win trophies, of course, I do, but they can come afterwards. We need to build from the bottom up.” 

***

mark-timlin-scores-a-goal Limerick endured some tough times on and off the pitch during Barrett's time as manager there. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Barrett’s squad has a relatively diverse background, with five of the six counties in Munster represented, including nine players from Limerick.

On the frantic search for players after their licence was granted, Barrett says: “I just don’t understand why we weren’t told earlier and why we couldn’t sign players earlier.

“It’s not good for the league and it just can’t happen again. You’ve got to learn from mistakes. I think even last year, Shamrock Rovers B were told in January, and they could prepare a team. We had three days to get a team together, because we’re amateur and we had to meet a deadline on 25 February. So we got everyone together on the 23rd and other First Division clubs had already played friendlies and were back weeks. 

“It’s going to be one of the strongest First Divisions ever with probably three full-time teams that I can see — Galway, Cork and Shels. Then you’ve all the other teams that have strengthened and straight away, we’re at a disadvantage. Again, I don’t want to be making excuses, but it’s just unrealistic and not fair on the players really, or the league itself.

“I don’t know the ins and outs and why it took so long, but it shows a lack of care for the league and a bit of contempt. If you want a professional standard league, you need that time to work on conditioning and fitness. The players haven’t played in so long and there are a lot of lads I signed that have come from junior, so whatever about the lads that last year were playing with Galway and Cork, the other lads were probably not living the lifestyle they should be living to be playing in a professional league in this country.

“So with the FAI, there are new people in there now, and hopefully they can make it right and not let this happen again. And this is not an attack on anyone, they just have to get it right, because it’s not good enough, or professional enough.” 

***

Having witnessed the situation descend into a shambles at his previous club, Barrett is confident things will be different this time around.

“And not that anyone’s to blame,” he adds. “Pat O’Sullivan put a lot of his own money into it and I’m sure, from his point of view, he did his best. But it was one man and he had a couple of other lads in there with him working for the club and that was it.

“But there seems to be a board of 10-12 people here, it’s not just down to one or two people — they have committees underneath that, and they seem to already be coming in with plans. You might have seen the membership and stuff like that, and that seems to be getting a good response. So it needs to be organic. It needs to be grown from the bottom up. And it’s baby steps, but they seem to be starting off the right way for sure.”

Barrett has previously spoken of the need to detach himself more from his work. While Limerick may be amateur this year, the role of leading a club in its infancy certainly feels like a full-time job, to put it mildly.

“It takes over. You accept every interview and every phone call at all times, 9, 10, 11 o’clock at night, Friday, Saturday, Sunday.

“I’ve made a conscious effort now not to be answering as much and being on the phone 24/7 almost. It affects your family life. Your children are affected. Your wife’s affected. You’re constantly on the phone. And you’re bringing that negative energy into your house. I’ve five missed calls since we started this conversation. I’ll always ring everybody back. But before, I was taking every call with every media outlet and that can be [stressful].”

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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