Calm after the storm – Niall O’Driscoll interview

Author: Gearóid Devitt (@gearoiddev)

Since last March, the footfall along the seafront in Bray has increased
significantly. Sea swimmers, dog walkers, runners and all others
fortunate enough to be living within 5km of the north Wicklow town have
made use of the stretch between the harbour and Bray Head as sanctuary
from zoom meetings, house mates or family members. The gates of the
Carlisle Grounds are just a well-placed long ball away from the beach.
The Bray Wanderers F.C. Chairman, Niall O’Driscoll, is hoping that the
pandemic will lead to an increased sense of community within the area
with the club ready to play it’s part. “I’d like to see the club develop
into something the community is proud of. That it has got good
facilities, that locals want to go to the ground, that they have a form
of identity and they get all the benefits of being a part of a positive
environment. I think Bray needs that, and Wicklow needs that. Covid has
taught us that it’s all about the relationships, it’s not about
materialism, and I am looking at young kids now and how they are
struggling badly, stuck in houses, they can’t get out to their friends,
and all that stuff, and I think we’ve learned what’s really important
again. Sport, and whether it’s participating in, or supporting, sport
has a massive role to play in society. Going back to “normal” is the
worst thing we can do. From any crisis, it is not what happens that
matters, it’s what we learn and do next. “

Since taking over the club in July 2018, Niall has been repairing and
revitalising links between the club and the local community. The 12
months before his takeover had been as tumultuous as the nearby Irish
Sea in stormy weather. A year on from the infamous club statement
comparing Wicklow with a far eastern dictatorship, the players were
threatening strike action due to wages being owed. Martin Russell had
also resigned as manager due to the circumstances at the club and, with
relegation from the Premier Division inevitable, the club was in danger
of going under. “Oh how the world has changed since then!! We came in
in 2018, it was basically to clean up a club that had a lot of issues.
We have basically done that, the facilities are half decent, the team is
a lot better and operating within budget and there is a sense of
community about it again which was what we wanted to achieve.”

The 2020 season started with positive signs. Over 2,000 attendees came
through the gates for the first home fixture against Wexford. “Half of
them were kids in for free and all that kind of stuff, but that doesn’t
matter, that’s all part and parcel of trying to build for the long term
of the club. That was the one and only home game we had (with fans) in
2020) We went from a very positive scenario to obviously we were faced
with hard decisions very quickly, laying players off for a period of
time, realigning the commitments, sponsors were obviously in trouble,
all the things that everyone is dealing with. It’s not unique to Bray
Wanderers, every business in the country is having the same problems.”

The administration involved in running a national league club has
surprised the successful businessman and he sees how easy it can be for
clubs to run into difficulties. Outside of the football staff and
players, the club ‘s administration is run by Niall, his board of
directors and some others all on a voluntary basis. “There are 2 or 3
big professional clubs, and then you have a lot of other clubs, in their
communities trying to do a lot of good work using football as the
medium, but the lack of resources, and the lack of funding, is the
biggest challenge. Every national league club probably really needs 2 to
3 full time people just to manage it and would have to question the
sustainability of it based on a volunteer model. That’s part and parcel
of why many national league clubs find it so difficult and that’s not
down to the skillset of the volunteers but down to the amount of time
that’s required. Licensing is a massive part of National league
football, and then you are into managing the operations of the first
team right down to the academy teams that have been introduced, they are
becoming bigger businesses now. That’s a huge challenge for all clubs.”

The onset of Covid presented an additional challenge to him and the
club’s volunteers., : “We had to lay off players unfortunately for a
period of 2-3 months, and that was crucial, in fairness to the players
they understood the position. It was not nice to have to do it, but we
got back up and running in about June. In fairness to the players too,
the season went right down to the wire, we were minutes away from
promotion. Whether we were ready or not financially for promotion is
another debate. The opportunities and attendances definitely would have
been better, but again we are in another covid year where we wouldn’t
have had the increase in attendances. We were able to get through the
(2020) season literally breaking even by the skin of our teeth. It was a
huge achievement by everybody just to get through the season. It didn’t
cause huge damage to the club and that was really the priority.”

While citing the previous FAI regime as a factor impacting national
league clubs’ development in the past, he sees positive signs coming
from Abbottstown since the change in leadership. The financial supports
received were crucial to get through last season, however he also
believes there is still a long way to go. “In fairness to the FAI, they
have done a decent job, certainly in their approach to the management of
COVID, the whole procedures around it.They, and all the clubs, have done
an excellent job in terms of keeping it safe for the players and
volunteers and I would give them huge credit for that. Hopefully the
package that has come through for this year will help that again. That
said it is still a bit up in the air, insofar as government wages scheme
is only there until June. We don’t know if they will go on further, and
that will have a huge impact as we go through the season.

The one benefit of the pandemic he mentions has been that the Club’s
volunteers have had more free time to contribute and regular meetings
continue online. He also has had some additional time available
following the sale of one of his many business interests (O’Driscoll
O’Neill Insurances was sold in July 2020).The club has used the time to
recently lodge an application for Sports Capital Grant funding to
rejuvenate the Carlisle Grounds with plans afoot to install a full-size
all-weather pitch in place of the current grass surface, an additional
training pitch, improved floodlights, dressing room facilities and an
overall upgraded customer experience if approved. “The club has a very
long-term lease, the council owns the ground. There are no plans other
than to keep it as a sporting ground. We want to try and base not only
the first team there, but all of the underage teams, and have facilities
for all the local clubs as well. Bray is really deprived of sporting
facilities. We are looking at a full-size all-weather pitch with the
addition of a training pitch, upgrading the floodlights and dressing
room facilities and the overall customer experience. At the moment the
Carlisle Grounds is only used 15-20 times a year, whereas an all-weather
would allow us to use it 365 days a year. It is the oldest sporting
ground in Ireland and it’s a shame not to have it in use every day of
the week, whether it be for football, local events, or any other sort of
activity. It’s in the town of Bray’s interest, it just makes sense to
have such a facility. If we got the application approved this summer,
there would be no reason why we couldn’t begin over this coming winter
to have it ready for next year.”

This development would be transformative for their underage academy
which O’Driscoll sees as crucial to building a sustainable club. “The
underage is hugely important to us. We have 6 teams in our academy
(between boys and girls teams) and we put as many resources as we can
into it within the constraints we have. That’s where we see the long
term development goal of having a very good academy structure. The next
thing we are doing is linking with all the local clubs in the area to
really have a development programme for everyone in South Dublin and
Wicklow area so there is a pathway. We have been very lucky with the
academy with the number of young kids who have come out of it, some have
got careers across the water some have broken into the first team and
it’s quite a positive environment in that regard. I would give Gary
Cronin (first team manager) huge credit. He is very good at developing
the younger players, and at the same time balancing them with more
experienced players in the first team squad. He has done a really good
job.” One of those young players, goalkeeper Brian Maher, has been
included in the Irish u21 squad for the friendly against Wales next week
while also included in the squad is another former Bray player, Shane
Flynn, who extended his contract with Leicester City this week.

Having been involved with St.Joseph’s Boys (Sallynoggin) for most of his
life, he is acutely aware of the friction between the national league
academy teams and the traditional schoolboy clubs. “Until we have a
joined-in pathway there is going to be friction with the schoolboy
leagues. The biggest issue LOI clubs have is that this structure is
being imposed upon them which has substantial costs. Running an underage
team at national league level is costing between 30 to 40k euro a year
per team on a voluntary basis, which is a substantial financial pressure
on a national league club. Then you have disjointed structure between
the national league clubs and schoolboys with the seasons being at
different times, and some of the rules involved. It needs to be seamless
for kids to develop. It needs to be embraced, and it is easy to say
that, but everyone has their own interest. It’s a huge challenge for
everyone to put self-interest aside, and look at the collective. We all
have our own views but somewhere between all our views is the right
solution and that’s the challenge.”

Given the stormy seas the Seagulls have come through prior to Niall
becoming chairman, the club is on much firmer ground heading into the
future. His business and football knowledge are of huge benefit to the
club, and he has a sensible vision of what the club can aspire to as a
sustainable community focal point. “Engagement is the first step. Bray
did have a history, there is no doubt about that. The relationship
between the club and the community was I think poor for all the various
reasons and I think all we have tried to do is break down those
barriers, have the doors open and make people feel welcome to come and
that is the first stage of it. We have interacted with the various
clubs, we have created a lot of incentives. It is cheaper to come to a
match bringing your child then coming on your own. The benefit of young
kids having a local club to support in the long term will produce
sustainability, but you have got to be in it for the medium to long term
for that strategy to apply. There is no quick fix. The community have
got to engage as well so it’s got to be an attractive proposition for
them.”

In the shorter-term he is hopeful of another promotion challenge,
despite the significant budgets of others. The relegation of both
Shelbourne and Cork from the Premier Division, along with the
appointment of former Cork boss John Caulfield in Galway towards the end
of last season, promises to make it one of the most competitive First
Division seasons in memory. “We want to play to win. That target is to
do the best we can, to challenge for promotion and ideally get there.
Whether that’s through winning the league or via the playoffs, that
doesn’t really matter. I would like to think we have strengthened the
squad and they have done very well in pre-season. We have a small squad,
so it’s about keeping the squad injury free and there is a lot of luck
required in addition to doing the job right. We are nowhere near the
levels of playing budget of some of the other clubs in the division, but
money doesn’t buy everything as we know!”
In what promises to be a titanic struggle in this season’s SSE
Airtricity League First Division, Bray Wanderers will be hoping for more
plain sailing towards promotion.

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