Oriel should be developed to a reasonable standard, not because of complaints from people about how it ‘looks on TV’, but because it’s in the interest of the club itself. (Pic: Sportsfile)
DANIEL WAS RESPONDING TO LAST WEEK'S INSIDE TRACK PIECE
On October 16, 1966, in front of a then record crowd of approximately 14,000 people, the Alan Fox managed Dundalk defeated Shamrock Rovers by 2-0 to virtually seal the club’s first League of Ireland Shield. The next day’s Irish Independent called it “the first real reward for the very enterprising new Dundalk committee”.
Dundalk FC had converted to a public limited company at the beginning of that year and Oriel Park was renovated that summer - the current main stand being built, and the pitch famously being turned 90 degrees. Floodlights were to follow, allowing European football to come to the ground for the first time the following season. The capital debt for the work in 1966 and ’67 exceeded £51,000 (equivalent to approx €1.1 million in 2019).
Less than six years later, in June 1972, Fox’s successor Liam Tuohy resigned. In his statement he pointedly criticised the lack of support for the club in the town. He highlighted gate receipts of £300 for a match during the season against the then league leaders, Waterford, which Dundalk had won, as evidence for why he and his players had become disheartened.
Meanwhile, with such paltry gates, the club’s capital debt had become a millstone around its neck. The club could hardly afford to maintain a playing squad, never mind repay its debts, and Dundalk finished second from bottom the following season, having to apply for re-election to the league.
Since then, scarred by the experience, no major investment has taken place at Oriel Park in terms of improving spectator facilities, despite intermittent rumours of great plans.
The club’s high profile European matches against Celtic and Tottenham Hotspur in 1979 and 1981 allowed the club to invest the proceeds of those games in improving Oriel’s terracing, and under Gerry Matthews and his board the ‘Bring Europe to Oriel Park’ campaign brought the ground up to UEFA Category Two status at considerable expense.
But the financial troubles that plagued the club in the 1990s and 2000s, where the club struggled to even meet its operating costs - effectively becoming insolvent twice - meant capital investment in Oriel was a pipe dream.
In the years since the creation of two divisions in the League of Ireland in 1985, Home Farm, Dublin City, Sporting Fingal, Galway Utd, Kilkenny City, Kildare County, Monaghan Utd, Newcastlewest, St. Francis and St. James’ Gate have all left the league. Cork City, Shamrock Rovers and Drogheda United have gone into administration. Cork City (twice) and Derry City have been liquidated. Shelbourne and Longford Town have been punished for financial irregularities. Limerick City lost its licence. Many of the rest, including Dundalk, have flirted with bankruptcy.
League of Ireland clubs that struggle to stay solvent are in zero position to fund capital development. More so today, as modern engineering standards and stadium safety requirements have priced significant development out of the reach of every club in the league. Cork City’s attempt to move to Bishopstown in the 1990s ended in a winding-up order in the High Court over unpaid contractors. Their successor club rent Turners Cross from the Munster Football Association, which was developed entirely at others’ expense.
Shamrock Rovers were homeless for 22 years, and not only failed to build a ground in Tallaght after receiving planning permission in 1998, but went into administration in 2005, where 97 percent of the club’s approx €3 million debt was written off. As a result South Dublin County Council took the ground over and developed it, paying €13 million to date.
Two sides of Dalymount Park - the home of Irish football - are unusable, and Dublin City Council have committed to building a new ground for the benefit of Bohemians and Shelbourne, neither of whom could hope to take on such a project on their own. Meanwhile, Louth County Council and the FAI are supposedly committed to a new ground for Drogheda Utd outside the town to free up valuable land at United Park.
Historically in Ireland, unlike most other countries in Europe, there has been no development of municipal soccer or multi-sport stadiums by central or local government. The grant system, although welcome when secured, seems to result in piecemeal improvements at best - a pitch here, floodlighting there. Tallaght now stands out as an exception, and an example of what can be achieved when all the key stakeholders share ambition and a vision.
All of which brings us to Oriel Park for the visit of Riga. I was there, sitting in the Town End, getting rained on. Afterwards I saw the comments about how it ‘looked’ on TV, and one comment from an eir Sport contributor on Twitter that, were an All-Ireland League to happen, Dundalk should be banned from using Oriel Park! Dundalk fans active on social media are well used to derogatory statements about Oriel from fans of clubs who rent their pitches. But what’s the argument they’re making? Where’s the money supposed to come from?
Dundalk, it seems, should be the only club in Ireland to take on a massive capital debt to fund stadium development. Or maybe the current owners of the club should dip into their own reserves, while watching their rivals benefit from financial aid from local government?
A crude calculation would suggest that half of what was done in Tallaght would cost €7 million. KPMG figures show costs of €1,100 per seat for stadiums in Turkey, with the lowest cost in Western Europe being €1,870 per seat for the Allianz Stadion in Vienna. The 2016 European money would go a long way of course, but it’s not enough to do the job properly, and spending it on the ground would be at the expense of the team, which surely explains the bad-faith being engaged in at our rival clubs.
However, none of that is to say that nothing can be done. Fixing Oriel isn’t as complicated as is sometimes claimed. The main stand side has complications, but the other three sides could fit 4,000 seats in simple, single-tier covered stands in the existing footprint of the ground. This would bring capacity over 5,000, which would be ideal for the club. At controlled costs of approximately €1,000 per seat it would cost in the region €4 million.
If the average attendance went up by 1,000 per match, the return on investment would be 14 years. This Dundalk team deserves all the spectators it can get.
The fact is barely 2,000 people have unrestricted views in the ground as it is configured. Oriel should be developed to a reasonable standard, not because of complaints from people about how it ‘looks on TV’, but because it’s in the interest of the club itself, and, indeed, the town as a whole.
But it needs proactive support from Louth County Council and the FAI and there’s zero sign of that happening. If cash support isn’t an option, then assistance with grant applications, design, planning, procurement etc should all be willingly offered.
Without support, all Dundalk fans are likely to see is a mishmash of slight improvements. And more context-free comments about how Oriel Park looks on TV.