Limerick FC, Money And The Russian Connection

Over the next little while, I’m going to be posting up a few of the articles that I have previously written for the website Lovely Left Foot, which is currently undergoing a hiatus of sorts. They may eventually be hosted on LLF again someday, but for now I felt that they were good enough examples of my writing that they should be up somewhere.

The original publication date for this piece was February 24th 2012.

Limerick, my home city, was surprised last week with the news that city’s main club Limerick FC were taking two players from CSKA Moscow on trial, with the possibility of signing the two on loan deals for the coming season. The loan deal, after the passing of the Irish transfer deadline last night, has not taken place, but the story still bears some examination.

Lubos Kalouda, a 24 year old Czech midfielder who won silver at the 2007 U-20 World Cup and was previously signed by CSKA for over five million in 2008 and Dawid Janczyk a 24 year old forward, full Polish international and two time Russian Cup winner arrived in Limerick last week and played a friendly match for the club, a 2-2 draw against Premier League Cork City.

Just why this development is so extraordinary may need some explaining. Limerick FC is a (relatively) small club is footballing terms, much of whose staff and players operate on a part-time basis. Its current home, Jackman Park, is one of the smallest in the League of Ireland, holding under 2’500, most of them standing (and that number is rarely reached). The club has been in the lower tier of the Irish system for 18 straight years, spending much of that time in a turbulent financial state, brushing with extinction on several occasions.

So how did Limerick get into a position where they could conceivably attract (and afford) such players? In 2009, close again to the possibility of a financial endgame, Limerick FC was rescued thanks to “substantial financial support” from local businessman Pat O’Sullivan. The owner of the prominent oil company Galtee Fuels, O’ Sullivan soon became the Chairman of the club proper. While O’ Sullivan may not be in the same monetary league as Abramovich, he may as well be for Irish football.

Added onto that has been the contribution last year of yet another wealthy local businessman, this time billionaire  JP MacManus (who essentially sponsors the County Limerick Gaelic Games teams through a proxy company, has paid for the refurbishment of their and Munster Rugby’s home grounds, and once owned a near 30% stake in pre-Glazer Manchester United), who bought Limerick FC’s previous home ground of Market’s Field for the club and also gave generously for its refurbishment, a process that is ongoing. When complete, Markets Field is expected to reach the FAI’s conditions for being a Premier League ground, an aspiration that has long been the focus of the club.

The sudden infusion of cash has transformed Limerick FC’s existence. Where only a few years ago the club struggled on and off the field to compete, they now have their own sports store, pay for the upkeep of several local underage and regional clubs, take part in regeneration programs in poor areas of the city and rehabilitation programs in Limerick Prison, and have established a youth academy (marked by a successful U-19 team) and supporters club. In 2010, they were close to entertaining Barcelona in a pre-season friendly before this was cancelled due to FAI intervention. On the field, they have attracted a top class manager in the form of Pat Scully, and numerous quality players, such as Joe Gamble and Dennis Behan. And while league positions were not poor before the influx of cash, since then Limerick have been knocking on the door of promotion to the Premier Division, and due to the unique set of circumstances of the coming season, are heavy favourites to win the First Division this year and finally achieve that goal.

I say all that to explain why Limerick could have been able to afford these two players. While the clubs actual income may not be sufficient, its owners and backers have the capital to make such deals possible.

While this specific deal will not happen, it could be viewed as clear statement of intent. The two CSKA players would have become some of (if not the) most valuable players in the League of Ireland system if they had been signed. O’ Sullivan, who has been more then generous when it comes to pouring money into the club, may well be showing off genuine financial muscle, sending a message to other clubs and the FAI, with whom he has previously clashed (see the above link on the proposed Barca friendly).

In relation to that, it may well have been just a publicity stunt, with the two players returning to Moscow following what was, after all, just a short trial. It was recently license awarding day for the League of Ireland, and Limerick received a First Division one (a declaration that the club is currently unable to play in the top tier, probably due to the quality of their stadium). Aside from providing a clear example of Limerick’s financial superiority to most other League of Ireland opposition, these trials may well be directed at Ireland’s ruling body itself, a statement from O’ Sullivan that Limerick is more than capable of playing at the top level.

Or perhaps it is the beginning of something more concrete, something akin to a feeder system, albeit a bizarre one. The example of Manchester United and Antwerp comes to mind. Perhaps the Limerick administration hopes to set itself up as a club that CSKA or others may farm out youth and sidelined players to for playing experience. The distance between the clubs is great, but hardly that much of an obstacle if a deal can be brokered.

Of course, that did not make any potential deal for these players wise. Both of them have been out of the loop in CSKA recently, spending substantial time away on loan (in surroundings much larger then Limerick) and have suffered from some injury problems. The two strike me as players who could possibly have made it to the big time based on youth performances, but have underwhelmed as time has gone on. Not “has-beens” but drifting that way. They could have potentially run rings around League of Ireland opposition, but they would never have stayed in Ireland for very long.

And, financially speaking, nothing can ever be considered secure in Ireland. Today’s stable club is tomorrows Galway United. Limerick needs to take care not to overreach itself, even in something as limited as a loan deal, and that may well have been why cooler heads prevailed in this instance.

Limerick already has a very solid team, one that is more than capable of breezing through the reduced First Division. It does not really require the addition of publicity heavy loan signings, who may have struggled to adapt both to the team and to life in Limerick City. Jackman Park is a far cry from the Khemki Arena.

Regardless of the outcome, the story has certainly raised attention for the “Super Blues” and turned some heads. For a club that has spent so much of the last 20 years in a shadow, events like this serve to illustrate that some time in the sun is coming soon. It cannot be known for sure whether Messrs Kalouda and Janczyk were really required but in all likelihood, they were not.

Instead, Limerick went with the signing of Dominic Foley, a former Irish international who has previously played for Wolves, Watford and Gent. Signed from Belgian club Cercle Brugge, Foley is unlikely, at age 35, to be part of the playing set up for long, but his record of around a goal every three games and success in Belgium indicate that he may well play a large role in Limerick’s coming season in Ireland’s First Division. His experience in the far bigger league of Belgium (and international caps) make him a notable enough signing, but he can surely be considered a far more appropriate and safer one than, as a typically Irish message board said, “the lads from Moscow”.

This entry was posted in Football (All), League of Ireland, Limerick, Sport and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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