OPINION: Amid uncertainty, both Limerick FC and its fans must get real

Alan O’Brien 

Truthiness: Merriam-Webster’s 2006 Word of the Year. Coined by American late night host Stephen Colbert, to mock the many baseless decisions of George W. Bush, it describes a gut-feeling of truth; even when no such truth exists.

It is a word with which Limerick people should be well acquainted. For in the Treaty City, eons before the phrase ‘fake news’ entered the vernacular, truthiness has always had more currency than the truth — especially where football is concerned.

Ignorance

The same wilful ignorance of the facts that propelled Donald Trump to the White House, and Britain out of the European Union, has long been prevalent among Limerick’s footballing audience. Take it from someone who has supplied those facts for over five years now: if it’s not what they want to hear, if it doesn’t feel true, much of Limerick reserves the right to ignore it.

Assertions blessed with the ring of truthiness, however, are lovingly embraced; no matter how false they may be. Just this year alone, poor journalism has brought several red herrings to the Limerick football fan’s table: why Neil McDonald left; supposed “budget cuts” that never happened; and, most recently, the erroneous claim that the club’s entire unpaid squad was “free to leave” immediately.

FreeToLeave

Excerpt taken from an article, on Limerick FC’s present strife, published by The42.ie on Saturday.

Never at any point, however, were those red herrings gutted. Because their recipients, long frustrated with Pat O’Sullivan’s wayward stewardship, were being served exactly what they wanted to eat. As such, the record does not need to be corrected either. In fact, several articles published in the last few days have referred to “further budget cuts”, doubling down on an earlier untruth.

The piece excerpted above even went to bat for disgruntled ex-employee Eddie Hickey, without any attempt to present the other side of the story; whatever that may be. No-one appeared to take umbrage, however, because any nugget that perpetuates an anti-club narrative — no matter how undercooked it may be — is gobbled up with glee.

Reality

Unfortunately, the Limerick football media, and much of its audience, are not alone in suffering from a disinterest in reality. O’Sullivan, still raging against the dying of the light, is looking increasingly unlikely to accept the inevitable. And that spells ongoing uncertainty and stress for his employees, both on and off the pitch.

Wages for May have been belatedly paid to the vast majority of Limerick’s players, but longer delays — and worse — are coming unless their chairman can be persuaded to cut his cloth.

Murmurings from within the club suggest that O’Sullivan is just as reluctant to do this as he is to shuffle off the public stage. This comes as no surprise to me. Only last month I wrote of the owner’s repeated reluctance to countenance a full withdrawal from the club; even after operations manager Kieran Judge publicly stated that 100% divestment was on the table.

It is this tension, between his employees’ reality and O’Sullivan’s fantasy, that will define Limerick’s immediate future. Shorn of the income stream provided by Galtee Fuels — O’Sullivan’s recently liquidated cash-cow — the club has to learn to live within its now meagre means; and fast.

But all signs suggest O’Sullivan is not willing to accept this, showing all the intransigence in the face of truth as the people who, understandably, want his regime out.

The long, drawn-out, death of Galtee Fuels illustrates that point nicely. On an inexorable march towards liquidation for some time now, the fuel traders’ struggles have long been common knowledge to folk in that particular line of work.

Budget

Yet O’Sullivan still offered his players 2017 terms at the start of this year. And despite a few high-profile defections, the playing “budget” is still roughly the same — Tommy Barrett forced to overpay for relative mediocrity due to his 11th-hour arrival at the helm.

Now, let’s get one thing clear, once and for all: the word “budget” is shrouded in inverted commas for a reason. Although it gets bandied about by free-chancers on a regular basis, there has rarely been a traditional budget in place under O’Sullivan’s tenure; certainly not in the last few years, at least.

Instead, Limerick is run on a totally ad-hoc financial footing, meaning that neither Barrett nor Judge ever knows exactly where they, or the club, stand. This is why Barrett was able to sign Conor Clifford, and negotiate with Vinny Faherty, in recent months and weeks.

Rather than work within preset limits, Limerick’s manager of the day must instead ask if a signing is possible; to be told either that the money is there or it’s not — usually the former. This, of course, makes a further mockery of January’s unfounded “budget cuts drove McDonald off” narrative: there wasn’t even a budget to cut!

Both Barrett and Judge surely know that Limerick desperately needs to pare down its operation as soon as possible. But their attempts to do so risk being foiled by a paymaster who sees that, understandably, as an admission of defeat. The continued absence of a statement from the club, therefore, four days after this crisis broke, should surprise no-one. Decision-making is at best difficult, at worst impossible.

It is said, for example, that O’Sullivan had to be convinced to forsake the University of Limerick, one of the club’s major creditors, in favour of the much cheaper Hogan Park facility. It seems his employees are not willing to pour any more of his money down the drain than is absolutely necessary. Because they know he doesn’t have it anymore.

Self-preservation

There is, of course, self-preservation — rather than pure nobility — at play here. The sooner the club starts to live within its means, shifting to a more realistic part-time footing, the more likely it is to survive. No-one wants to lose their job, after all.

Nor does O’Sullivan want to be responsible for job losses — more of them, that is — either. Pulling the May wages out of a hat, before that widely-reported sponsorship cheque hit the floor, was his latest trick. But it may well be followed by a marked reluctance to discuss mutual terminations with higher earners, many of whom must depart if the club wishes to keep paying its way. Wage cuts are likely to be minimised, too, if at all possible.

But, of course, without Galtee Fuels it’s not possible. Nor, for that matter, is selling the club as a going concern, which O’Sullivan apparently still believes is a runner. As I wrote last month, the vultures will only circle when his asking price drops way, way below the €2.4million figure allegedly quoted to a recently interested party. Only liquidation, seemingly inevitable at some stage under the present circumstances, will tempt most to swoop.

For his own sake, therefore, Pat should take what he can get — if he can still get it — and run. His willingness to keep fighting is admirable, but those close to him have long thrown in the towel; still to this day ignored by a self-made man who didn’t know the meaning of the word failure until his dotage.

Sacrifice

Few appreciate the sacrifice he has made, anyway. The decision to pour €5-6 million of his legacy into a footballing black hole, bankrupting the family business in the process, means nothing to much of the Limerick football audience, who prefer — as always — to focus on the negative.

And there are negatives; lots of them, in fact. O’Sullivan’s is the latest in a long line of failed regimes that have woefully mismanaged the club, multiplying the public’s present-day anger, and increasing their appetite for coverage that confirms their rage. And whatever about getting real now, there is scant evidence that the men O’Sullivan chose to surround himself with — Judge et al — have been forthright enough with their paymaster in the past.

And that, in a nutshell, is why we’ve reached this point. At a key moment, in 2013, the then-businessman eschewed people who would challenge him, putting his faith instead in people who would not. His money, therefore, was frittered away by a reluctance to cede control to football people who know how to spend it.

But, at the end of the day, it was O’Sullivan’s money to fritter. And the man’s largesse should be acknowledged along with his failings. Zeroing in only on the latter, and mocking the behaviour of an elderly man, without whom Limerick would likely not be in the Premier Division at all, is desperately low.

For all his flaws, and ego may well be one of them, O’Sullivan tried to do some good for Limerick football. He has quite literally given everything to achieve that end, remaining insistent on spending money he no longer has to this day. That is the truth and it should be recognised as such. But, as always, it’s wasted on a poisonous portion of the populace that wants their truthiness instead.

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