Why did Lee Power buy Waterford and what does it mean for Swindon?
For a feeder club, to build a new ground or to get into Champions League; why does Swindon’s chairman want to own a fading Irish football team? By Alex Cooke
Amid all the noise around Tim Sherwood‘s appointment as Director of Football (albeit one who picks the team, formation and gives team talks), the news that Lee Power has also taken over League of Ireland (LOI) side Waterford United has been low key. While Power has repeatedly said that his “very exciting, long-term project” won’t affect Swindon but what will happen, and why does he want to get involved?
After all, Waterford have an average attendance below three hundred, haven’t won a league title since the 1970s and have sunk into the lower league after years of financial struggle. They appear a less than appealing prospect for a takeover – and have for a few years. So could it be Power’s love of football, family connections to the area or something else?
Going to ground
Waterford United don’t own their own ground. Instead they use the a-bit-out-of-town Waterford Regional Sports Centre, which belongs to the city and county council. With a capacity of 5,500 it also has ample room for a club with the second lowest attendance – and that is despite Waterford being one of the Republic’s bigger cities. In addition, Power has previously said that he has little interest, or experience, of being a property developer.
Not the big league
Despite Dundalk’s recent rival and success in Europe, the League Of Ireland is not in good order. It remains very much second fiddle to televised English football and the charms of the local sports, such as hurling and Gaelic football. Waterford itself is very much part of this GAA heartland (being within Munster) which weakens the football side considerably especially when viewed against the teams from Dublin where the population and availability of players benefit those sides.
There is also a significant disparity between the size, ambitions and needs of the various clubs with the LOI. So while Waterford might have a small attendance, the likes of Cork and Sligo Rovers boast average gates closer to 1,500. This has lead to a troubled relationship and the head of Eire’s football association, John Delaney, referred to the LOI as a “difficult child” of Irish football.
The money for TV coverage and in prizes remains small, so much so that in the season just gone Athlone Town were forced to cancel a game as they couldn’t afford to pay the bill to use their floodlights. A significant fall for a team which once held AC Milan to a draw in the UEFA Cup.
Breaking into Europe
While the domestic league might not offer vast rewards, the LOI does offer reasonably easy access to European games and European money. Obviously the Dundalk story has made international headlines, particularly since a single win in Europe has given the club greater financial reward than winning the whole LOI. So far Dundalk are set to receive around 6 million Euro for their continuing run – more than any League One campaign could offer – and for much smaller outlay. Tempting, especially when their situation was comparable to Waterford’s not that long ago.
The LOI has made European football a priority for its clubs, shifting its season from winter to spring and summer. That way its teams start the early rounds of UEFA competition not in the disorganisation of pre-season but in the form of mid-season. This progress can be seen in the LOI’s upward movement within the UEFA coefficient. Currently the LOI sits in 38th place behind the larger leagues of Finland and Albania but ahead of Bosnia Herzegovina and Georgia. It also seems likely that thanks to Dundalk the LOI will rise again, opening ever better pathways into Europe for their clubs, despite those tiny crowds and budgets.
Feeding the feeder clubs
In a radio interview Power revealed a clear interest in developing young players at Waterford, describing their facilities as comparable to a Championship sides’ and “a big attraction”. He also talked about the creation of the new under-15 league in the Republic as a chance to build an almost academy-like system at Waterford. In Power’s words, along with their strong u19 and u17 sides it was “… a big, big selling point”.
But will these players be coming to Swindon? Obviously, Town have scouted and signed a number of players who are from, or have represented, both national sides on the island. If it is that easy why would a feeder club be needed? Perhaps Power’s time with Waterford can be the seen as a driving force for so much scouting across the north sea, however, Town’s sporting director Seamus Brady is also from the Republic and has also been heavily involved in recruitment. At least the two of them should have some knowledge of the standard of youth football on the island and what can be uncovered.
The question has to be does having a club in Ireland really help prepare players for coming to the likes of Swindon? As Jordan Stewart has shown the journey from physical, often amateur football in Ireland to the professional game in League One isn’t as easier journey as the short flight might suggest. Former Ireland striker Richie Sadlier also recently commented that the FAI have acknowledged that there is a noticeable problem of younger players travelling to England only to drop out of the game completely.
However, it is worth commenting that post-Brexit, the LOI could still allow a route into British football as those with an Irish passport are likely to retain freedom of movement into the UK. This would be due to existing deals between the UK and ROI as well as the Good Friday Agreement, although such matters could be a long complex affair, made worse by uncertainty over Brexit.
What do you think will happen? While Tim Sherwood find a flood of boys in green appearing in red or will Power push his new side for Europe, or oblivion? Tell us below.